The Sears and Roebuck catalogue furnished Harry Crews with his first material for stories. As a child he was entranced by the models in its pages. They were all physically perfect, whereas everyone he knew in rural Georgia was maimed or scarred. "Young as I was, though," Crews writes in "A Childhood," "I had known for a long time that it was all a lie. I knew that under those fancy clothes there had to be scars, there had to be swellings and boils . . . And more than that, at some previous, unremembered moment, I had decided that all the people in the catalog were related, not necessarily blook kin, but knew one another, and because they knew one another there had to be hard feelings, trouble between them off and on, violence, and hate between them as well as love. And it was out of this knowledge that I first began to make up stories about the people I found in the book."
Crews has parlayed this unorthodox beginning into story-making virtuosity. "A Feast of Snakes," his latest novel, features as sleazy a bunch of characters and as sour a train of events as I've encountered. Yet such is his narrative verve that reading the book is an innocent pleasure. In "A Childhood" and "Blood and Grits," Crews extends his talent to nonfiction.
The former recounts the first 10 years of Crews' life, spent mostly in bleak Bacon County, Ga., near the Okefenokee Swamp, and also in Jacksonville, Fla. For Crews, they were years of illness and privation, but of fascination, too. He came to know and love animals during these years, and above all he studied his people-poor country farmers, who had to be compulsively stubborn in order to survive.
In its focus on the rural Anglo-Saxon poor, "A Childhood" brings to mind Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath." But Crews is unwilling to join Steinbeck in romanticizing his subjects. Whereas Steinbeck's Okies always are sharing and pitching in and are able to maintain a rough dignity, Crews' "grits" (his word for Southern rednecks) often are conniving and callous. The night after Crews' father died, someone stole all the meat hanging in the family storehouse. The survivors knew who did it, but suffered in silence. Crews understands and sympathizes with the thief, but does not gloss over his guilt. "It was a hard time in that land," Crews explains, "and a lot of men did things for which they were ashamed and suffered for the rest of their lives. But they did them because of hunger and sickness and because they could not bear the sorry spectacle of their children dying from lack of a doctor and their wives growing old before they were 30."
Blood and Grits" is a collection of Crews' articles, most of them reprinted from Esquire, many of them excellent. Two of the best are "Television's Junkyard Dog," about actor Robert Blake (Baretta), with whom Crews finds a moving rapport, and "A Night at a Waterfall," about a daredevil leap manque.
The collection also reveals Crews' limits. Drunken grits, tenant farmers, hunters, enormously fat women, truck drivers, and car fetishists-these are his staple characters.
Crews is well aware of the storyteller's sway over his audience and at one point even suggests that the power of narration can get out of hand. In "A Childhood" he tells of a summer job he had cleaning up a grocery store. One day, a man ran into the store, grabbed a butcher knife, and drove it into his chest. When young Crews tried to talk the man out of working the knife in deeper, he told the boy not to worry, the knife felt good. Crews understood what the man was getting at. "He had told himself a story he believed, or somebody else had told it to him, a story in which the nest thing that happened-the only thing that could happen-was the knife. It was the next thing, the right thing, the only thing, and the knife felt good. If my life to that moment had taught me nothing else, it had made me understand exactly what he meant. Talking wasn't going to do any good."
It so happens that at least one government considers Crews' storytelling too powerful: South Africa has banned "A Feast of Snakes." We know, of course, that it can't happen here-and not only because we have the First Amendment. In a society moonstruck with television, we have no cause to fear the power of printed stories.