Book shelves series #23, twenty-third Sunday of 2012
Okay. So, a bit later than usual getting this in. It’s the daughter’s birthday and I’m recovering from a Saturday party and I’ve been out in the garden other day and some other excuses.
Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, Harry Crews, Flannery O’Connor—and then some books that seem misshelved. Calvino used to hang out with Umberto Eco but that shelf got too crowded. The John Barth should be with the other John Barth books, but they’re all mass market paperbacks in shabby condition.
I like the cover of the Breece D’J Pancake collection:
Lydia Cabrera’s Afro-Cuban Tales is this secret awesome book that almost no one has read. It was one of the first books I reviewed on this blog and the review is so woefully short that I’ll just cut and paste it below:
In a sublime synthesis of traditional folklore and imagistic surrealism, Lydia Cabrera’s Afro-Cuban Tales questions the normative spaces occupied by bodies. Deriving from animist tradition, her characters exist in an impossible multiplicity of spaces, being at once animals and plants, humans and gods. Cabrera’s characters endure trials of biological identity and social co-existence, and through these problems they internalize authority, evince taboos, and create a social code. Cabrera’s trickster characters provoke, challenge, or otherwise disrupt the symbolic order of this code. In “Bregantino Bregantín,” a story that recalls Freud’s primal horde theory, as well as the work of more contemporary theorists such as Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler, narcissist Bull kills all the males of his kingdom and takes all the women for himself. The sadistic titular turtle of “Papa Turtle and Papa Tiger” uses the power of his dead friend’s antlers to shame, torment, and torture the other animals of his community. And in the magical realism of “Los Compadres,” Capinche seeks to put the horns on his best friend Evaristo by sleeping with his wife–a transgression that ends in necrophilia. This union of sex and death, creation and destruction is the norm in Cabrera’s green and fecund world; the trickster’s displacements of order invariably result in reanimation, transformation, and regeneration—the drawing, stepping-over, and re-drawing of boundaries.
I picked up Harry Crews’s novel The Knockout Artist, which I hadn’t read, after his recent death. I was not the only person to pick up Crews books: the Crews section of my favorite used bookstore, once swollen is now depleted (the omnibus and collections all snapped up).
William Gaddis’s last novel Agapē Agape was my occasion (as if I needed one) for visiting said store; I ordered it after finishing The Recognitions. I managed to bend the cover badly in the first five minutes of ownership. I started it over the weekend and then got distracted by a friend calling me to meet at a bar. I started it again last night and got about a third of the way in. Full review on the horizon.
I have no idea why I picked up Lish’s novel other than the fact that Lish is awesome; it’s a first edition paperback and the cover is awesome. Maybe that’s why. I have no idea when I’ll get around to reading it. Compulsive behaviors.
The Mutis novel, or collection of novellas, is half of the book that Dave Cianci aka Noquar reviewed on this blog a few months ago. I wanted the full version, which collects six novellas, but I’ll settle for this (it’s used; I have store credit, etc.). Anyway, Noquar’s review made me want to read it, so I’ve slated it for summer reading (May?).
NPR’s Fresh Air will rebroadcast a 1988 interview with Harry Crews and a 2003 interview with Earl Scruggs today. If you can’t listen live, check out the podcasts (Crews podcast; Scruggs podcast), or download the NPR smartphone app.
From the Crews interview:
I wrote four novels and short stories before I even published anything, and the reason I didn’t publish any of those things was because it wasn’t any good, and the reason it wasn’t any good was because I was trying to write about a world I did not know . . . One night it occurred to me that whatever strength I had was all back in there in Bacon County, Ga., with all that sickness and hookworm and rickets and ignorance and beauty and loveliness. But that’s where it was. It wasn’t somewhere else.
(Thanks to the readers who wrote in about these shows).
A passage from Harry Crews’s novel A Feast of Snakes:
When they got to his purple double-wide, Joe Lon skinned snakes in a frenzy. He picked up the snakes by the tails as he dipped them out of the metal drums and swung them around and around his head and then popped them like a cowwhip, which caused their heads to explode. Then he nailed them up on a board in the pen and skinned them out with a pair of wire pliers. Elfie was standing in the door of the trailer behind them with a baby on her hip. Full of beer and fascinated with what Joe Lon could feel—or thought he could—the weight of her gaze on his back while he popped and skinned the snakes. He finally turned and looked at her, pulling his lips back from his teeth in a smile that only shamed him.
