Posts Tagged ‘a feast of snakes’

how do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mister Death? – RIP Harry Crews

March 31, 2012 Leave a comment

No one told me that Harry Crews died the other day. I inferred it from the fact that I’ve been getting a lot of hits on my Harry Crews posts on this blog over the past couple of days. It’s been around three years since I picked up and read – entirely by accident, my first novel of Crews’: A Feast of Snakes. Let me tell you this: the novel had such an effect on me that not only did I start reading it again virtually straight away after I’d finished it (which I never do) but I immediately became a Crews convert, hunting down every book the man had written in the space of about six months (bar one, which I can’t find for a reasonable price: This Thing Don’t Lead to Heaven).

So the man was 76 when he died. He’d lived a full and often rewarding life, and if you read his autobiography A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, you’ll discover how unlikely that would have seemed in earlier days. So I’m not sad. Crews has actually written a second volume of autobiography, which he said wouldn’t be published until after he was dead, so my thoughts selfishly turn to that. You can read much more about Crews and all of that on this most useful of websites.

So, what should you do now, and what am I going to do? If you haven’t read Crews and you want to, I recommend two volumes. The first is the novel A Feast of Snakes and the second is the 3-in-1 Classic Crews: A Harry Crews Reader. This gives you the very best of Crews, in my opinion. The autobiography is amazing, and so is Crews’ novel The Gypsy’s Curse. In fact, that’s what I plan to start re-reading today.

Harry Crews was a real writer, and one who actually achieved what he set out to do in the mid-60s: to produce a worthwhile and enduring body of literature. It was definitely worth the effort.

Book Review – The Gospel Singer by Harry Crews

January 22, 2010 Leave a comment

The Gospel Singer, published in 1968, was Harry Crews’ first novel. Hugely expensive in its first edition, I managed to obtain the 1995 Gorse reprint fairly cheaply. This edition also contains Crews’ quasi-sequel to The Gospel Singer, a strange little novella with the unwieldly title of Where Does One Go When There’s No Place Left to Go? But I’ll get to that later. The Gospel Singer is widely regarded as one of Crews’ best novels (some claim it to be his best), and while I believe it never quite attains the heights of his best works, it’s a sturdy and powerful novel nonetheless.

The Gospel Singer is quite a straightforward book really. What we have here is the town of Enigma, Georgia, a hick town that never produced anything of note except for the never-named Gospel Singer, who is said to have a heavenly voice. Early in the novel, the residents of Enigma are waiting for the great man to grace them with his presence. Crews shifts perspective a lot and doesn’t necessarily confine himself to one perspective per chapter. I guess you could say that we have an ominiscient narrator, but it comes across as messily deployed to me. But only a writer would think about that when reading this book.

Some of the author’s characters are beautifully and tragically drawn, however. That seems to be Crews’ main talent – to illuminate the myriad ecstasies and agonies of the human heart. That sounds a bit wanky, but I’ll let it pass if you will. So we have a strong chapter early on from the perspective of the Gospel Singer’s older brother Gerd, who is shown to have a terrible skin condition that makes him something of a freak himself. While he waits for his brother to return, Gerd is happened upon by one of the freaks from Foot’s freakshow, and he is forced to consider joining up as a way of escaping Enigma.

Another character hovering around the edge of this narrative is the ‘nigger’ (Crews’ word, not mine – same with the ‘freaks above) Willalee Bookatee Hull, who has just raped and murdered the Gospel Singer’s gilfriend MaryBell Carter. He’s in the jailhouse and soon to be lynched by the local mob. We don’t find out what really happened until near the end of the story, and as it turns out, it’s basically the Gospel Singer’s fault.

In fact, just about everything in The Gospel Singer turns out to be his fault, and if I can fault this book, maybe it’s in that the central idea is so central that all else seems peripheral. The Gospel Singer is supposed to be saving the souls of those who hear his beautiful voice, but in fact he himself is a Godless character who wants nothing but to screw his way around the US, which he does on every available occasion. This is the crux of the book – that the people of Enigma and surrounds are living a lie by placing their faith in the fallen Gospel Singer. He himself knows this, and he resents them for it and perpetuates the lie. His manager, Didymus, forces him to do singing exercises as penance for his sins. He’s also a murderer himself, having slaughtered the singer’s original manager. Whew. That makes for a pretty grim novel, does it not?

And the mob. Just like in the later (and better) A Feast of Snakes, the mob is the personification of evil itself in The Gospel Singer. The crowd builds and builds as the novel proceeds to its inevitable conclusion, and so does the stifling atmosphere of the novel. As the day draws to a close, the mob becomes increasingly lawless. A great number of these people are maimed or crippled themselves and in need of salvation. The embalmer’s daughter is blind and in need of a miracle to regain her sight, but in fact she is the only person who can see through the Gospel Singer’s image. And there are plenty of others trying to get a piece of him. Meanwhile, we have the king freak Foot (he has a 27 inch foot) presiding over his carnival nearby. It turns out that Foot has been following the Gospel Singer around the country, as the latter had suspected, but only as a way of drawing a crowd to his shows. Foot is probably the sanest character in the book, which is Crews’ way of showing us the uselessness of our categories of normal and freak, sane and insane. But it doesn’t stop the Gospel Singer from fucking Foot’s minder/girlfriend/whore when he’s out.

