Posts Tagged ‘naked in garden hills’

Book Review – Naked in Garden Hills by Harry Crews

February 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Naked in Garden Hills is Harry Crews’ second novel, first published in 1969. It’s long out of print now, which comes as a surprise as it’s surely one of Crews’ best novels, as he himself has claimed in interviews. It received positive reviews at the time of publication. And yet, as far as I can tell, there was the hardcover release in 1969, a US paperback in 1970, and a UK paperback in 1973 (published by Charisma Books and pictured above, on the right). I’m mystified as to why it hasn’t been reprinted since. I know Crews changed publishers from William Morrow to Knopf with the publication of The Hawk is Dying, I know he in all likelihood offended members of the ‘academy’ with his anti-intellectual rants in Esquire and Playboy, and I know he disgraced himself publicly on a number of occasions by getting himself blitzed on booze and making an ass of himself. But that’s still doesn’t explain why Naked in Garden Hills is thirty-plus years out of print. It is, and should be regarded as, an American classic.

The novel has a setup so strange that it can’t be read as anything other than pure surrealism. Garden Hills is a town at the bottom of a phosphate pit in Florida. It is owned by Fat Man, a six-hundred pound man who drinks the diet milkshake Metrecal by the caseload. Working for Fat Man is Jester, a ninety-pound, four foot tall midget who dreams of the horses he never rode and the races he never won. Dolly, the Phosphate Queen of Garden Hills, is a young beauty who has recently returned to Garden Hills from New York to set up a go-go club. In short, this is a lively cast of bizarre characters.

At the heart of practically every Crews novel is a kind of carnival. Sometimes the carnival is explicitly so, like in The Gospel Singer, and other times it is not stated as such. Practically everyone in a Harry Crews novel is some kind of freak (a term Crews himself dislikes) – be they midgets, obese landowners, or illiterate long-distance runners. Crowds are to be feared, tastes to be questioned, schemes to be exposed as scams. Characters in Crews’ novels are operating in a God-less vacuum that makes them do crazy things to rediscover meaning in their lives. But as Crews is teaching us, these terms (freak, crazy) are relative, that in fact we are all this thing inside our hearts. His singular ability is to humanise these grotesque caricatures in such a way that we eventually forget their freakish qualities. Naked in Garden Hills does this exceptionally well.

Even though this was just Crews’ second published novel, this is not the work of an apprentice. Crews would have been about 34 at the time of publication, and he’d already mastered the art of narrative that he learned from Graham Greene and others. One thing I’ve become attuned to in the last few of his novels I’ve read is his ability to weave past and present in such a way that the overall narrative becomes a rich tapestry. So we have Dolly ordering a go-go cage in chapter six, only for the chapter to end up as a long retelling of her voyage to New York City. This story in turn sheds light on her current ambitions and motivations. Crews uses this technique extensively in his chapters to often profound effect. Crews would write about a dozen novels after this one, but it’s doubtful that he improved on the technical prowess on show in Naked in Garden Hills.

One thing I’ll say against this novel is that there isn’t much sense of a forward progression in time. Garden Hills, apparently, just is. For example, we learn that Dolly is opening her go-go lounge, but there’s nothing like an opening ceremony or main event. Naked in Garden Hills is curiously devoid of events, especially toward the end. Additionally, there is little sense of how much time is supposed to have passed between one event from the past and the present time. It can be a little confusing. Despite this, I definitely enjoyed reading the book.

Sadly for me, I’m almost out of Harry Crews novels to read now. I haven’t been able to get more than half way through The Mulching of America (I’m not at all impressed) and my copy of An American Family is yet to arrive. I’ve read no less than 18 books by or about the man in the past four or so months, which rivals my binges on Philip K Dick and Graham Greene in earlier years (I once read 25 Greene novels in a six week period). It’s been fun, but it’s almost over. This Thing Don’t Lead to Heaven remains the only one I can’t find, but I’ll be damned if I’m paying $150 for it.