by Harry Crews
Simon & Schuster
The fact Harry Crews, at 61 years of age, continues to write this powerfully simply boggles the mind. Reading Celebration, his twentieth novel, you’d hardly guess it’s been three decades since this unlikeliest of authors crawled out from the swamps of Bacon County, GA, and into the putrid, hidden cesspools of our psyches. Best likened to a white-trash Hemmingway with a particularly black sense of humor, Crews has spent those 30 years writing harsh yet sympathetic tales of freaks and outcasts who’ve run out of options in a shitty, skewed world. Critics may lump him in with the Southern writers’ fraternity, but Pat Conroy he sure as hell ain’t.
I wouldn’t go so far as to declare Celebration Crews’ best work ever (that distinction’s probably reserved for The Knockout Artist or Body), but it’s definitely a strong addition to his resume. This time around, Crews’ setting is a Florida retirement home/trailer park called Forever and Ever. The owner of this particular park is Stump, a South Georgia cracker who survived a disillusioning stint in the Korean War, only to lose a hand in a farm machinery accident upon his return (hence the name). Subsequently abandoned by his wife, Stump used his settlement from the accident to buy Forever and Ever – unable to make any sense out of life, he’s content to surround himself with those whose lives are basically over.
However, this utopia of death gets a major jolt, courtesy of an 18-year-old dicktease known only as Too Much. Seemingly appearing out of nowhere, she shacks up with Stump, bringing him untold pleasure by transforming his nub into the ultimate sex toy. We soon learn that bringing joy and celebration to people who need it is Too Much’s self-proclaimed calling in life, and she wastes no time breathing life back into the residents of Forever and Ever – usually through some exploitation of her sexuality.
For Crews, who recently ended his long teaching career at the University of Florida, this subject matter no doubt hits close to home. But lest you fear he’s peddling some uplifting, “seize-the-day” pabulum, take heart – he hasn’t written a moderately-straightforward novel since Scar Lover, and that book featured Rastafarian communes in Jacksonville, for chrissakes. Someone – either the author himself or a reviewer, I don’t remember – once likened Crews’ storylines to a motel room. Everything appears to be on the up-and-up, so long as you don’t look too closely; if you do, then you deserve whatever happens. While Celebration doesn’t bask in the Orwellian craziness of Crews’ last book, The Mulching of America, there’s certainly creepy undertones to be found.
Specifically, as the plot progresses, Too Much’s motives start looking far more warped than humanitarian. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say she gets, er, unpleasant whenever people prove resistant to her plans. The zeal with which Too Much reforms Forever and Ever’s sorry state of affairs has two consequences. For one, it makes the residents increasingly zombie-like in their adoration of her. For another, it puts her on a collision course with Stump, who, despite his appreciation of Too Much’s “circus act” with him, isn’t about to put up with re-energized old farts. As you might expect, all of this leads to one of Crews’ surreal, macabre endings. Ingenious, to say the least.
Reportedly, Crews is already nearing the completion of novel number 21. If Celebration provides any kind of indication, we have a hell of a lot left to look forward to from this immensely talented man. Myself, I can hardly wait.