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Georgia Boys: the Redclay Satyrs of Erskine Caldwell and Harry Crews

ISSUE:  Autumn 1980

Along with the idea of the Great American Novel, the notion of America as a Melting Pot has passed out of fashion, the both because of the increasing futility of imposing homogeneity on a complex, ethnically and regionally diverse culture. Ironically, to the extent that the Melting Pot has failed, American literature has been the richer: ours is a pluralistic society, and likewise a disjunctive one, where the uniformity of language and political institutions masks a rich diversity of variations. The English language as spoken by the American Black, the American Jew, the American Yankee, the American New Yorker, the American Texan (whether Anglo or Chicano) is decidedly a different tongue, each a product of particular influences, whether the importation of European and African cadences and inflections or the growth and evolution of local mannerisms.

Where American authors for the most part before the Civil War tended to subsume regional coloration into European literary models—to such a large extent that one of the greatest of our writers created a Yankee whaling captain who seems more an escapee from Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus than a native of Nantucket—after the war, with the rise of realism, American authors turned to the exploitation of regional distinctions. “Local color” is not an Americanism, but it is in terms of literature a national characteristic, and no region in this country has been more productive of colorful locales than has the South. Notably, the one dominantly regional school of writing that flourished before the Civil War was Southwestern Humor, which contributed much to the continuity between Mark Twain and William Faulkner.

It is worthwhile to pause a moment and consider the fact that those Americanisms containing the word “local” in various compounds derive mostly from one of two sources, journalism and railroading, professions which enjoyed a heyday likewise in the years immediately following the Civil War. And with the displacement of the railroad by the airline and highway, with the rapid diminishment of the newspaper’s importance because of the popularity of television, we are seeing likewise a loss of regional distinctions and local particularities. Despite the political fashion of courting ethnic blocs and regional interests, a metaphorical cloning is taking place, a process which will eventually make everyone look and sound like everyone else, who will be named either Howard Johnson or Sara Lee. We can see this happening already in works of certain novelists who are intimately associated with that most famous of literary regions, the Deep South. There the ascendancy of William Faulkner has been replaced (in terms of living authors) by Walker Percy, whose fiction is most often discussed as novels of ideas, and that is just as well. Because as a novelist of character and plot Walker Percy is not a notable success: as in the American future, everyone in each of his novels sounds like everyone else, and all are engaged in boring activities of a uniform—if occasionally apocalyptic—dullness.

I have not read all of the novels of Walker Percy, but on the basis of The Moviegoer, Love in the Ruins, and Lancelot, I can generalize that Percy testifies at least metaphorically to the forces which are acting to vitiate the South as a rich literary region: the first and probably the best of these three works concerns a man who is obsessed by motion pictures, the last involves the making of a motion picture, and the middle is crowded with the furniture of our homogenized culture, from motel rooms to superhighway intersections. What I am talking about is what takes place in Lancelot, the Hollywoodizing of the American South, which is in a sense the reverse of what happened in one of the earliest television sitcoms, The Beverly Hillbillies. Let us call it the Beverly Hiltonizing of the American South.

Before describing in detail what I mean, I want to point out that as literary regions there has always been an intimate connection between California and the South: Sam Clemens may have become Mark Twain in Nevada, but it was “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” that first made his pen name famous. William Faulkner eked out his early literary fortunes by writing screenplays, among them Raymond Chandler’s Hollywood novel, The Big Sleep, and though Joan Didion is an echt Californian writer, her first novel, Run River, is as distinctly deep South in coloration (though set on the Sacramento not the Mississippi Delta) as her Play It as It Lays is pure Hollywood. Even on the level of popular culture the connection holds: Country-and-Western music has two major centers, Nashville, Tenn. , and Bakersfield, Calif. , and when Walt Disney decided to duplicate his Disneyland east of the Mississippi he chose Florida for his location, a state which is California East in more ways than oranges, being a place associated with plastic surgery and structures. If Gone With The Wind is the popular Southern fiction, most Americans know it best as a Hollywood movie, not as a novel.

