Monday, March 03, 2008

Harry Crews, "Classic Crews" (1995).

Over a decade ago one of my friends tried to get me into Harry Crews. Usually I have to ask to borrow a book, but in this case it got shoved in my face. This particular friend was just a bit too concerned with being a hipster, so I felt the need to approach his recommendation with skepticism. He also pushed Neil Gaiman and Barry Gifford on me, and I wasn't very impressed. Still it was true that I claimed to like Southern Gothic writers, and I was assured that Crews fit the bill. I took Feast of Snakes home and read it in a few hours. It was mildly entertaining, but I felt like its portrayals of "white trash" were too stereotypically condescending. The writing style was also on the wrong side of a bit-too-clever. I thanked my friend for letting me borrow the book, while silently resolving to forget about Harry Crews.

Then a couple of weeks ago, I brought a documentary called Searching For the Wrong-eyed Jesus over to a buddy's house. Featured in the film was a grizzled, beat-up, old southerner telling stories about growing up in the Deep South during the mid Twentieth Century. My buddy recognized him as one of his favorite writers, and talked me into taking home a volume called Classic Crews. Despite my initial reaction to Crews, and the subsequent purchase of another novel that I found mediocre (Scar Lover), I decided I'd give the author one more chance. Hell, here was a reader whose tastes I respected, and he was pushing Harry Crews. This volume was older stuff, and (as the title suggested) considered 'classic' work. Surely it must be worthwhile.

Well, it turns out that the material in this book is quite good. It begins with an autobiographical account of Crews' childhood in Bacon County, Georgia. His family were tenant farmers, and lived alongside an African-American brood of sharecroppers that featured an old woman who had been born into slavery. When Crews got so sick that he was confined to his bed, this wise elder would sit alongside him and distract him from his pain with tall tales. The author would credit that time as the start of his love for story-telling. The extreme poverty he grew up within was made bearable by the charms of the Southern oral tradition. No doubt that gift helped him through the years after his stepfather slipped into alcoholism, and his mother brought him to Jacksonville, Florida. Crews' childhood was rough and largely unsupervised, and obviously informed his fictional content and style.

Classic Crews also contains two relative early short novellas. The first is called The Gypsy's Curse (1974), and sketches the world-view of a young man who labors under severe physical disabilities. Marvin is deaf, mute and has undeveloped legs, but his upper body is so developed that he can perform amazing feats of balance that people will pay to see. He lives with an adoptive father figure named Al, a punch-drunk old negro, and an addled youth who aspires to be a boxer. Together they inhabit an old-school gym, where bodybuilders and boxers seek physical perfection. People may underestimate Marvin, but they do so at their own peril. When his girlfriend Hester decides that she is going to move into the gym, its comfortably depressing atmosphere is radically altered. The story proceeds at a brisk pace to its inevitably catastrophic end.

Car (1972) deconstructs the American love affair with the automobile. At its center is a motherless family toiling in the largest auto graveyard in the southeastern United States. The dreamer of the brood is Herman, who has decided to 'become someone' by eating an entire Ford Maverick. While his father and siblings initially resist the idea, they are eventually caught up within the spectacle surrounding his well-publicized effort. After all, Herman's made his decision, and they might as well profit from it. A local hotel has sponsored his strange project, and it is gradually gaining nationwide attention. Car has more satirical social commentary than I have learned to expect in Crews' fiction . The message of the novella is reinforced by a personal essay detailing the author's own experiences with cars, which precedes Car.

I don't know whether Classic Crews is just extremely well-edited, or if there is a lot more to Harry Crews than I thought. Perhaps the collection really does represent the best of what he has to offer. In that case I probably don't need to keep returning to the well. On the other hand, I might just be developing a taste for the writer's fascinatingly unique settings and situations, and his deft characterizations of eccentric Southerners. I have to admit a willingness for further exploration.

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