Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review: A Feast of Snakes

In days where shootings in the workplace and casual violence in shopping malls are commonplace, the seventies look like the good old days. “A Feast of Snakes” by Harry Crews challenges that notion with a novel brimming with angst, loathing, and yes, violence. Crews takes on the myth of the all-powerful white man by showing white men who, due to poverty and geography, are denied access to that power and have few outlets to vent their frustration.

The story takes place in a small town in Georgia called Mystic over the course of a weekend featuring an annual snake hunt, the Rattlesnake Roundup. Joe Lon Mackey organizes the hunt each year, as his father (also named Joe Lon) did before him. In high school, Joe Lon played football, winning titles and leading his team. He was destined for greatness, but thwarted by poor grades from going on to play college football. He remains trapped in his small town, taking over his father’s bootleg liquor store and trapping rattle snakes. At times his dissatisfaction with his life leads him to drive to a secluded area and howl until he is hoarse.

Anger and frustration consume Joe Lon and the other men in this novel. They believe the world owes them and they intend to collect. Every scene in this book displays a need for power. Joe Lon’s father trains pitbulls for fighting and keeps his son on a tight leash. The town sheriff lost his leg in Vietnam and regains his feeling of masculinity by forcing himself upon the disenfranchised African-American women in town. Joe Lon engages in humiliating acts with his former high school girlfriend within shouting distance of his current abused wife, Elfie.

The women in “A Feast of Snakes” serve as plot devices and little else. Joe Lon’s ex-girlfriend, Berenice, illustrates life outside of Mystic. She returns from college for the Roundup with a new boyfriend. A preppy boy who, as Joe Lon says, “plays debate.” Joe Lon married Elfie when Berenice went to college, quickly impregnating her twice. Elfie pales in comparison to Berenice, and Joe Lon views her as another failure. Two other women in the book find solace in madness. The rest are mere trollops. The caricatures can be forgiven, however, as this book unapologetically concerns itself with men. The point of view rarely comes from a female character, and when it does, the woman is insane. Women viewed through the lens of these men can only be one-note.

Other authors have written about men who feel at odds with the world. Crews’ characters stand out by being poor and Southern, with very little agency outside of their small town. They feel powerless despite hearing all their lives that the world belongs t them. This attitude exists today as well. While marketing and media cater to the white male, the poor, uneducated white man feels ignored. Unable to articulate how they feel and unsure how to expend their fury, they turn to violence.

Unlike many modern uses of violence in literature, the underlying rage in the characters of “A Feast of Snakes” is palpable. We see this particularly in Joe Lon. Crews allows access to Joe Lon’s thoughts as he makes decisions. We see his angst over the way he treats his wife and his attempts to curb his abusive behavior. Crews pulls off the difficult feat of making an abusive man a sympathetic character. Joe Lon’s character has been crafted so the reader understands the emotion behind his extreme act of violence at the crescendo.

We also see how violence begets violence. Joe Lon’s dad abused his wife, and now Joe Lon abuses his. The sheriff rapes a woman, threatening her with a rattlesnake, and reaches a grim demise. The men in this book feel entitled because they have always been allowed to do whatever they like, without consequence, until they leave the confines of their provincial Southern town.

When Harry Crews passed away on March 28th, many of his books were out of print and difficult to find. With his passing, his books have re-entered the public consciousness. Crews gave voice to the people he grew up with and knew the best. He allowed people to understand the particular mindset of men who have been told the world belongs to them, only to be rebuffed each time they try to collect. In Crews’ oeuvre, “A Feast of Snakes” stands out as a glimpse into the inner workings of the “ignorant redneck.” As long as the myth of the all powerful white man continues, “A Feast of Snakes” will resonate.

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