Harry Crews turns 70 next week. I took a class with him long ago at the University of Florida, but didn’t read his work until the following summer. Then I polished off one novel, A Feast of Snakes, in a single sitting, and promptly went to the library to check out everything else he’d written. For some reason, I never tracked him down to tell him how much I admired some of his books.
When Newsday asked me to suggest an old favorite novel for summer reading, I picked one of Crews’. Here’s my recommendation:
[Crews] hails from what he calls the “hookworm and rickets belt” of Georgia. He writes about people from this downtrodden world in brutal, frantic and darkly comic novels that have inspired comparisons to Flannery O’Connor, but seem to be sliding out of print.
In the most entertaining of these, Body (1990), a couple of Georgians named Turnipseed descend upon Miami with their family and their daughter Dorothy’s fiance, Nail Head, to watch Dorothy compete for the Ms. Cosmos bodybuilding contest. (Folks like the Turnipseeds, incidentally, do not consider Miami Southern. It’s a little slice of the North mislaid below the Mason-Dixon Line.) Unbeknownst to her family, Dorothy has eradicated her accent and changed her name to Shereel Dupont. And from the start, we have a sense of what, beyond her name, Shereel will sacrifice to win. A pound overweight with two days to go before show time, she surrenders to her trainer when he steps out of his swim trunks, presents sex as the only weight loss option open to her, and instructs her to “think of it as another workout.”
Body is not Crews’ best book (that distinction belongs to his autobiography or to the unremittingly grim A Feast of Snakes). It leans a little too heavily on funny, peripheral stories — an obsequious hotel manager, a surreally hairy brother — that sometimes feel overplayed. But while the novel at first appears to bear the same relation to Crews’ oeuvre that Travels With My Aunt does to Graham Greene’s, it swerves at the end into a parable as tragic as any Crews’ pen can yield.
You can change your name and revamp your body, Crews seems to be telling us, but unless you deal with your needy, broken spirit, all transformation is counterfeit. And when the first stumbling block arises, you’ll find that neither your old self nor your new one is strong enough to clear it.