We have seen a native of Plains, Georgia elevated to the White House, a media event of some magnitude which had at least one spin-off, the television sitcom called Carter Country, but if life inspires art, in the case of the Carter family the reverse seems the same. Much as Watergate as a real-life event made pale any literary attempt to imitate it, so the Carters brought to the White House a gallery of familiar Southern literary types. Where Jimmy Carter like Quentin Compson seems to have difficulty knowing just what time of day it is, his brother Billy entertains us with his imitation of Jason Compson as played by Huck Finn. Sister Ruth is out bleeding the Lamb Everlasting, while Mother Carter dispenses Mammy Yokumisms, including delivering a Double Whammy to Ted Kennedy. As for Rosalynn, she plays to perfection that singular Southern pattern of womanhood, crinoline and chromium steel: she acts out a version of Gone With the Wind in which Scarlett marries Ashley and goes to live at Twelve Oaks, where she spends her time trying to convince everyone that Jeff Davis is very happy and healthy running the country from Richmond.

As for Hamilton Jordan, we are dealing with something quite new on the Southern Literary scene, something pertinent to my thesis. If the Carter Family lines up the stereotypes of the literature engendered by the South prior to the Vietnam War, Jordan is a foreshadowing of new possibilities, much as if the Snopeses had given birth to yet another marvel, not Wall Street Snopes but Madison Avenue Snopes. Early on, if recollection serves me, President Carter appointed James Dickey as a roving poetic ambassador, an appointment that somehow or other never amounted to much, which failure may best be explained by those who best know James Dickey. But Hamilton Jordan has increasingly come across as a character out of Deliverance, not that he resembles any specific person in that novel but that he could very easily have been among their number. He is the New Southerner, laid back and made over, the cracker as ad-man, the beerswilling good ol’ boy as a college-trained (by way of Animal House) political genius, a crazy mixture that is key to the meaning of the new twists and turns lending a different dimension to the old absurdities that inspired the literary South of William Faulkner. There is, that is to say, a series of links between Percy’s Lancelot, I’affaire Bert Lance, and Burt Reynolds as Gator, Hooper, and any number of Hollywood versions of peckerwood heroics, including his portrayal of Lewis in the movie version of Deliverance, which may be decoded as “De River Lance,” being a deep scalpel cut into the collective psyche of the New South.

And yet Dickey’s novel repeats the old Fenimore CooperMark Twain evasion by sending his cast of New South characters back once again into Leo Marx’s wilderness Garden where they get degenerated by Richard Slotkin’s Violence. The mythic Deep Woods is traditional Southern transformational terrain, from Faulkner to Andrew Lytle, but it no longer seems very relevant to the New South. If there is one novelist of note to emerge in the past ten years whose works throughout evince the Hollywoodization of the South, it is Harry Crews, a Georgia boy with impeccable credentials. On the surface, Crews’ novels have many of the characteristics of the traditional Southern literary landscape, yet they make major revisions of the old agrarian map, eschewing the wilderness sanctuary for a chaotic territory of chromium and steel. Moreover, where for Faulkner the tenant farmer was an ambivalent symbol, half dirty clown (the inheritance of Southwestern humor), half redemptive man of the soil (the heritage of Jeffersonian agrarianism), for Harry Crews the generic term is “Grits,” not the “true grit” of Western heroics but the soft mushy stuff that red-necks and white trash eat as a main staple of an otherwise pork-heavy diet. His “Grits” are an American version of Yahoo, ready to form a lynch mob at the drop of a coil of rope. If Harry Crews is an important writer, and I think he is, his works testify to the diminishing relevant force of William Faulker and to the rising sun of Erskine Caldwell. We are moving geographically from the rich Mississippi Delta of plantation aristocracy to the red clay of Georgia farmland, a reduction of epic potential, perhaps, but with no consequent loss of violent traditions.


Erskine Caldwell, it seems to me, has never received in this country the recognition due him as an American novelist, probably because he lowered his artistic standards following the early years of promise and because of his political reputation, first as a Communist party-liner then as a turncoat during the McCarthy era. Moreover, it is easy enough to demonstrate that the best of Caldwell’s writing is derived from (or at least chronologically follows) Faulkner’s early work, that Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre are indebted for subject matter to Sanctuary, As I Lay Dying, and The Sound and the Fury. Still, it was Caldwell’s genius to popularize Faulkner’s formulaics of rural violence and degeneracy (pace Richard Gilman) by instilling a dimension of social consciousness while adding also a quasi-pornographic element of explicit sex. There is sex in Faulkner’s earliest novels, but it is not much enjoyed by anybody: the corncob remains the dominant phallic symbol, paired with the yoni of smelly shrimp carried home at nightfall by Horace Benbow. But Caldwell’s characters are often satyrs and nymphs thinly clad as hill-billies and -betties, introducing a bawdry that gained even wider national circulation after 1935 through the agency of Al Capp’s libidinous Dogpatch. So familiar had the South become as cornpone pornography by the 1960’s that one of the first X-rated movies was called “Poor White Trash.”

