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A Large & Startling Figure

The Harry Crews Online Bibliography


Harry Crews's Short Story Trilogy

The Makings of a Southern Novelist

By Ed Lynskey


Before emerging as a professional author in 1968 with his debut novel, The Gospel Singer Harry Crews, as most fledgling writers, struggled to find his style and voice. During this rather lengthy discovery process, he published a short story trilogy (the least known of the Crews' canon) in which he experimented with the literary elements that later rose to prominence in his novels. The three short stories—"The Unattached Smile" (1963), "A Long Wail" (1964), and "The Player Piano" (1967)—exhibit the hallmarks of the critically acclaimed novels: blue-collar and rural angst, violent and gory themes, black comedy, outlandish characters, and meaningless modern religion. [1] The following discussion offers a critical overview of the short stories and commentary on their relation to novels written by one of the most diligent, original, robust authors practicing in today's South.

"The Unattached Smile" appeared in Sewanee Review a full five years before the publication of his first novel The Gospel Singer. This cautionary sea tale of youth and loss of innocence heralds an intense and mysterious mariner (Master Crews?), never mentioned by name (like The Gospel Singer character), who with his shipmate Tom Ash prowls the sordid bars in San Juan. Sex in the story has been transformed into a terrifying private ordeal for the mariner, and he is disturbingly obsessed by a singular carnal quest: to defile mature and experienced women who are distinguished by their "heavy, vulnerable haunches" and "grinding thighs." [2]

On the other hand, the mariner cannot abide "the thin high-breasted girls with flat stomachs" because they are "stamped [with] the raw image of his sister's face"(240). Incest, Crews intimates, has flared up sometime in the recent past between the mariner and his older and somewhat worldly sister in a backward hamlet, presumably aborted when "she would be married, or should be married" (240). The taboo has driven the anguished mariner to sail the high seas, in self-exile from his rural home, carrying his ignoble secret with him. To purge the guilt associated with his sister's coquettish smile and to recant his participation in any lewd behavior, the mariner beds a bevy of "anonymous" and unmarried whores, seeking the so-called "unattached smile" (249).

This auspicious story faintly echoes many of the familiar traits of character and theme Crews later more fully explored in his novels. First, the aberrant sexuality implicated between the mariner and his sister, which Crews derisively calls "a kind of magic playhouse that neither of them had to explain to anyone, not even to themselves," foreshadows the unwholesome, destructive, and most emphatically angry sexual trysts that dominate relationships in the novels (241). Unlike in the story, however, Crews never minces his words in the novels to depict the graphic and savage sex occurring between MaryBell Carter and The Gospel Singer in The Gospel Singer, Fat Man-Mayhugh and Dolly Furgeson in Naked in Garden Hills (1969), John Kaimon and Gaye Nell Odell in Karate Is a Thing of the Spirit (1971), Joe Lon Mackey and Berenice Sweet in A Feast of Snakes (1976), and Duffy Deeter and Marvella in All We Need of Hell (1987). Crews at once is drawn to the popular Southern literary topics of moral decadence, sexual deviance, and social corruption previously staked out by such regional writers as William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor.

Furthermore, Crews' razing of the aristocratic lady's pedestal and the Cult of the Virgin longtime inherent in Southern thinking is facilitated by Tom Ash's denunciation of a concubine who bears a resemblance to the mariner's sister: "Being someone's sister never kept a woman from being a whore" (243). The mariner's promiscuous and perhaps even seductive sister, delineated by her "slow, deliberate smile," her "flesh unrestrained and moving," and inviting the mariner to "take a piece of mine," previews the archetype of the Crews' female characters to come in the novels (245). Crews usually thrusts the women in his fiction in negative and calamitous roles as temptresses, rapists, and evil incarnates who devour and ruin their male counterparts. Crews' most culpable femme fatales are MaryBell Carter in The Gospel Singer, Dolly Furgeson in Naked in Garden Hills, Hester Maile in The Gypsy's Curse (1974), Lottie Mae and the Sweet sisters in A Feast of Snakes, and Charity in The Knockout Artist. [3]