He called across the yard to her. “Thought we’d cook up some snake and stuff, darlin, have ourselves a feast.”
Her face brightened in the door and she said: “Course we can, Joe Lon, honey.”
Elfie brought him a pan and Joe Lon cut the snakes into half-inch steaks. Duffy turned to Elfie and said: “My name is Duffy Deeter and this is something fine. Want to tell me how you cook up snakes?”
Elfie smiled, trying not to show her teeth. “It’s lots of ways. Way I do mostly is I soak’m in vinegar about ten minutes, drain’m off good, and sprinkle me a little Looseanner redhot on’m, roll’m in flour, and fry’m is the way I mostly do.”
Harry Crews died today at 76 in Gainesville, FL, where he lived and worked for years.
This isn’t an obituary—I’m sure you can find them elsewhere (I haven’t looked yet, but they’ll be out there)—it’s more a riff about me than Crews. Solipsistic, narcissistic, sure. Let’s say I feel a sense of unearned pride for the man, a geographical kinship, as if some of his bloody bravura might splatter on me, anoint me, confer on me a glimpse of his strange powers. (And although I would feel this way in any case, I’ll point out that Crews and I shared the same birthday). Maybe I should wait to write, put together a detailed overview of his work, delineate a chronological progression of his life and work . . . But it’s a warm spring day in Florida, I’m three beers down, a small buzz behind my eyes, the whir of the cheap electric fans on my backporch goading me into dim golden memory . . .
I graduated high school in 1997 and went to the University of Florida in Gainesville that fall—just in time to learn that Crews had retired his position in the Creative Writing department (he was also a graduate of the university) that spring. It was disappointing for me.
I’d read a few of Crews’s blistering, blustering novels, dark comic rants about the dirty malfeasance backwood Cracker folk get into after dark, and he’d come to occupy a fabled place in my impressionable mind—a Southern answer to the Bukowski and Henry Miller books I devoured in kind.
I was 18 and dramatically naïve. I honestly thought that I was going to write a Really Great Novel, and I honestly thought that Crews was going to teach me how. In that first semester of college, the poor underpaid graduate student who led the Creative Writing class I took—a class that all but killed a desire to write creatively for years (I write “all but” because I took a second fiction writing class that was the metaphorical nail in the coffin) informed me that Crews was no longer writer-in-residence (!), that some guy named Padgett Powell had taken up that mantle. This news dispirited me, took some of the wind out of my romantic illusions (without, y’know, properly killing them off). Maybe I’d have stuck it through the program if I thought it might end in a seminar with Crews, it’s hard to say. (I’ll also point out that it took me years to give Padgett Powell a fair read).
I won’t pretend to be sad at the death of Harry Crews: 76 is pretty old if you drank and fought and lived like that man did, and he’s already given more literature to the world than most of us could ever hope to. I was more sad at 18 to learn that I wouldn’t learn from him (not realizing at that age that reading is a way of learning). These statements seem in bad taste as I write them, but I assure you they’re not. You’re being too sensitive. But I do want to connote some reverence for the man, for his work at least, for his tales of rage and poverty, for the truth he sussed out of the swampy south.
Here’s a shift: Barry Hannah, another Southern boy whose work I’ve come to love, was not on my radar until his death in 2010. This isn’t to say I wouldn’t have found his stuff if he hadn’t died then, but I think that we all know what I’m pointing to here, the grand appraisals and reappraisals that we focus on our late writers, whose deaths might entail a second life, a life again in new readers. And Crews deserves readers: His writing is raw and jagged and ugly. It’s hard to imagine someone producing something like A Feast of Snakes or The Gypsy’s Curse today—I mean it would just be too politically incorrect I suppose. Crews is the kind of cult writer whose cult will likely grow a little now, after his death.
Starting places: The anthology Classic Crews collects Crews’s memoir Childhood, the novels Car and The Gypsy’s Curse, as well as some essays. There’s also Florida Frenzy, an essay collection larded with sex and violence and animals. You can’t go wrong with his novel A Feast of Snakes. Well, maybe you can. It’s actually entirely possible that Crews isn’t for your faint heart or delicate sensibilities—and that’s fine. But for those intrigued, come and get the grit.