This brings me back once again to Harry Crews, who not only shares a common Georgian nativity with Erskine Caldwell, but who continues to purvey a number of the characteristic Caldwell literary features, while managing also to transform Caldwell’s country into a recognizably modern terrain: if Tobacco Road can be seen as a red-dirt track leading out of Yoknapatawpha County into God’s Little Acre, Crews may be said to have picked it up on the other side of Dogpatch, where it becomes a six-lane superhighway that retains the blood-red clay as center-strip and shoulders. Not only are the familiar themes of sex and violence retained, but they become supercharged, and the same may be said of the obsessive manias that so often motivate Caldwell’s country folk. Thus the brand new automobile whose gradual destruction is a central symbol of madness in Tobacco Road is reconstituted as the shiny red Ford Maverick that is eaten bit by bit in Crews’ novel, Car.

The disintegrating automobile was an important Southern literary symbol long before Wright Morris imported it to Southern California in Love Among the Cannibals. We can think of the expensive limousine wrecked by Gavin Stevens in the opening pages of Sanctuary, the ditched Model-T that strands the dying salesman in Eudora Welty’s story, or the shiny new one that provokes mob fury in that neglected Southern classic, George Milburn’s Catalogue. And if The Reivers is Faulkner’s requiem for his nonesuch South, the central figure in the rural landscape of that novel is likewise an automobile, which would seem to be one machine in the garden overlooked by Leo Marx. Moreover, like the “rat-colored car” driven by Hazel Motes in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, the automobile in Southern writing is often associated with an element of perverse religiosity, a secular quest with an often vague even disparate goal which can also signal the falling apart and the death of families. The Reivers of course works to opposite ends, but it is one of Faulkner’s least convincing if most optimistic works. For the most part, the automobile can be seen as a symbol of what is wrong with the South, of loss not gain, a direction epitomized by the self-destructive exodus undertaken by the Jeeter Lester family in what starts out a symbol of new-found wealth.

In Crews’; Car, this direction is carried to surrealistic extremes, the automobile as eaten object becoming a chromeplated eucharist, in which blood and bits of steel are intermixed. In most of Crews’ novels we can detect a constant stress on religious quest, with a concomitant emphasis on the individual not the group: in Car, as in the best of Caldwell and in much of Faulkner, the focus is on a disintegrating, feuding family, but this is not typical of all his stories. Even when set in a family grouping, moreover, Crews’ men and women are very much alone, even lonely, often depicted as living in the shadowy grip of long dead or distant parents. And the most of them are engaged in a religious search, whether figured as karate, or falconry, or eating a car, violent things of the spirit which for Crews always have as their coefficients the act of sexual congress. Where for Caldwell the act of sex is a Rabelaisian element, for Crews (as for Faulkner) it is if anything Swiftian in implication, presented in the ugliest possible light, as if to diminish in his readers the very appetites he is describing in his characters. Sex is, in a Crews novel, a metaphorical if not literal adjunct to anger, and sex coupled with anger is often called “rape.” Faulkner in Sanctuary has been called a moralist with a corncob; Crews’ characters might be called corncobs in search of a Temple, some sort of apocalyptic locus that will be the site of an apotheotic orgasm.

Crews’ place in Southern literature can be clarified if we compare his social and cultural origins with those of Caldwell and Faulkner: despite their differences, the two older writers share a common middle-class background, and both were the products of Presbyterian homes, Caldwell’s a fundamentalist and austere one, Faulkner’s much more conventional. Because of their class, Caldwell and Faulkner share in common a sympathetic but ultimately condescending attitude toward the poor white farmer and worker, surrounding them with a frame not unlike that imposed by such early Southwestern humor writers as George Washington Harris. From Sut Lovingood to Ty Ty Walton is a clear line of development, and Jeeter Lester and Anse Bundren are brothers under their shiftless skins. But Harry Crews comes from the other end of the long red-dirt road, belonging to that class of folk about which Caldwell and Faulkner condescendingly write.