There’s a little more to the novel than this, but not much. Toward the end, I felt that Crews was simply sending the Gospel Singer on a tour of all the remaining characters that were worth talking to. The plot creaks a little and there are a few passages where the writer’s voice seems a little unsure. But if The Gospel Singer is ultimately only three quarters of what Crews could achieve as a writer, I know this for a fact because I’ve already read two of the novels where he perfected this apocalyptic arc: The Gypsy’s Curse and A Feast of Snakes.

Where Does One Go When There’s No Place Left to Go? is a novella length metafiction of a kind that Crews has expressed a distate for in several interviews. In it, some of the characters from his novels come to life and visit him in his cabin by the swamp, before capturing Crews and taking him on a road trip in Duffy’s modified Winnebago. These characters are Duffy Deeter (who has a minor role in A Feast of Snakes and a major one in the then-unwritten All We Need of Hell), Fat Man from Naked in Garden Hills, Belt from Karate is a Thing of the Spirit, Herman and Margo from Car, and the Gospel Singer and Didymus from the novel discussed at length above.

There are interesting aspects of this novella, but mainly those that relate to the writing process and the strange bind Crews has placed him in here. As a work of fiction, or even metafiction, this must be regarded as a failure. The characters say their pieces, interact to some extent, and get their revenge on Crews, but the story itself goes nowhere. For a work that is scarcely 100 pages in length, I found myself bored at least two or three times. I’m glad I read this, but I’m even more glad that I didn’t shell out a hundred dollars for a secondhand edition of this novella in its standalone edition.

Book Review – A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews

October 11, 2009 Leave a comment

This very rarely happens: that I should pick up a book by an author I’ve never heard of, bring it home, spend three hours of something approaching reading rapture, and be ready to write a review on the same evening. But that was my day, and this is Harry Crews and A Feast of Snakes. Some basic research on Google and Wikipedia has shown me that Crews has had a long and somewhat successful writing career in the US, with more than ten books to his name. He’s certainly not a household name here and I doubt he is in the US, which is a shame considering he’s ten times the writer Khaled Hosseini is. It’s hardly a surprise though, given the nature of Crews’ subject matter and style. Or perhaps I should say his sustained attack on the reader’s values and sensibilities. This book has the force of a sledgehammer and it is enough to convince me that Crews is an excellent writer, perhaps even a great one. I’d have to read the rest of his books to know for sure.

So what is A Feast of Snakes about? In the town of Mystic, Georgia, in 1975 (the year before the novel was published), Joe Lon Mackey lives in a trailer on a ten-acre property with his wife Elfie and two infant sons. Joe Lon runs a quasi-legal liquor outfit that specialises in selling moonshine to ‘niggers’ (as they are referred to through the book). Joe Lon is about twenty or so, a serious alcoholic, a wife-beater, a rapist, an adulterer, and finally a multiple murderer. His father, Big Joe, trains pit bulls that are so ferocious that they always win their fights. Joe Lon’s sister, known mostly as ‘Beeda,’ has gone insane and spends her days in her room watching television, with a bed pan under her bed. His mother has committed suicide after she tried to run away with another man and was hauled back. The town’s sherrif, Buddy Matlow, routinely locks up black women in the prison with a view to raping them. Joe Lon’s friend Willard is a sadistic terror, much as Joe Lon himself is. Lottie Mae, a black woman raped by Buddy Matlow, becomes so terrified of snakes that she carries a razor with her at all times in self defense. And I’m not even getting started here.

This is a black book. It is frequently gruesome and unflinching in its description of some of the most squalid acts human beings can commit, and yet it is, at times, uproariously funny. Some of the dialogue (in Southern drawl) needed to be read again and again. The central idea is that of the rattlesnake, which Mystic is famous for. Once a year, an increasing number of tourists and snake fanciers descend on the town with a view to catching and killing as many rattlesnakes as they can find. The whole town is snake mad. The novel is pulsing with sadistic violence and there basically aren’t any likeable characters at all in it, with the possible exception of Lottie Mae (and she is more of a pathetic figure than a sympathetic one).

Crews is the kind of writer who simply describes all of this without any obvious moralising, but the material is so depraved, so shocking, that one can’t but read this as anything other than a stern condemnation of the society of violence depicted here. I don’t know if this book has a cult following, but it certainly should have, as it’s simply one of the better novels I’ve read in a long time.