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Book Review – The Hawk is Dying by Harry Crews

The Hawk is Dying is Harry Crews’ sixth novel, published in 1973, and it’s the twelfth of his novels I’ve read to completion (this is if you include Car and Where Does One Go When There’s No Place Left to Go? as novels – they are more novella length). Anyway, I liked this one well enough, even if it won’t end up being one of my favourites overall. Before I go on to discuss the novel in detail, let me say that Crews’ early work (up to and including A Childhood) is remarkably consistent in quality. There’s nothing approaching a poor book in the first nine he published (eight novels and one memoir), and when you think that the essays collected in Blood and Grits and Florida Frenzy are also equally strong, that’s eleven quality books straight. At least it will be if Naked in Garden Hills and This Thing Don’t Lead to Heaven live up to expectations. In interviews, Crews has often spoken of the writing regimen he stuck to throughout his career. Get up at four, ‘put your ass in the chair’ for three hours with the intention of producing a mere 500 words, and that’s it. It worked for him – his books are uniformly well constructed – and there’s seldom if ever a dull or superfluous chapter.

In The Hawk is Dying , we are introduced to George Gattling, a forty-three year-old seatcover salesman living and working in Gainesville, Florida (the majority of Crews’ novels are set here).  George works with a man called Billy Bob. He lives with his sister Precious and her retarded adult son Fred. And George is sleeping with one of his employees, a young woman called Betty. Each of these main characters is memorable in his or her own way. George is finding his life to be without meaning in the way that almost all of Crews’ protagonists do. In the absence of God, he struggles for something to believe in, having rejected most if not all of the trappings of Western capitalism.

Duffy Deeter, protagonist of All We Need of Hell, explains it best by saying that ‘a man’s gotta have enthusiasm.’ What he means by this is that people need things to believe in (or obsess over). Practically all of Crews’ novels have at least one character embodying this motto. The Gospel Singer believes in sex; John Kaimon believes in karate; Hermann Mack believes he can eat a Cadillac car; Joe Lon believes in nothing and goes on a murderous rampage as a result. In The Hawk is Dying, George Gattling believes in austringency: the art of hawk training.

This is a novel in which Crews appears to be writing fairly transparently about his own life. He says he has trained hawks himself. He lived in Gainesville for much of his life. He was about George Gattling’s age when he wrote this. And, like his protagonist, Crews himself rejected most of the lures of capitalism. This is an entertaining and sometimes mildly amusing read. Though it does deal with some pretty raw material (a mysterious death in a waterbed being the event that the novel hangs on), it seems a little tamer than The Gypsy’s Curse and much tamer than A Feast of Snakes. Those would be the next two novels he wrote after this. It seems that Crews is really building himself up to something in his fourth, fifth and sixth novels. But I would still agrue that that something reached its fullest expression in his seventh and eighth novels, The Gypsy’s Curse and A Feast of Snakes.

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