"The Unattached Smile" also focuses attention on the psychological depth to Crews' characters who, as the critics have for the most part noted, confront their excesses, obsessions, and fears. Most of the primary characters in the Crews novels manifest obsessive-compulsive personalities, often indulging in bizarre and intense rituals. In this maritime saga, the mariner puts ashore in a myriad of far flung seaports to slake his lechery with the harlots' "hard, bought flesh" (240), much like The Gospel Singer's impulsive backtracking to Enigma to ravish MaryBell Carter. Furthermore, the mariner plies the seas distressed by his illicit sexual behavior just as The Gospel Singer suffers from guilt over his licentious lifestyle. Subsequent characters and their respective immoderations in the novels are Fatman-Mayhugh's enormous caloric intake in Naked in Garden Hills, John Kaimon's ethereal infatuation with kung fu in Karate Is a Thing of the Spirit, Eugene Biggs' perverse boxing sideshow in The Knockout Artist (1988), Shereel Dupont's bodybuilding mania in Body (1990), Duffy Deeter's pursuit of competitive sports in "The Enthusiast" (1982) and All We Need of Hell and, foremost, Herman Mack's absurd bid to devour a Ford Maverick in Car (1972).

From his literary beginnings, Crews' protagonists not only defy their worst fears, but also search for a final resolution, no matter how futile or violent it may appear. Thus the wayward mariner in "The Unattached Smile" challenges "the shape of his terror" (the voracious smile instigating his downfall) when he permits himself to be debauched by the "sister" of a Puerto Rican prostitute (248,249). In like fashion, Marvin Molar in The Gypsy's Curse slays the vamp Hester Maile whose evil presence disrupts the all-male boxers' gym while Harry "Nail Head" Barnes in Body defies legal authority by blowing up himself and the head judge in the men's toilet. Similarly, Joe Lon Mackey in A Feast of Snakes carries the proposition of resolve to its outermost limits by going on a bloody shooting rampage to eradicate his tormentors.

Three other noteworthy elements, founded in "The Unattached Smile," are more fully reworked in the novels. First, Crews casts the possessed mariner as an inexorable drinker who upends bottles of whiskey and rum to dull the pain of his overwhelming guilt. Alcoholism also figures predominantly in Crews' protagonists as an opiate; most conspicuously, Joe Lon in A Feast of Snakes uses liquor to assuage the pain from the ubiquitous violence around him and Nail Head in Body drinks to forget the gory killing fields of Viet Nam. Elsewhere, Crews' boisterous, barracks-style humor arises in the tavern scene when the embarrassed mariner sells a wristwatch to a crude chief petty officer to pay the prostitute for "a little bit" (244). Lastly, the exotic port of call in San Juan constitutes an anomaly because Crews' future settings are rootbound in either Georgia or Florida. In fact, not until The Knockout Artist, cast in New Orleans exactly twenty-five years later, does Crews again step outside the geographic boundaries of those two Deep Southern states.

The evolution of the major themes and characters endemic to the stories and subsequent novels can be further traced in "A Long Wail," the penultimate story Harry E. Crews published 1964 in The Georgia Review. This narrative involves the relationship between an elderly tobacco farmer who is stricken with throat cancer, his dutiful daughter Sarah Nell who is of marrying age, and a loyal farm tenant named Joe Gaff who resides in an outlying cabin. The metastasized disease has required the amputation of the old man's right jawbone and, worse, his "twisted profile" is hideous to behold: "As it always did when he was about to eat, his odor grew stronger, the heavy, half-sweet odor of decay that swarmed about him like flies." [4] Sarah Nell's mother has previously passed away after a painful illness. The stench of death, in fact, permeates the entire tragic account and subsequently dwells for Crews as both a fascinating and morbid preoccupation in the novels.

The story opens as Sarah Nell and her father are driving home from town after consulting the country physician Dr. Threadly, who has recommended surgically removing the now afflicted tongue. Weary of combating the relentless cancer, Sarah's father is now prepared to die with his voice, and thereby dignity, still intact. In this story, Crews introduces the desperate, dismal, and dark odds his characters typically face, and their desperate and protracted efforts to gain some semblance of control and stability over their lives. The elderly farmer maintains his dignified composure by rejecting the doctor's dire orders to cut out his tongue, "Only the old man had the color of life in his face" (221).

