Saturday, December 1, 2012

Review: The Gypsy's Curse

Harry Crews is known for unusual characters, graphic violence and poor depictions of women, all of which appear in spades in The Gypsy's Curse. Also like the rest of Crews' work, the novel has heart. The characters are so grotesque as to be near caricature, but Crews avoids this by making them equally sympathetic, even when they're being mean.
The protagonist, Marvin Molar, has severely deformed legs and is a deaf/mute. Abandoned at a gym by his family when he is a toddler, he spends his life devoted to body building and gymnastics, earning his living performing balancing acts for events. Despite what could be viewed as major deficiencies, Marvin takes care of himself, second in command to the owner of the gym, Al Molarski. Two former boxers round out the ragtag team, both having suffered some brain damage in the ring. Marvin also has a girlfriend, Hester, who knows sign language owing to her deaf parents.
With a cast of characters like that it would be hard to write a book that wasn't interesting, but instead of simply rubbernecking and trying to shock, the core of the story is Marvin's feelings of abandonment and inadequacy. Written as a first person narrative, we are privy to Marvin's thoughts. He often refers to himself as "amazing" and "beautiful," but his insecurity in his relationship with Hester and his frequent thoughts about his parents belie those assertions. Marvin knows his strength, and concentrates on his body and skills rather than looking inside and confronting his fears. His life has been fine lived in this way until Hester decides she wants more.
When Hester ingratiates herself into the gym and becomes friendly with the rest of Marvin's team, Marvin is forced to confront the humanity in the people he has been sharing with since boyhood, and to consider the lives of people other than himself. He also begins to see Hester's parents in a different light, which gives him a chilling understanding of Hester. As most women in Harry Crews' novels are portrayed, Hester is manipulative and ruthless. Most of Marvin's insecurity in the relationship stems from Hester's great beauty and physique. Her ex-boyfriend appears in the book as well as an ordinary jackass, but Hester uses him to ratchet up the tension in the gym and in Marvin's mind.
In typical Crews fashion, violence features heavily in the narrative. Both in instances in the past (Al Molar used to perform acts of strength, which ended when a car accidentally ran over his head), and in the present. Crews uses violence to illustrate the difficult lives of the hopeless, the helpless, the freak. In The Gypsy's Curse, characters use or are subjected to violence largely because they have so much rage inside, they don't know how else to express themselves. At other times, as in the case of the boxers, one only knows how to follow orders and the other, after years of head trauma, repeats an endless loop of coaching. The two put into the ring together create one of the most dramatic scenes in the novel.
As situations continue to build to a head, the ending reaches a pitch where anything but an extreme act would be unexpected. It does seem at times that Crews is unable to write an ending that doesn't include graphic violence, but to be fair, the worlds he creates are not in any way the world in which most readers live. People exist in the world who see no other option besides murder and mayhem, and these are the people Crews has decided to illuminate. He gives reasons for the actions, which is more than we usually get in real life. Having finished this novel, the sadness of Crews' passing returns. A champion of the misfit, there is no one else quite like him.