One of the characteristics held in common by the people of Caldwell and Faulkner is their quality of silent outrage, a permanent psychic anger instilled by their impoverished, hopeless lives. Caldwell and Faulkner are not outraged, please note, they merely record the phenomenon, , But Create o$ raged, and his novels seethe with anger, which takes the for of a relentless emphasis on the ugliest aspects of life. His acters are often literally freaks of nature, an element prefigured in the freak show that is a main feature of his first novel, The Gospel Singer, the hero of which is likewise a lusus naturae, being gifted with a marvelously charismatic voice. Still, despite this constant demonstration of the horror that is the human condition, Crews evinces what might be called a deeply spiritual drive, a version of Southern Baptist Revivalism that constantly seeks some kind, , of transformation, sorne transfiguring apotheosis. The title and theme of his first novel provide a key to what becomes a covert motif in the books to follow: what is conventional and explicit in The Gospel Singer will take increasingly bizarre and unlike forms.


The peculiar qualities of a Crews novel are best demonstrated by his third book, entitled This Tiling Don’t Lead to Heaven, set in a “home” for the aged and dying, the manager of which, a buxom blonde, is frustrated in her constant search for sexual fulfillment. It is in this novel also, with its stress on the most disgusting aspects of the aging process, that Crews makes clear his debt to the California tradition, most particularly to the novels of Nathanael West and Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One. I do not mean that Crews openly acknowledges any such debt, but his novel, set in Cumseh, Georgia, seems much closer to West’s and Waugh’s Hollywood than to any definable Southern literary terrain—call it Lost Atlantos if you will. It is here that the transmogrification of the South of Faulkner and Caldwell takes place, the recognizable rural and mining settings found in Crews’ first two novels, Gospel Singer and Naked in Garden Hills, having been abandoned for a generalized modern urban landscape. The place names remain regional but through some creative wizardry the map takes on a definably Californian—which is to say insane— shape, a lay of the land which when called “Southern” brings to mind the surname “Terry.”

The Gospel Singer ends with a lynch-mob scene, the depiction of which bears a detectable resemblance to the horrific climax of Day of the Locust but which remains nonetheless a traditional even ritualistic and quasi-religious Southern literary feature. In Naked in Garden Hills, the mob scene involves a beauty contest set against an abandoned phosphate mine, still recognizably Southern territory. But in This Thing Don’t Lead to Heaven, the mob, if it can be called that, is a desperate group of superannuated senile people, set against that geriatric equivalent of a McDonald’s hamburger stand, a place called “Axel’s Senior Club,” formerly known as “The Old Folks’ Home.” One of the major characters is a salesman of caskets and burial plots, an escapee clearly from Waugh’s satire of Forest Lawn.

In the autobiographical note which accompanies The Gospel Singer, Crews seems at the start of his authorial career to have carefully cultivated a certain image of himself, commencing with his birth “at the end of a very long dirt road in Bacon County, Georgia,” but stressing the fact that his college education was interrupted by what was in the 1950’s and early 60’s a typically modern American wanderjahr: “ At the end of two years . . .choking and gasping from Truth and Beauty, I gave up the University [of Florida] for a Triumph motorcycle. I headed west one bright spring morning with seven dollars and fifty-five cents in my pocket, and during the following year I was in jail in Glenrock, Wyoming, beaten in a fair fight by a one-legged Blackfoot Indian on a reservation in Montana, washed dishes in Reno, Nevada, picked tomatoes outside San Francisco, had the hell scared out of me in a YMCA in Colorado Springs, Colorado, by a man who thought he was Christ, and made friends in Chihuahua, Mexico, with a Mexican airline pilot who made a fetish of motorcycle sadlebags. I limped back into the University of Florida, purified and holy, ready to absorb whatever was left of Truth and Beauty.” In sum, Easy Rider run backwards, being Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance crossed with On the Road: the Beatitudes of the Beat Generation involve a violent, purgatorial pilgrimage, a machine-assisted voyage to the West Coast and back by a picaro who becomes in the process a Saint. Call it “One Flew Out of the Mockingbird’s Nest.”

Crews has more recently, in his autobiography called A Childhood, expanded on the details of the years he spent growing up at the wrong end of the long, red-dirt road, presenting life in the rural South as a mixture of simple pleasures and stark horrors. I shall return presently to that book, but it is sufficient to state here that A Childhood reveals the very large extent to which his novels are autobiographical, in both literal and figurative—which is to say metaphorical—terms. The Gospel Singer begins with what has become a trope in Southern fiction, a description of a black man waiting in jail to be lynched for the rape and murder of a white woman. The name of the black man is Willalee Bookatee, which is the name also, Crews tells us in A Childhood, of a black boy with whom he grew up, much as the novel’s Willalee is the childhood friend of the Gospel Singer, who is not only ineffective in his attempts to free the jailed man but who ends up hanging from the same tree. The Singer is clearly an autobiographical figure, his magical voice an equivalent to Crews’ own creative gift.