The mood of suppressed sadness and frustration in "A Long Wail" is set on edge by the characters' casual conversation and understatement in the farm kitchen where the brunt of the action occurs. There is no expected, sudden emotional outburst over the fatal news and the trio raves over their bowls of foul clabber ("It's a wonder that anything could look so bad and be so good") (221). Here Crews comprehends confidently how to exploit his characters' bleak, pessimistic, and desperate circumstances without displaying the emotional encumbrances of mercy, pathos, or compassion. [5] In a similar fashion, The Gospel Singer is coldly lynched by a rampaging mob; the bulk of the inhabitants in Naked in Garden Hills meekly accept performing in go-go cages; George Gattling heartlessly subjugates a wild hawk in The Hawk Is Dying (1973); and Joe Lon Mackey calculatedly shotguns his enemies in A Feast of Snakes. Sorely absent from "A Long Wail," however, is the twisted and hilarious comedy the more experienced Crews later invents from the violent and absurd situations arising in his novels. For instance, in a horrific scene like in this one of eating the foul clabber, the later Crews might manipulate the possibilities of language and invert its presentation as a dark comedic moment.

In "A Long Wail" Crews imports "a great, brindle-colored mastiff" which the decrepit farmer finally banishes to the barn as which Sarah and Gaff depart by car (218). Ironically, as they leave in the rain, it is the mastiff which howls in an ear-piercing lament Sarah and Gaff themselves must feel in their very bones, "a long, moon-reaching wail breaking over the night,"(223). Even in his second yarn, Crews begins to reduce human emotions to their bare, primitive, and desperate state which is likened to the behavior of beasts. [6] A similar scene is replicated in The Gospel Singer when the hymnist's chauffeur-confessor, Didymus, in a dark and violent mood to murder someone, taunts a vicious dog from his window: "A slow moan started in the bitch's throat and rose toward the disappearing moon." [7] In A Feast of Snakes, Joe Lon Mackey, bearing his personal agony in extremis, does a lot of howling, much like the pitbulls who fight for blood sport in the novel.

Like the coy woman's smile in the author's first story, Crews concocts a central symbol in the "wail" or the indisputable utterance of pain and anguish in this second story. Moreover, the language employed to depict the aged farmer's physical deformity is at once horrifying and majestic. Thusly, his partially mangled mug is "always there like a piece of gravel under the lid" (217); removing his bandage to eat is like "unwrapping a fine and treasured secret" (220); and the ugly, open wound is a "naked working spot in the old man's face" and "fascinating" to watch (220). In "A Long Wail," Crews touches on the morbid, grotesque, darkly amusing, and gory side of his characters which he celebrates in the lives found in his novels.

"A Long Wail" concludes with Gaff and Sarah departing for the country church, presumably to arrange their nuptials, suggesting the positive resolution which also arises in some of the major Crews novels. The prospect of human love and redemption as a source of meaning is exemplified by Junior Bledsoe and Pearl Lee Gates in This Thing Don't Lead to Heaven (1970), John Kaimon and Gaye Nell Odell in Karate Is a Thing of the Spirit, Duffy Deeter and his wife Tish in All We Need of Hell, Herman Mack and the hotel call girl Margo in Car, and most poignantly, Pete Butcher and Sarah Leemer in Scar Lover.

Two other important aspects are established in "A Long Wail." First, Crews declares his almost exclusively dramatic interest in the cheerless plight of the rural and poor Southern society from which he was born, those unfortunate "Grits" subsisting on the wrong end of Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road. Furthermore, by trivializing Dr. Threadly early in the story, Crews voices his own serious misgivings about science, progress, and intellectual pursuits. This theme is echoed in the novels by Dr. Sweet's woeful failure to heal the open wounds of Mystic, Georgia, during the annual rattlesnake round-up in A Feast of Snakes.

