By Harry Crews
Body proves a few elemental points about the art of fiction: it doesn’t matter if you care a bit about what the story is ‘about’, if the story is well told. Also, a writer can use satire and grotesque caricature and not seem like a heartless nihilist if the writer also is true to the characters. I haven’t read any other Harry Crews books, and I am aware that he has devoted readers, sort of like Bukowski. So what I say may be obvious to those readers. Anyway, Body is about bodybuilders. yeah, I find bodybuilders at best to ludicrous, like professional wrestlers. I just don’t give a damn. Russel ‘Muscle’ Morgan is a bodybuilding trainer and his Eliza Doolittle is Dorothy Turnipseed whom he transforms into Shereel Dupont. Shereel and Russell are out to win the Ms. Cosmos contest. The book takes place over a day or two in the Florida hotel where the Cosmos contest is being held. The training for this is intense and bodybuilders are maniacal about what goes into, and comes out of, their bodies. The relationship between trainer and bodybuilder is brutal, elemental, loving and sadomasochistic, with the sado and maso polarities frequently reversed. Shereel is poised to be a winner, which requires total concentration. Unfortunately, the Turnipseeds, from rural Georgia, show up to cheer their daughter/sister on, and among them is Nail Head, her fiancee. Things do not go well. It is a comic novel, but it took a while for me to take my bearings, as the descriptions of rednecks, bodybuilders, Florida hotel managers etc are so horrifically stereotyped. These people are small minded, homophobic, racist morons. Nail Head is a paranoid Vietnam vet with a razor sharp knife, a psychopath who can at any second explode into violence. The women in the family are obese.
Crews from the start concentrates on the carnal. The book is body obsessed. Shereel’s sister Earline falls for a bodybuilder and the way Crews handles this love match is brilliant, and shows how he manages to hit so many notes in such a short song. They are at the pool and the bodybuilder, Billy Bat, is doing a routine. Earline is convinced that he is having some sort of attack and tackles him to administer mouth to mouth. When he resists the entire Turnipseed clan descends on him, pinning him to the ground. Several chapters later Earline is taking a bath and reflecting on the incident. Billy Bat at some point sticks his tongue in her mouth and she is both astonished and aroused. In the bath she thinks about this while watching her body. Crews describes her flesh in loving detail. The nastiness of his prose is gone and there is sheer sensual beauty here, of an extremely fat woman masturbating in a heart shaped tub, feeling both ashamed and ecstatic. There are no false notes. She is soon joined by Billy Bat and they, in three chapters, fall in love and seduce each other. Crews plays it for everything, it is cornball, intensely erotic, weird. But the most important relationship of course is between Russel and Shereel, and how Shereel must navigate the monomaniacal attention any sport requires and her conflicted loyalties. There is a moment near the end of quiet and such loving kindness between them, that contrasts with the violent, domineering and almost Master Slave relationship of the early chapters that I gasped. Because by the end I cared deeply who would win and who lose the contest. Even Nail Head is taken seriously. I suppose any book with a contest as its main plot element is inherently suspenseful, but Crews hardly needs it. Somehow this carnival of lost souls become stand ins for the demented human family, for passion, the perfection of art, the need to love and be loved.