A Feast of Snakes is suprising. Not in the way it all comes together at the end, because the reader expects that, somehow. It’s surprising how complex a 177 page novel can turn out to be that starts off as ferociously and genre-attuned as this one.
The book is steeped in poison, blood, sweat and brutality, laced with a big dose of humor. Love doesn’t have a place in Mystic, Georgia, the place where the novel’s events take place, a place that’s more about power than anything else. The power, at first glance, appears to be favoring white males, they call the shots and theirs is an authority no one cares to question publicly.
However, as is said of the main character: “His job was to be the nigger” and “as soon as he was not around a white man, he quit being a nigger.” Whiteness, as we have known for a while, is indicative more of power relations than of anything else, and the power wielded by the white ‘niggers’ such as the main character, Jon Lon, is a very restricted sort of power. People can be bullied by money and by complex arrangements of words and both of these things aren’t to be found in Mystic, Georgia.
This leads Mystic’s white men to use brutality extensively to legitimize the power structure in place in town. It is not necessary to enforce it, the brutality is more of a show of strength, like a Soviet arms parade.
The novel’s language is reduced and rich at the same time. Descriptions are written in a simple yet never simplistic style that is careful and elegant. The dialogue is almost completely in dialect. The difference between that dialect and the standard English of the descriptions and of the out of town visitors is very pronounced and, again, sheds light on the power relations in and around Mystic. Whereas the white men feel superior enough in their control of language to admonish blacks thusly: “Lottie Mae, try not to talk nigger talk to me.”, the difference to out-of-towners shows that their own language is ‘nigger talk’ as well.
It’s always easy to bully those in a position that those apparently in power perceive as weaker than their own, but it, and the accompagnying false feelings of superiority, blinds the seemingly powerful to his own role in other power structures. As easy as you bully someone, you are bullied, and a generous spirit can help you see this. Many people, though, don’t. Some of which live in Mystic, Georgia.
In the bigger picture, all these whites are ‘niggers’ and their refuge, Mystic, Georgia, is about to be swallowed by the modern world, the richer, smarter and more literate world around them. Theirs is a doomed archaic civilization, where everyone turns a blind eye on rapes, having your dick sucked after cornholing someone is the height of true love and murder is almost an accepted way of meting out justice. And Harry Crews is capable of finding the right words and images for all this, in 177 paltry pages. Diving deep into myth and other granaries of language and culture, he says only what needs to be said. He never overpowers the reader with his language, which he uses only to say something, every word, every image is put to work in the service of the story.
It seems that Mystic, Georgia is beyond the grasp of either government or modern society. It’s governed by its own laws and, at the moment that it faces destruction, its laws turn out to be more of a trap than a help against a foe that doesn’t attack the way the people of Mystic expect it to. They cannot deal with a foe who does not use corporeal violence to conquer them but that is all they have left to deal with the unknown.
Harry Crews’ novel Feast of Snakes is highly recommended to anyone who enjoys novels about the American south or good novels in general. It may seem slight, but it packs a wallop. Very much worth reading.
[if you made it to the end of this erratic, self-important crap I applaud you and apologize] ISBN