Posts Tagged ‘the gypsy’s curse’

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.

Two short reviews – The Gypsy’s Curse and Car by Harry Crews

November 9, 2009 Leave a comment

Part of me was expecting to be disappointed by the two novels collected in Classic Crews along with A Childhood: The Biography of a Place. From what I had read about Harry Crews, it seemed that I might already have read Crews’ best two books in the aformentioned A Childhood and the novel A Feast of Snakes. I am happy to report that no such thing happened. What follows are short reviews that I fear will not do justice to these outstanding novels.

The Gypsy’s Curse introduces us to a very strange cast of characters. The narrator, Marvin Molar, has stumps for legs and walks everywhere on his hands. He’s about three feet tall. He can’t speak or hear. Marvin lives in a gym with an old strongman by the name of Al, who frequently refers to himself in the third person. He once had his head run over by a car (deliberately, to prove how strong he is) and now his ear looks like a cauliflour. Leroy is a boxer who got beaten up so badly that he now stumbles around, ‘punch drunk’ in perpetuity. And Pete is an old black man who is so weak that even Leroy can beat him up easily. This unlikely cast reside in Al’s gym, where strongmen and iron freaks buff their physiques daily. Everything changes when Marvin’s girlfriend Hester moves into the gym, and a cycle of increasing violence is started.

That’s the story of The Gypsy’s Curse in a paragraph, and I can see that I’m not doing much of a job in trying to explain why this book is simply a work of genius. I am going to have to come back to this in a year or so and see if I can’t work out how Crews did it. I’m stumped. This is just a book of amazing worth and everyone should read it. The only thing I’ll say against it is that it ends in predictable violence, just like A Feast of Snakes did. I hope Crews has other ways of ending his books than in mass bloodshed.

I suppose it’s fair to say that I regard Car as a lesser work than the three Harry Crews books I had read before it, which isn’t to say that it’s a book without worth. It certainly is, and it bears more than a passing resemblance to J. G. Ballard’s Crash, which I believe came out at a very similar time. Okay, I just checked. Crews’ novel actually preceded Ballard’s by a year, but where Crash is fairly famous and has had a film made from it, Car is just about out of print (except in this Classic Crews collection) and forgotten. Why is this? The books are quite similar in terms of their theme – that cars equals sex equals violence. I suppose the Ballard novel is more detailed, and less humorous.

In Car, Easy Mack presides over 43 acres of scrapped cars in Jacksonville, Florida. At book’s opening, we see Easy’s son Mister crushing Cadillacs. It turns out that Mister has a twin brother Herman who has run away for some reason. Then it transpires that he has become affiliated with a hotel owner named Homer Edge, and that Herman is planning on eating a brand new Cadillac, bumper to bumper. He tries… and fails. Doesn’t sound like much, I know, but then this isn’t much of a book, in terms of pages anyway. At a little over 100 pages, Car is more novella than novel, and in fact it may have worked better at a still shorter length. Despite these caveats, this is a little gem of a book with some powerful scenes and imagery. To conclude this review, I’m quoting a paragraph in which Herman realises that by eating the car, he is becoming the car:

“If he needed more air he’d turn on the air-conditioner. If he needed more strength, he’d burn a higher octane gasoline. If he needed more confidence, he’d get another hundred horses under the hood. If the light of the world bothered him, he’d tint his windshield. And his immortality lay in numberless junkyards, all easily accessible from anywhere in America. Go on down and replace his fender, replace his wheel, replace his engine even, replace everything until he was not even what he was when he started. Replace everything with all things until he was nobody because he was everybody.” (Classic Crews, p382)

I don’t think it’s going too far to say that the three books (two novels, one memoir) comprising Classic Crews are among the greatest examples of narrative I’ve ever read. If I wasn’t already jaded and cynical at my grand old age of twenty-eight about the state of the world and the prestige afforded its greatest proponents of narrative fiction, I’d wonder why Harry Crews isn’t substantially more recognised than he is. Then I think of Marvin Molar and I know why.

Harry Crews is a first rate writer; you should order this book immediately.