A Large & Startling Figure
The Harry Crews Online Bibliography
All We Need of Hell
Perspective by Lucy Harrison
At first glance, All We Need of Hell may seem to be the most approachable of Harry Crews novels. There certainly aren't any of the freaks that populate Crews' earlierand laterworks. There are no midgets or 600-pound men, no glass-jawed boxers, no eaters of automobiles. The characters here look pretty normal, really. Until you look a little closer, until you shine a bright light on them, and then all the old freakiness comes slithering out.
The main character is Duffy Deeter. He's a lawyer with a practice that's doing wellwell enough, anyway, to buy him a fully-loaded Winnebago and a family trip to Jamaica and a nice house with four couches in it. He used to belong to a fraternity and he likes handball and bicycling and he's trying to stave off the grim reaper with protein shakes and fruit smoothies. His wife, Tish, is bored enough and pretty enough to be having an affair with Duffy's law partner, but she isn't really happy about it. Their kid, Felix, is maybe a bit heavy, but he'll probably outgrow it. Duffy's got a girl he keeps in an apartment across town; a nice girl, Marvella, but not real smart. In short, Duffy's got the life that many middle-aged lawyers have. It's all very normal, very . . . straight. But meanwhile, Duffy thinks of concentration camps when he sleeps with his girlfriend, and he nearly kills a man with a roundhouse kick rather than let him win at handball, and he dresses up in camouflage and paints his face black and breaks into his own house to catch his wife in the act of screwing his law partner and whacks him in the ass with his old fraternity paddle. The freak is there, even if he's cleaned up and clearing 100K a year. And when the pressure gets turned on, and the booze and drugs start to flow, things really get to sizzling. The freak starts showing up in everyone.
There are scenes of great beauty in this book, as when Duffy remembers his haunted, fragile father. Wakened in the night, the two of them sitting on the floor in the hallway with the moonlight falling square behind them, pretending to be flying a plane during the war. Only, it isn't just pretending, not to Duffy's father, and not to Duffy, either. His mother comes upon them and sees her husband's face shining with sweat, and says, "Are you all right?" and Duffy's father says, "If I'm talking, I'm alive, and if I'm alive, I'm OK." Or another scene, with Duffy and his own boy and Marvella and Tump the football hero, in the football stadium, alone, in the middle of the night. There's moonlight again, but this time it's not the soft moonlight of a dream but rather a bright shimmering like floodlights. It's well after midnight and the stands are dark and their shadows stretch away from them, floating on the thick wet grass. Tump throws Duffy's boy a long pass and the football hangs in the air while Marvella whirls and spins and cheers on the sidelines, and then the ball slips into Felix's outstretched hands and he crosses the goal line. It's a perfect moment, a perfect night. I can feel it like I was there myself, sitting in the grass, watching them.
Crews wrote this book in 1987, after a ten-year hiatus from writing any novels at all. He wrote some essays and some short stories, but nothing at all in longer form. And this book itself is pretty slim; the trade paperback version I own runs only to 161 pages. I think of this novel as Crews getting his feet wet again. Dipping his toes back in the chilly water of novel-writing, and shivering, and holding back a bit. I may be wrong, but I imagine it must take a great deal of will to sit down in front of an empty page, after a ten-year absence, and try to conjure up a story out of the air that will satisfy the critics. As Duffy Deeter might say, it takes by God enthusiasm. This may not be the best Harry Crews novel I've read, but it's a damn good story by a great writer who seems to be holding back a bit, testing his nerve a bit, testing his skill at going again into the cold, uncharted waters. I don't know what Crews' reasons were for quitting novel writing, and I don't much care. Whatever they are, they don't matter to anyone but him. As Duffy's mother says, describing the war horrors that destroyed her husband's soul, "It made him look funny out of his eyes the rest of his life." But in the world Harry Crews describes in All We Need of Hell, there isn't any other way of looking at things that makes any kind of sense. All I can say is, I'm glad he made it back to fill up these blank pages.
. . .