Harry Crews may seem larger than life and that may intrude on his writing and yes his books are vulgar, explicit, grotesque and often ugly but underneath he’s a very good writer. The environment he writes of he knows firsthand as he grew up in similar redneck squalor in rural Georgia. I addition, writing in third person narrator form, he never loses track of the story and knows how to present the speaking patterns of his characters in ways that the reader are able to follow.
This is all true for A FEAST OF SNAKES. Set in Georgia with the backdrop of a yearly snake festival climaxing with a competition in which people round-up rattlesnakes, it tells the story of Jon Lon Mackey, former football star, now stuck running his alcoholic ill father’s liquor store and dog fighting businesses, looking after his crazy sister, and providing for his wife and two kids. He’s trailer living lowlife no doubt although it took until the last 1/3 of this book to understand what inf act his problem really was which was the anger of being stuck in a life that could last for 30 or 40 years, still being young and having hopelessness mapped out for you.
A lot of other stuff happens – rape, castration, bodily functions, sex, violence. A number of weird characters drift in and out. There is the temptation for some to compare Crews to Chuck Palahniuk but Palahniuk is a gimmicky writer with no true voice of his own who thinks up a clever idea and milks it like an advertising man.
Crews on the other hand writes about what he knows but fills it full of absurdity. He’s like William Faulkner meets Kurt Vonnegut Jr. with a little Nelson Algren thrown in and also a lot of sex and general hooligan behaviour on top of that. But he knows how to tell a story and to give his characters depth and their actions meaning
Crews masterpiece is his autobiographical work A CHILDHOOD: THE BIOGRAPHY OF A PLACE. I hope to review that soon and also a few other Crews novels.