"The Player Piano," the most accomplished and ambitious of the trilogy, is also most closely connected to the novels, particularly in terms of its themes and characters. In fact, the story treats many of the rudiments (i.e., grotesques, violence, decadence) ascribed by academics to the "Southern Gothic" subgenre which Crews of contemporary novelists has patented, an avowal which the author always spurns. The yarn features Heavenly Jamie Day, a thirty-year-old virtuoso pianist who plays gospel tunes at a Salvation Army shelter bedecked in eerie and nauseous greens. Jamie, the idol of the poor and desperate Transients, however, is actually a vulnerable simpleton, or possibly an idiot savant. Agatha Tummerill, a grotesquely obese woman and the female equivalent of Fatman-Mayhugh in Naked in Garden Hills, lures him inside her second-floor flat at the shelter where they meet her husband Bill. Bill, quadriplegic as a result of a botched suicide attempt, is the victim of his wife's cruel acts such as coercing him to witness her debauchery with male lovers.

Although a piano-playing prodigy, Jamie lacks the native intelligence to "do the things a man needs to do, like making change for a dollar or distinguishing MEN from WOMEN on public restrooms." [8] In fact, Jamie repeatedly admits, "I'm not normal" (31,32,34), and is given to speak in wonderful, irrelevant phrases, like the eccentric rube Fred Gattling in The Hawk Is Dying. Bill Tummerill, a mute cripple strapped naked to a double-bed hidden inside a darkened torture chamber, exemplifies the most bizarre and deformed individual Crews had ever conceived by 1967:

A man lay on a double bed on one side of the narrow, rather long, room. He was still as a rock and naked except for a webbed harness about his chest and a white, diaper-shaped cloth held in place about his loins by two huge blue safety pins. Tubes led out of the diaper and disappeared under the bed. He was very thin and light yellow in color. Veins showed under the skin of his legs. (33-34)

With this unlikely twosome, Crews begins to tinker with the operation of outlandish and grotesque personalities (i.e., freaks) in his narrative strategy—in this case, a freak with a perfect body and a freak with a wasted physique. In fact, through his musical prowess, physical elegance, and charismatic popularity, Jamie functions as the prototype for The Gospel Singer. Crews' stylized penchant for freaky characters, advanced in "The Piano Player," burgeons in the novels which tout a midget molded as a monstrous foot in The Gospel Singer, a 600-pound Metrecal junkie in Naked in Garden Hills, a deaf-mute with scrawny legs in The Gypsy's Curse, a serpent-charming parson in A Feast of Snakes, and a business tycoon masquerading as a bulldog in The Knockout Artist. [9] Indeed, Crews' Gallery of Grotesques has proliferated in his novels, exploited far beyond the absurdities McCullen or Capote ever imagined, much to critics' consternation. 10

Like the Circe smile witnessed in "The Unattached Smile," the banshee shriek sounded in "A Long Wail," Bill Tummerill's dark, expressive eyes convey the grievous pain of his sterile and mirthless life with his sadistic fishwife: "She [Agatha] winked at Bill and he closed his eyes briefly. When he opened his eyes again he was looking away from them at the far wall"(34-35). As the paragon of male paralysis, so often cited as a motif in Southern literature, Bill's torment is one that Crews can relate to personally. As a small child, Crews suffered from an exotic, temporary paralysis which left him twisted like a human pretzel. Crews remembers his helpless distress which was exacerbated, much as Bill's is, by neighborhood curiosity-seekers who stopped to gawk at his physical condition. 11

The socially acceptable boundaries between what is normal and abnormal blur, and a standard by which to judge each realm grows confused and vague in "The Player Piano." For instance, Agatha ironically distinguishes the pitiful Tummerills as the "Regulars" who refuse "charity" and reside in private quarters, while she disparages the other patrons of the shelter as "bums" and "transients" (30-32). In the novels, Crews clearly sympathizes with his grotesques (as he does here with Jamie Day and Bill Tummerill) and their behavior is often more admirable than that of so-called normal society. Furthermore, the anonymous assembly of "transients" milling about the shelter predates the spontaneous mobs who materialize in Crews' novels such as the murderous swarms concluding The Gospel Singer and A Feast of Snakes.

