Harry Crews has been on my radar for a long time, but for some reason I never actually took the plunge. I was shocked this was still the case when he died last year, but it still took me until this month to read one of his books. I picked this one because, honestly, it was for sale in a local bookshop when David MacLean was in town reading from The Answer to the Riddle is Me. I felt bad about the fact that I’d pre-ordered MacLean’s book from Amazon, so I spent about $80 on other books while I was there for the reading, and so Crews found his way into my bag.
I can’t speak to Crews’ entire output, but Feast is something I might call “Faulknerian Modern.” If you read books like As I Lay Dying, or generally other books that touch on the Snopeses, it’s hard to miss the utter disdain and disgust Faulkner holds for most of his characters. Anse Bundren is a horrible, ignorant jackass of a man; of that there can be no question. It’s impossible not to read it and see a harsh critique of the South Faulkner knew well.
When I read Faulkner, that South is, temporally at least, far from me. I don’t react viscerally to the ignorance and general embrace of brutality, because I live in a more modern world, and his people don’t. I see them as awful, but they don’t make me HATE.
With Crews, though, it’s different. He’s doing much of the same thing here in Mystic, Georgia with Feast, except it’s set in 1975, and consequently resonates a great deal more. Frankly, I hate every one of these ignorant fucks, and by the end of the book sort of wished for a massive cataclysm to wipe Mystic off the map.
I”m not sure that Crews has the same sneering contempt for his characters that we see in some of Faulkner’s work, but it seems likely. Writers, like any other kind of intellectual, are generally unwelcome in the poor, rural south, and I’m sure Crews had some of the same scars that Faulkner had. At the same time, Crews includes a single learned character — the new boyfriend of a local girl come home from the University of Georgia — and treats him just as poorly, so there’s something in the rural south’s ignorant brutality that Crews seems to think as justified, too.
All that said, the book is solid. Despite my feelings about Joe Lon Mackey himself, I followed his story with the same horrified attention you’d give a train wreck (and, in that sense, was not disappointed). He’s the sort of person we have all seen: ignorant as fuck, but a star football player in a rural high school, so worshiped as a god until he graduated. College was never going to happen, so he is stuck in his backwater shithole town forever, endlessly revisiting his past while a profoundly shitty future stretches before him. No one we encounter is any less fucked up, or any less hopeless.
Should you read it? That, I’m not sure of. It’s harsh and brutal. There is endless violence. There is a brutal dogfighting subplot, the details of which make it clear Crews has been exposed to it in some detail. There is sexual assault. My takeaway was really just to be thankful that I do not have to live in a shithole like Mystic, or be around ignorant, ruined people like Joe Lon.
So that’s something.
Update: Apparently you don’t have to go all the way to Georgia for a ridiculous snake festival.