Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Roundhouse: Reading Harry Crews

I was sure I had Harry Crews pegged. A friend of a friend mentioned the author at a party a few weeks ago. I can't remember whether the term "hard-boiled" was used, but "Southern" definitely was, and Flannery O'Connor was invoked as a comparison. I said that I had never heard of Crews (when I heard the name spoken, I thought "Cruise"). The friend of a friend, the host of the party in question, surprised me by walking over to his bookshelf, picking out a Crews book—Body, from 1992—and handing it to me. "Here," he said. "Take this. Maybe someday you'll give me a book, or maybe you'll give someone else a book."

I was struck by the gesture. More people should gift books to near-strangers instead of hoarding them. Paradoxically I may have also felt slightly put-upon. Back in 2006, I wrote on DFSBP about the burden of book recommendations, and especially book gifts. My reading time is very limited—usually the combined length of my morning and evening subway commutes—and therefore, I choose my books carefully. Naturally, I trust my own instincts re: what I feel like reading much more than those of others. That's not to say I don't check out books that are recommended to me; I just like to approach them at my own pace. When someone says, "Here, take this," I usually feel a sense of obligation that I could do without.

I was charmed by the gesture, though, and I took the Crews home. It was a slim book, and after a few pages, I felt like I'd apprehended what it was. I'd been reading something heavy (Cormac McCarthy, my default novelist), and I liked that the Crews was brisk and funny: a broadly satirical story about a bodybuilding competition, featuring all kinds of what reviewers like to refer to as "colorful" characters.

I liked also that the author himself seemed to be a character. In his promo photo, Crews wore a tough expression and a mohawk. Googling around, I found that he was the son of a poor sharecropper and that he was given to hardline pronouncements. This YouTube interview with Crews fascinated me on a macho level. "The writer's job is to get naked," says Crews. "To hide nothing. To not look away from anything. To look at it. To not blink. To not be embarrassed by it, or ashamed of it. Strip it down, and let's get down to where the blood is, the bone is, instead of hiding it in clothes and all kinds of other stuff."

I found it funny that when I mentioned Crews in an e-mail to a friend of my mom's who teaches English in a North Carolina high school, she described him thusly: "Harry Crews is one of those Hemingway-esque guys, a little cruder, perhaps, whom other dudes really like." This seemed like a very apt description for the attraction I felt toward Crews. I tend to enjoy authors whom dudes really like—Faulkner, McCarthy—and Crews seemed simply like a more modern and easily caricatured version of the ones I was used to. At first, the prose conformed exactly to my image of the man, and I enjoyed that shallowness, for lack of a better word—the 25-words-or-less-ness of it, the way that I knew exactly what to say if a friend asked me about what I was reading. Not like when you're reading a novel, and you feel like you're racing to catch up with the author's intellect. But when you feel of a book that you "get it" immediately as its begun. It's the kind of smugness one who's accustomed to "literary" novels might (wrongly) feel reading, say, Stephen King. "Oh, I know what this is." It's like saying you want to take a break from thinking too hard.

As I moved through Body, I slowly realized that I got it less and less. Not to say that I had trouble understanding the plot or anything, but it became clear to me that I had vastly underestimated the emotional and intellectual heft of this book. At some point in the narrative, these caricatures had become full-blown characters, and devastating ones at that.

The book focuses on a champion female bodybuilder, Shereel Dupont, who is days away from winning the sport's ultimate title, Ms. Cosmos. Dupont seems like a shoo-in, until her estranged family shows up and breaks her crucial concentration. The book is basically the story of her regaining her composure in the frantic day or so before the competition.

On one level, the book is a cartoonish satire about a culture—bodybuilding—that couldn't be an easier target. Crews really gets off on the grotesqueness of the sport, the way its version of ultimate fitness is so often a thinly veiled version of great mental and physical malady, the way its focus on pumping one's self up often gives way to a rapacious sexual arrogance (see Arnold Schwarzenegger's classic "I'm coming day and night" rant).

But Crews doesn't just sketch his characters and walk away. He lives with them and forces you to do the same, way past the point where you can comfortably dismiss them as caricatures. It's as though one minute you're sitting with a bunch of other nerdy intellectuals, mocking bodybuilders on TV, and the next, you're backstage with them, uncomfortably close to all the sights and smells.

And it's not only the physical sensations. In its darkest moments, this book is coal-black. Crews delivers on his spiel above re: not blinking. His real subject here is the strange duality involved in TRAINING, in disciplining and denying one's self in order to achieve a goal that one has led one's self to believe means everything, and in doing so to a maniacal extreme. He's interested in the cost of that, how that mechanism betters people on one level, even as it chews them up and spits them out on another, turns them into unfeeling husks or crazed sociopaths. As you might guess from the book's title, Crews is also interested in the human body and its endless, impossible hungers. "It seemed a body could never be satisfied in this sorry world," muses one character.

To use the book's own analogy, it's like Crews starts with caricatures and buffs them up until they snap into vivid three-dimensionality. I realized what was going on as I was reading, but the bait-and-switch didn't become fully clear to me till I reached the last page. I won't get into what happens, but I will say that when I closed the book, I felt like I'd been punched in the heart.

"Hard-boiled," "Southern," writer "whom other dudes really like." Crews is all of these things. And I don't resent the shorthand either. We all use it. How else could we talk about things with each other? But what a wonderful thing to realize how completely you've underestimated an artist's power, when you think you've sized up their moves and then out of nowhere, they deliver a blinding roundhouse to your jaw.

More than anything, reading Body reminded me of an elementary lesson re: novels, which is that they ask a lot. You can't just dip your toe in; you have to go swimming, let yourself believe. (Otherwise, you're doomed to a lifetime of "getting it" without ever really feeling it or understanding what "it" is.) In the best cases, long after you're lulled into false security/cockiness, a slow-moving Great White bursts through the school of minnows and gobbles you right up.

1 comment:

Phil Freeman said...

I haven't read Crews in quite a few years, but his novel "A Feast Of Snakes" has never left me. I recommend it very, very highly.