Author Harry Crews
penned the book “A Feast of Snakes
,” a disturbing
yet fantastic tale first published in 1976.
Crews, a contemporary Southern gothic writer, has a gift for creating grotesque, violent characters embroiled in bizarre situations in the rural south. Though it is terrific prose and is replete with symbolism, A Feast of Snakes is not exactly uplifting. One of the author’s primary influences in writing is Graham Greene, if that gives you any idea how cheerful his work is.
The setting is Mystic, Georgia. Joe Lon Mackey lives in a double-wide trailer with his wife and children. Joe Lon, an angry, depressed individual, treats his wife Elfie horribly and feels nothing but apathy towards everything in his life. He had been the star running back in high school but now has no ambition. Joe Lon runs a liquor store with his father Big Joe— a disturbing redneck who enjoys the sick sport of dogfighting in his spare time. They are both friends with the peg-legged Sheriff Buddy Matlow, who drinks moonshine and enjoys raping women in his spare time.
The annual Rattlesnake Roundup, a tradition in Mystic where snake hunters and townfolk gather to celebrate by killing and eating a large collection of snakes, is coming up and Joe Lon is in charge. Mystic residents who participate go hunting snakes before the big day and bring their offerings to Joe Lon, hoping to garner an award for achievements like having the longest snake or for catching the most snakes.
An assortment of twisted characters collect snakes throughout the course of the novel, which is also packed with symbolism and imagery utilizing the cold-blooded animal. Joe Lon attempts unsuccessfully to mollify the pain within him by cheating on his wife with a former lover, but finding no joy in being with her or anyone else, he eventually unleashes his rage in a shocking display of violence.
Joe Lon and the other characters in Mystic are all bereft of something they desperately need: love. This is a story that focuses on the lost, frustrated people resulting from the lack of it. Joe Lon, Big Joe, and Buddy Matlow embody the anguish of those without love. Cold-blooded like snakes, they release their wrath on those around them, primarily upon the women in their lives, who in turn impose violence and possess snake-like qualities. Hard Candy is a woman who claims she’s “ pretty as a snake,” for example, and Beeder, Joe Lon’s sister, retreats constantly to her room longing to exist in the better worlds displayed on her television— much like a snake waiting in its hole to strike.
Here is a passage describing Joe Lon’s pain:
“He did not know what love was. And he did not know what good it was. But he knew he carried it with him, a scabrous spot of rot, of contagion, for which there was no cure. Rage would not cure it. Indulgence made it worse, flamed it, made it grow like cancer. And it had ruined his life.”
I most certainly suggest people read “A Feast of Snakes.” Harry Crews is an excellent writer and I look forward to reading more of his work.
Other books by Harry Crews:
"All We Need of Hell"
"Blood and Grits"
"The Gypsy's Curse"
"The Hawk is Dying"