Violence, though a minor refrain in "The Unattached Smile" and "A Long Wail," strongly resonates in "The Player Piano." Bill's thwarted and rather comical hanging by a venetian window cord; his wife's force-feeding him through a baby bottle mostly filled with whiskey; Jamie's ultimate jilting of Agatha; and Agatha's pummeling and cursing her husband are violent acts crimped by Crews within the narrative. The violent and cruel streak in man's nature has been an increasingly significant motif in the Crews corpus, circling and circling ever closer to the tour de force, A Feast of Snakes, which erupts with murder and mayhem on each page. 12

The situations probably contrived for dark-hearted humor in "The Piano Player," such as Bill Tummerill's absurd means of self-strangulation by a venetian blind cord, are not totally effective in their presentation. In the novels, many of which are actually tragicomedies, Crews better understands and executes comic relief to spell the narrative's otherwise intense and unrelenting horror. For instance, in A Feast of Snakes, which also incorporates a suicide by choking, Joe Lon Mackey's mother on several occasions runs away from home, only to be ingloriously returned each time by her huge, hulking, and deaf husband. Finally, she has the last say in the conflict when she ties a plastic bag over her head and dies with a note pinned to her breast which reads: "bring me back now you son of a bitch." 13

Isolation and despair are woven into the tense fabric of the Tummerills' existence, especially lurking in their inner chamber which "smelled of something dark, secretive, long closed" (33). Bill, bedridden and impotent, may be the victim of the cruel society in which he lives, akin to Beeder, Joe Lon Mackey's sister in A Feast of Snakes. Barred in her bedroom after her mother's grisly suicide, Beeder smears feces in her hair and monitors the violent TV news reports. Furthermore, Agatha, an obese gladiator who has already destroyed one husband, follows in the dark vein of other Crews' women. Agatha cruelly mistreats her husband, and her acts are motivated by rage and revenge. Anger and its agent revenge are entrenched in Crews' novels, most graphically in Joe Lon Mackey's last desperate actions in A Feast of Snakes.

The short story trilogy also poses the theme of modern religion as a possible source of meaning, a preoccupation of Crews through his first three titles, The Gospel Singer, Naked in Garden Hills, and This Thing Don't Lead to Heaven. In "The Unattached Smile," the mariner with almost a religious fervor and fascination pursues his carnal quest, and after the successful consummation with the San Juan prostitute's sister, he descends still unfulfilled and wretched into a dismal abyss: "And before him spread a vast and airless field, vaster than the eye and without direction" (249). In "A Long Wail" Joe Gaff and Sarah Nell abandon her sick father and death itself at the farm and journey to a country church with its promise of fresh opportunities and youthful love. In "The Player Piano" Jamie Day personifies the goodwill of the DOWNTOWN SALVATION CENTER and the true believers (the Transients) who appear content with their benevolent care. Conversely, Agatha Tummerill, who does not appreciate the beauty of gospel piano tunes Jamie Day plays but indulges in mortal lust, remains an unhappy and angry individual.

However, religion as a source of salvation or redemption seems tentative at best in the stories. After consummating his lustful quest, the mariner continues to wander lost in a perpetual doom, while Joe Gaff and Sarah Nell are never seen getting to the church, and Jamie Day emerges as less than an inspired or intelligent cleric. The first three novels also conclude that modern religion is an empty and passionless ritual, bereft of any tangible benefits and corrupted by commercialism and greed. In The Gospel Singer, the corrupt protagonist performs in tent meetings solely to reap its lucrative gate receipts and then indulge his lust with young girls from the congregation. In Naked in Garden Hills, an apostolic few futilely abide in a blasted phosphate quarry for the glorious second coming of the absentee landowner, Jack O'Boylan. Finally, In This Thing Don't Lead to Heaven, an old folks home proves falsely to promise salvation and life to its senior inhabitants.

