Swamp Gothic

2 minute read
Adam Begley

SCAR LOVER by Harry Crews

Poseidon; 284 pages; $19

Imagine William Faulkner in a fright wig or Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor strapped side by side on a roller coaster, and you have Harry Crews writing Southern gothic. In 1990 he produced the uproarious Body, in which he yoked a family of half-crazy Georgia crackers to the queasy glitz of big-time body building. Now there’s Scar Lover, a comic love story filled with death and mutilation.

In one of the novel’s many unhinged moments, a typically bizarre collection of Crews characters gather in a Florida swamp for the late-night cremation of Henry Leemer. As her father burns on the pyre, Sarah Leemer gives saccharine | assurances to her lover, Pete Butcher, the angry-young-man hero; Sarah does indeed want a “houseful of little ones.” When the ashes cool, the widow Gertrude Leemer, still recovering from a double mastectomy, hefts her husband’s skull like a bowling ball and muses, “The final scar makes all of us safe from the world.” She credits this insight to the sinister Linga, a giant Rastafarian woman with a face “beautifully scarred” by razor markings and dyed in a vivid multicolored swirl, who is passing out ganja cigarettes from a Sucrets tin.

As long as Crews is taking big risks, like arranging an appallingly sentimental love scene against a backdrop of psychedelic macabre, Scar Lover works a kind of wacky magic. But his premise, which is roughly that scars have as much to do with healing as with hurt, doesn’t carry him very far, and neither do the grotesque accidents that pass for plot.

When he’s not freewheeling, Crews is just plain sloppy. Set for no apparent reason in the mid-’50s, the novel has an unsettling contemporary feel that makes every detail seem anachronistic. The prose, taut and terrifying early on when sex is a threat and violence a seduction, goes limp once Sarah and Pete embark on an apple-pie romance. Even in the fun house of Southern gothic, losing control of the fine tuning is a mistake.

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