Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Feast of Snakes

Flannery O'Connor famously said that "Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic."

A Feast of Snakes (1976) by the late Harry Crews (1935-2012) is truly a grotesque novel.  However, it is rooted in reality.  And some of the more grotesque elements of this novel are the most realistic.  A Feast of Snakes is a sordid little tale about a former high school football star who, because of his lack of academic ability, is trapped in a nowhere life in a nowhere town in South Georgia.

Harry Crews (1935-2012)

I have known a lot of people who are not far removed from Crews grotesque caricatures.  Without frugal working class parents who sacrificed to give me a college education, I would probably have been one of Crews' southern caricatures.  As a practicing lawyer in Southwest Georgia for over two decades I have met many people who resemble the characters who populate Crews' fictional Mystic, Georgia.

A Feast of Snakes is the story of Joe Lon Mackey, former star of the Mystic High School football team, The Rattlers.   As the head Rattler Joe Lon gets to date the head cheerleader, Beredine.  Beredine is the daughter of the local doctor.  Joe Lon is the son of the local bootlegger.    At the end of high school, Beredine goes off to college at the University of Georgia, while Joe Lon is trapped selling bootleg whiskey for his daddy.

After Beredine leaves Mystic for college, Joe Lon gets a girl, Elfie, pregnant.  Now he lives in a mobile home with Elfie and their two infant sons.  Elfie is losing her teeth and her looks have been ruined by repeated pregnancies.  Joe Lon's daddy is not only the local bootlegger but also raises pit bulls to fight.  Joe Lon's sister went crazy after discovering her mother's suicide and now sits in bed all day and watches television.

And that's just Joe Lon's messed up family.  The local sheriff, who lost a leg in Vietnam, arrests black girls for the sole purpose of getting them in jail to have sex with them.  As a matter of fact, the black characters in A Feast of Snakes seem to be the most sane.  Although one of the Sheriff's victims will suffer from a mental illness brought on by the trauma of being raped and will gain sweet revenge.

The backdrop of the novel is the traditional rattlesnake roundup which has become a large regional tourist attraction.  In traditional agricultural communities in South Georgia, the community would get together in the fall and winter and try to eradicate poisonous snakes to avoid attacks on people and live stock in the summer.  As a matter of fact, I live about 20 miles from a town that has a yearly rattlesnake roundup which has become a tourist attraction.  It may be the inspiration for Crews' novel.

Other reviewers of  A Feast of Snakes have seen it as some sort of tale of redemption.  I don't see any redemption in this at all.  It appears to me to be coming from a totally nihilistic world view.  Although it has some comic elements to it,  I found A Feast of Snakes to be very dark material.

To wrap up, I don't think I can summarize A Feast of Snakes any better than Professor James C. Cobb's description in his fine book Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (2005):  In his fiction Crews presented a southern poor-white netherworld inhabited by characters whose desperation, depravity, and grotesqueness went well beyond anything Erkine Caldwell had dared to offer.  Crews's    A Feast of Snakes emphasized the widening chasm between the caricatured, commodified representations of regional culture currently in fashion among upwardly mobile white southerners and the grim realities of life facing those for whom upward mobility did not exist.  The novel is set in "Mystic," a small South Georgia town whose traditional rattlesnake roundup has exploded into a major tourist attraction.  The protagonist, Joe Lon Mackey, is a former high school football star who was considerably more adept on the gridiron than in the classroom.  Unable to pursue collegiate stardom, he descends into a miserable, hopeless existence, drinking incessantly and living in a mobile home with two smelly kids and a pitiful, long-suffering wife with rotten teeth.  Joe Lon finally erupts in a murderous shooting spree and is thrown by an angry mob into a pit of writhing reptiles, rising to his feet for the final time with snakes hanging from his face."

Although I don't really recommend it, A Feast of Snakes is worth reading for the warped "Southern Gothic" atmosphere.  If you are depressed this is not the novel to read because nobody in Harry Crews' South lives happily ever after.

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