In conclusion, the short story trilogy as apprentice fiction discloses a set of themes and characters which Crews more fully and intensely worked out in the novels. The first story, "The Unattached Smile," chronicles Crews' concerns over moral corruption and sexual perversion as illustrated in his plot about a young mariner burdened by extreme guilt and despair, presumably over incest. Crews' women, as suggested by the mariner's sister, are portrayed as destructive vamps, while the obsessive-compulsive personalities of his characters begin to assert themselves. The strains of Crews' boisterous (and later dark) sense of humor and two-fisted drinking are also evidenced in the story. On the other hand, oddly not developed in the short stories is Crews' use of black characters especially when considering the black preacher Willalee Booktee Hull in The Gospel Singer and the Negro jockey Jester in Naked in Garden Hills.

"A Long Wail," the second story, tracks Crews' preoccupation with death in his novels, favors his rural landscapes and poor country people, and reveals his basically anti-intellectual bent. The decrepit tobacco farmer stoically confronting death from cancer, like the various characters in the novels, illustrates the desperate act of working-class people striving to impose order in their chaotic and often painful lives. Human emotions are reduced to their primitive state and compared to animals such as the mastiff while Crews successfully depicts the bleak conditions of his characters without seeming maudlin. The conclusion to "A Long Wail" posts the positive resolution through the possibility of human love between the sexes which Crews incorporates into some of the major novels.

Finally, "The Player Piano," a forerunner of the Southern Gothic mode which Crews formulated in the novels, most significantly epitomizes an early manipulation of freaky characters. The story also imports Crews' consequential theme of violence, presents man's isolated and desperate condition, and proposes the empty and meaningless role of modern religion in men's lives. The theme of rage and revenge men often feel in their trapped despair begins to assert itself in the story.

These largely neglected short stories permit a fascinating glimpse into the development of the dark and powerful imagination of a Southern writer whose literary eminence is only now beginning to spill beyond the bounds of the academy.


I'd like to thank David Jeffrey for his reading and comments.

. . .

Notes

  1. "The Unattached Smile," Sewanee Review 71 (April-June 1963) 240-49; "A Long Wail," The Georgia Review 18 (Summer 1964) 217-23; and "The Player Piano," Florida Quarterly 1 (Fall 1967) 30-36. [back]
  2. Harry Crews. "The Unattached Smile." Sewanee Review 71 (Spring 1963) 240. All subsequent references are indicated parenthetically in the text. [back]
  3. Patricia Beatty has assessed Crews' treatment of women characters in "Crews' Women" in A Grit's Triumph (Port Washington, NY: Associated Faculty Press, 1983) 112-123. [back]
  4. Harry Crews, "A Long Wail." The Georgia Review 18 (Summer 1964) 217,218. All subsequent references are indicated parenthetically in the text. [back]
  5. Allen Shepherd has eloquently commented on how Crews depicts his "misshapened imaginative world in complete self-confidence, apparently undeterred by pity or compassion" in "Matters of Life and Death: The Novels of Harry Crews," Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 20 (September 1978) 53. [back]
  6. Frank Shelton has discussed Crews' characters who "are very primitive, acting on instinct and obsession" in Fifty Southern Writers After 1900 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987) 114. [back]
  7. Harry Crews. The Gospel Singer (New York: Morrow, 1968) 83. [back]
  8. Harry Crews, "The Piano Player," Florida Quarterly 1 (Fall 1967) 30. All subsequent references are indicated parenthetically in the text. [back]
  9. David Jeffrey has studied abnormals in Crews' novels: "Crews' Freaks" in A Grit's Triumph (Port Washington, NY: Associated Faculty Press, 1983) 67-78. [back]
  10. Larry W. DeBord and Gary L. Long have discussed the body of criticism about Crews' ouevre in "Literary Criticism and the Fate of Ideas: The Case of Harry Crews," The Texas Review 4 (Fall/Winter 1983) 69-91. [back]
  11. Harry Crews, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place (New York: Harper & Row, 1978) 78-79. [back]
  12. See Ed Lynskey, "Violence in Hometown America: Harry Crews' A Feast of Snakes," Pembroke Magazine 19 (1987) 195-200 for a fuller discussion on the theme of violence in the novel. [back]
  13. Harry Crews, A Feast of Snakes (New York: Atheneum, 1976) 120. [back]

. . .


 
A Large & Startling Figure: The Harry Crews Online Bibliography
www.harrycrews.org/Features/Essays/LynskeyE-Trilogy.html
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