Where in A Childhood Crews depicts his family, his mother in particular, in sympathetic even sentimental terms, evoking the images made familiar by sundry WPA publications, in Gospel Singer the family of the hero is presented as cracker caricatures, cousins germane to the Jeeter Lesters and Ty Ty Waltons of Erskine Caldwell. Since the novel is about the disastrous return home of the titular hero, who is lynched by his former neighbors and friends, it seems to have been intended by Crews as a ritual exorcism of his rural origins, an apotheotic farewell to his birthright acted out in the terms of a Caldwell novel but in the style and with the stress of Nathanael West’s California stories. Thenceforth, as I have said, Crews’ writing gradually abandoned the traditional landmarks of Southern literature, substituting instead equivalents of West’s terrain, turning his back on the place where the Agrarian writers, including his own early writing master, Andrew Lytle, took their stand.

But in Crews’ latest novel, A Feast of Snakes, which was published in 1976, the author, as in A Childhood (published two years later), seems to be undergoing a significant metamorphosis. For A Feast of Snakes is in many ways a revision of The Gospel Singer, signaling a return to the home place but with a number of significant changes. First of all, the central figure of the story is not a charismatic celebrity returning to his birthplace but an entrapped, desperate former high-school football star who cannot get away. Several years after graduation and with no hope of recovering his former lustre, Jo Lon Mackey lives in a trailer with his bedraggled wife and two screaming infants, making a meager income peddling illegal liquor from his father’s tiny store. In short, Rabbit Redneckus. Where the characters in Gospel Singer were the wildly improbably Southern equivalents of Nathanael West types, Crews in Feast of Snakes is deeper than ever in Caldwell Country.

Jo Lon, with his sexual libido fueled by high octane anger, seems a compound of all the Walton boys—the ones in God’s Little Acre, not the television series—frustrated, furious, a time bomb set with no certain moment to go off. His father, Big Joe, having driven his wife to suicide by his brutal treatment, spends his time breeding and training pit bulldogs, while Jo Lon’s sister, Beeder, driven mad by her mother’s death, sits alone in her filthy, darkened bedroom watching a television set turned up to deafening volume. There is also, among a number of ancillary grotesques, Sheriff Buddy Matlow, a one-legged Vietnam veteran who uses his police powers to coerce black women into granting sexual favors: Lottie Mae, one such girl, who in a fit of insane terror slashes off Matlow’s penis with a razor; Berenice Sweet, the former highschool sweetheart of Jo Lon, and a champion baton twirler, who has returned home from college for the annual rattlesnake hunt—which gives Crews’ book its title and finale—and her younger sister, Hard Candy, also a baton-twirler, whose football playing boyfriend, Willard, is Jo Lon’s younger counterpart and drinking-and-violence companion. This list is certainly exotic enough, but it is one that seems much more generic to Caldwell’s Country than to the California of Nathanael West.

The Feast of Snakes itself, with its open allusions to the snake-handling cults of the rural South, is an overwhelming regional event, albeit used as a backdrop to the beauty contest which Crews already employed in two of his earlier novels. But surrounding his regional cast of rednecks and good ol’ boys is a mob of tourists who have invaded the town to take part in the rattlesnake hunt, providing the faceless, furious, howling human wall that is so essential to California apocalypses. Crews seems in his last novel, therefore, to be trying to achieve some kind of synthesis, to be recovering and exploiting his red-dirt roots while retaining the savagely satiric mood of Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust. Where Enigma, Georgia, the setting of Gospel Singer, is Southern in locale, Mystic, Georgia, where the snake hunt and attendant mayhem takes place, is if anything much more tightly linked to Crews’ native ground, yet the California coloration is likewise more intense.

Both place names share a common symbolism, obviously chosen with care, but where The Gospel Singer, like Crews’ subsequent writing, deals openly with matters of the spirit, Feast of Snakes is entirely of the flesh, figured in the titular beast, with its ancient phallic connotation (evoked also by Andrew Lytle in The Velvet Horn), and the writhings of Jo Lon to escape himself through those characteristic Crews’ channels, sex and violence—including violent sex. Spirit, save in the form of bootleg whiskey, is not much in evidence here, and aside from the rattlesnake hunt, the chief event around which the story is organized is a dogfight, in which the bloody struggles between the animals and occasional impromptu matches between the spectators are thoroughly (and purposefully) confused. Jo Lon, like the caged pit bulls, is a hopeless, doomed case, a trapped and savage satyr, whose final release comes when, in a fit of mad rage, he empties a shotgun into a crowd of snake hunters, who in turn fall on him in a howling vengeful mass of open mouths and bared teeth.

