BODY

By Harry Crews

Poseidon. 240 pp. $18.95

HERE WE find the prodigiously gifted Harry Crews back in the territory he finds most congenial, or at least most fruitful artistically: the world of the misbegotten, the freaks and misfits and malcontents in whose strange doings Crews is able to locate a genuine if quirky humanity. Himself a native of south Georgia and a resident of north Florida, Crews has always set his stories in the "new" South, sometimes in its glossy suburbs and shopping malls but more often in odder places where the conflict between old and new becomes heightened, even grotesque.

In Body the place is the Blue Flamingo Hotel in Miami Beach, where a pride of bodybuilders has assembled for the Ms. and Mr. Cosmos contest: the World Series of bodybuilding. Here they all are: "enormously muscled men, their bodies veined and hairless -- and women without body fat, their skin diaphanous, their movements languid and deliberate, abdominal walls ridged with rows of muscle so sharply defined as to seem unreal, the mad imaginings of a mad artist."

Among these women the favorite for the championship is Shereel Dupont. She's a country girl in a grotesque's body. Born Dorothy Turnipseed, "she knew she didn't want to be just another Turnipseed in south Georgia," so she found her way across the border to Jacksonville and into the tutelage of Russell Morgan, trainer of bodybuilders, Henry Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle. He gave her a new name and more: "He'd made her somebody, made her hear thundering applause and shouts of approval, even love. He'd given her a cause in the world, a cause such as she had not known existed for anybody. And for that, she had done everything he had asked of her."

The cause is the Ms. Cosmos title; the sacrifice it demands is her total acquiesence in the brutal regimen of self-denial and physical exertion required to turn her body into the unintentional parody of perfection that is the bodybuilder's dream. At times it's required every ounce of dedication she can muster -- at times the thirst for an extra ounce of water just about breaks her resolve -- but she's persevered and now here she is, owner of "the finest body in the world," standing right on the verge of the championship that just about everyone expects her to win.

Then a funny thing happens -- and in Crews's hands, it's nothing if not funny. In this hour of her glory Shereel Dupont, creature of this brave new world of bodybuilding, is forcibly reminded of her hayseed past. Into the Blue Flamingo marches a phalanx of Turnipseeds -- her mother and father, her two brothers and sister, her once and perhaps future fiance -- ostensibly to cheer her on but actually, if unwittingly, to get in the way:

"She loved her family, all of them, dearly. But she did not need this, she told herself. She wished with all her heart they had not come, and she had done everything possible to stop them, to head them off, short of telling them straight out that they could not come. And of course that was impossible. They were, after all, blood. But now, right when she desperately needed all the concentration and focus of will she could find, she had this to deal with. This distraction. This blood. These Turnipseeds."

Indeed. These Turnipseeds are an odd and bumptious lot. Mama and Daddy are fairly normal, at least as country grotesques go, and the two boys -- Turner and Motor -- probably wouldn't arouse much notice in a mesomorphs' convention, but then there's their sister, Earline, 300 pounds of love just waiting for a lover, and Nail Head, Shereel's erstwhile fiance, a homicidal ex-Marine "whose skin was filled with sinking ships and bloody-taloned jaguars and many bold, multicolored legends that said things like DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR and LOVE SOMETHING/TURN IT LOOSE/IF IT LOVES YOU/IT WILL COME BACK/IF IT DOESN'T COME BACK/HUNT IT DOWN AND KILL IT, and a perforated line in the shape of a heart in the center of his chest, with the line about it reading CUT HERE and the line under it reading IF YOU CAN, and many other wondrous designs including Mount Everest with the Marine Corps emblem balanced atop it."

Nail's "really a nice guy, a sweet guy," Shereel says, but try telling that to Russell Morgan or to the management of the Blue Flamingo, which regards Nail and all the Turnipseeds with abject horror. The bodybuilders want their pageant to proceed with all due, if bizarre, solemnity, but the Turnipseeds bring into the proceedings a discombobulating element of the outside world, strange in its own way but real in ways the Cosmos contest and its participants can never hope to be. The result of the clash of Turnipseeds and bodybuilders is that "this entire hotel was rotten with weirdness, a raging epidemic of behavior that was not acceptable, that was without discipline." IN TIME Crews brings all this madness to its conclusion, the flex-off between Shereel and her chief rival, Marvella, "five feet ten inches tall, a hundred and fifty-five pounds of rock-solid muscle cut to ribbons and perfectly symmetrical," a black woman out of Detroit whose trainer has dreams of a bodybuilding dynasty. But en route to that confrontation there's various business to be done, not the least of it the romance between the elephantine Earline and a bodybuilder named Billy Bat whose "deepest, fondest wish" is to flee his training regimen and "to be drowning in a lapping sea of fat just as this Earline was."

How it all ends is a long way from pretty; the only characters Crews lets off the hook are Earline and Billy, whose love transcends the peculiarities of their bodies. Grotesque is in the eye of the beholder, Crews says here, as he has in many of his previous books. But he also has things to say about patience and perseverance, strength and discipline, qualities that distinguish both Shereel and Marvella, as well as about the obsessive will to win that can exalt and destroy. Like virtually all of Crews's work, Body is raunchy and perverse and wildly funny; but don't let its craziness mislead you, for Crews is less a comedian than a dark chronicler of human vanity and folly, and in Body he's close to his mordant best.