Thursday, January 10, 2013

Reading Rainbow: A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews

There is some dark shit afoot in Harry Crews's 1976 Southern Gothic/horror novel A Feast of Snakes. Set against the harsh backdrop of the rural white-trash wasteland Mystic, Georgia as the town heads into its annual Rattlesnake Roundup, A Feast of Snakes primarily follows the troubled and psychotic protagonist Joe Lon Mackey, former High School All-American running back whose illiteracy kept him from chasing the dream of the star athlete, from following his sexpot high school sweetheart to college, and from escaping from the pit that Mystic is. Joe Lon beats his wife, sells booze illegally, helps his bastard of a father run his dog-fighting empire, and tries to stifle the rage seething within himself.

While Joe Lon is a dark and often scary character, the landscape of Mystic is littered with vividly drawn but deeply disturbed characters as they work their way through what has to be the most archaic, backwater local celebration imaginable. To get too far into describing the lay of the land, however, would be to do Crews a disservice. The world he creates is rich and fascinating and is best discovered for yourself. It should be noted, though, that A Feast of Snakes is not for those with a weak stomach.

Crews draws up the world with confidence and a natural feel for the dialectical intricacies of the region. While it certainly lends an air credibility to the proceedings, the reliance upon writing so heavily in a dialect can often work in ways equal parts complimentary and detrimental. While Crews's incorporation of the rural Southern dialect in dialogue adds an element of veracity to the novel, it also makes the book (intentional or otherwise) a much more laborious read. This is nothing new, I suppose. The same can be said for works by Joyce, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Pynchon. Some of the literary greats have employed this stylistic choice with varying degrees of success*, but it is not an unreasonable assertion to state that such a choice has its costs.

*I would argue that it is mostly distracting and ineffective in Mason & Dixon and For Whom The Bell Tolls at the very least. I'll refrain from bitching about James Joyce for the time being.

Crews's choices make for some uncomfortable reading, as a result of both subject matter and style. I feel it is my duty to reiterate that there is some dark shit within these pages. A Feast of Snakes is a fairly engaging read, but be prepared to read a book in which you may not empathize with any character.

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