* “A Southern Miss America admits “The South . . . [does] well in Mm America for one reason: we don’t have many metropolitan areas. We have all those little towns and cities and Jaycees that don’t have anything better to do than run beauty pageants. It’s not the Southern girls, it’s the country girls. “” Frank Deford, There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss American (New York, 1971), p. 82


It is difficult to reconcile this horrific vision of Southern life with Crews’ autobiographical version, in which the main stress evokes James Agee in its optimistic presentation of Southern tenant-farmer life, with its rural even Georgic rounds. Such a life, in Crews’ account, is not without its grotesqueries and violence, and his childhood was one of crippling illnesses and accidents, of grinding poverty and memories of a drunken, abusive stepfather. (At times the book seems to be Mark Twain’s Autobiography as written by a literate Huck Finn—which in a sense it was. ) But the main figure in the field is Crews’ mother, a strong-willed if dirty-mouthed farmwife, who looms likewise in the background of a number of his novels, ruling over her fatherless children with a strong but loving hand. Once again, she most properly belongs to that “famous” breed of impoverished tenant farmers of which Agee once sang, not to the exotic South of Faulkner or Caldwell. Typically, in Feast of Snakes Crews transfers a number of his mother’s qualities to Big Joe Mackey, the father figure, nor are there present many strong mother figures in his novels. Women in general are treated by Crews as sexual objects—as in Feast of Snakes a kind of life-size Barbie Doll with openings—or else are repugnant and asexual, like Jo Lon’s sister, Beeder.

We can, that is to say, detect a characteristic disjunctiveness between the facts of Crews’ rural boyhood and his use of those facts in his fiction, a version of the cultural schizophrenia that often takes place in the Southern novel, being a surrealistic and satirical equivalent to the Gothicising of Mississippi in Faulkner’s fictive world. That Crews would look to Nathanael West as a model, filling out Caldwell’s world of sexually obsessed grotesques with an apocalytic mob, is, as I have said, part of what can be called the Hollywoodization of the South, a literary equivalent to the introduction of superhighways and fast-food restaurants in the Southern landscape. But it also serves to emphasize what amount to definitive differences between the apocalyptic visions of West and Crews: where California and Georgia may both serve as mystical, horrific terrain, there is notably no nativist element in West’s landscape, for all his characters are aliens and exiles of a sort. To pervert an old saying, you can take the good ol’ boy out of the country, but you can never remove the apostrophe. The fictive world of Nathanael West is keyed by his chosen pen name, dropping his Jewish identity for one aligned to the dominant direction of American culture, which, with a concomitant obsession with the central Christian mystery, results in a personal deracination matching the rootless world of California. Crews, while using a number of West’s satiric and surreal formulas, while abandoning for a time his own rural backgrounds for a Southern version of Los Angeles, never quite succeeds in ridding himself of the soil on his motorcyclist’s boots, and in Feast of Snakes we find him back home again—back, that is to say, in Erskine Caldwell’s Georgia.

I have up until now purposefully avoided more than a scant mention of Flannery O’Connor, another Georgian whose early works were powerfully influenced by Nathanael West, nor do I want to engage in a lengthy comparison between her novels and stories and those of Harry Crews. Yet it seems worthwhile to note that both share a strong element of religiosity in common with West, an element which is more clearly (even conventionally) Christian in the work of West and O’Connor, much less so in Crews. O’Connor, a Catholic writer working in a deeply sectarian Prostestant South, introduces a characteristic note of grace among her grotesques, a metaphorical beam of light that irradiates otherwise twisted, hopeless lives. West likewise allows his characters some kind of transfiguring, Christlike passion. But Crews is an artistic Antaeus, being entirely pagan and earthbound, for whom the religious experience is never transcendent, always tied to violent exercise, being a version of heightened fury not bliss: much blood is in evidence, none of it wise, the violent always bear it away, and good men are very hard to find. If Crews is an important contemporary writer, and I think he is, he serves to remind us that the old outrage sleeps on under the chrome-plated New South, deeply rooted as ever in defeat and frustration, a kind of red-clay kraken that may yet rise again.


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