CURVE YOUR ENTHUSIASM (20)

By: Brian Berger
August 28, 2023

One in a series of 25 enthusiastic posts, contributed by 25 HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of reconsidered passions, reassessed hates, and reversed feelings everywhere in-between. Series edited by Adam McGovern.

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HARRY CREWS CURVED

“Well, you ready to fuck?”

So asks MaryBell Carter of the eponymous title character of Harry Crews’ extraordinary debut novel, The Gospel Singer. The couple, childhood sweethearts now in their early twenties, are seated in his Cadillac, parked in the piney woods outside of their hometown of Enigma, Georgia. Though it was he who — to his own astonishment — had first “saved,” and later encouraged the virtuous MaryBell to speak this way, the Gospel Singer, startled, answers, “What?” Pulling up her dress, MaryBell exposes herself to him. “There it is… You brought it out here to fuck so fuck it.” “For heaven’s sake,” replies the Gospel Singer. “Put down your dress, what ails you?”

I did not read those words when The Gospel Singer was published by William Morrow & Company in February 1968. Those who did were duly impressed and a year later, a paperback was issued. “A Torrid Novel” promised the pulpishly illustrated front cover featuring a muscular, bare-chested man and two lithe, sultry women — all of them white, obscuring the very mixed-race reality of the town inside the actual book. “Sex and Salvation” teased the rear cover, its additional jacket copy omitting any mention of murder, mania, mothers, manipulations, a traveling freak show, the power of mass media, or the distance between nationwide fame and small-town family, including the Gospel Singer’s younger brother and sister, Mirst and Avel, an irrepressibly aspiring rock and roll duo (“Shake that thing!”). Sex sells, one hopes, while a simultaneously contemplative, terrifying and hilarious lynching novel set in barely post-Jim Crow south Georgia — which is what The Gospel Singer also is — well, who’d buy that from a bus-station or drug store spinner rack?

“With his second — and second brilliant — novel [Naked in Garden Hills],” wrote Guy Davenport in the April 1969 issue of LIFE magazine, “Harry Crews, a 33-year-old motorcyclist and teacher of English at the University of Florida, has established a new roost for The Eumenides in the pine savannas and phosphate moonscapes somewhere between Orlando and Tampa.” Despite such praise, there was no Naked paperback and Crews’ third novel, the again Georgia-set This Thing Don’t Lead to Heaven, suffered a similar fate. Five more novels and a memoir, A Childhood — all brilliant — followed through 1978, after which Crews’ increasing self-abuse quieted his fictional muse.

I discovered Crews in the late 1980s, his comeback years: All We Need of Hell and The Knockout Artist, dark, funny novels I enjoyed without being consumed by them. I didn’t realize that The Gospel Singer, long out of print, had returned to paperback in 1988, and that, had I read it, Crews would immediately have leapt into my gropingly assembled canon of things I wasn’t being taught in school: Hubert Selby Jr.; Charles Willeford; Jim Thompson; William S. Burroughs; Philip K. Dick; Nick Tosches’ Hellfire.

While I value these writers highly still, I’d posit The Gospel Singer a bit differently, placing it among the best of Flannery O’Connor, Bernard Malamud and Ishmael Reed. It’s that great and my god — Harry Crews, you’ve got to read it all.

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CURVE YOUR ENTHUSIASM: INTRODUCTION by Adam McGovern | Tom Nealon on PIZZA PURISM | Holly Interlandi on BOY BANDS | Heather Quinlan on THE ’86 METS | Whitney Matheson on THE SMITHS | Bishakh Som on SUMMER | Jeff Lewonczyk on WHOLE BELLY CLAMS | Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons on HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER | Nikhil Singh on LOVE ISLAND UK | Adrienne Crew on CILANTRO | Adam McGovern on MISSING PERSONS | Art Wallace on UFOs | Fran Pado on LIVERWURST | Lynn Peril on ELTON JOHN’S GREATEST HITS | Marlon Stern Lopez on ADOLESCENT REBELLION | Juan Gonzalez on STAN & JACK or JACK & STAN | Christopher-Rashee Stevenson on BALTIMORE | Josh Glenn on FOOTLOOSE | Annie Nocenti on SIDEVIEW MIRROR | Mandy Keifetz on BREATHLESS | Brian Berger on HARRY CREWS | Ronald Wimberly on GAMING AND DATING | Michele Carlo on HERITAGE FOODS | Gabriela Pedranti on MADONNA | Ingrid Schorr on MAXFIELD PARRISH AND SUE LEWIN | Mariane Cara on ORANGE.

MORE ENTHUSIASM at HILOBROW

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Enthusiasms