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Tom was the name of the guy who turned me on to Harry Crews’ A Feast of Snakes. I worked with Tom on an assembly line in Boulder. He was a little guy with a pot belly and Coke-bottle glasses who’d just gotten out of prison. I never quite understood what for, but it had something to do with credit card fraud. The way he told it, he’d made enough money to get away with not working for four years, and it had only cost him two years of being locked up. Which he figured was a pretty good deal, even with the scars that ran all over his right bicep from a knife attack. He told me he was just waiting for his credit to recover enough so he could do it again. He was one of the bravest guys I ever met.
He was also a reader. Besides drinking, I’m pretty sure that’s all he did. I was a reader too, but in my early 20s most of what I’d read was whatever I could find on the Classics shelves in used bookstores and in the New Yorker at the library. Tom thought that was alright, but he was always warning me against reading too much of that shit. He hated bourgeois books almost as much as he hated bourgeois people, and he despised cheap sentimentality. The books he liked were big-hearted and bloody and had working-class stakes. Books about people barely getting by, trying to hammer meaning out of a world designed to crush them. Books that locked onto you and didn’t let go until they broke your heart, usually after laughing at something you really oughta know better than to laugh at.
That’s A Feast of Snakes. The first time I read it, I couldn’t read anything else for two weeks. I didn’t have any idea they’d let you write books like this. It was completely uncompromising. There was none of the whiff of experiment you found in other transgressive writers. In fact, you couldn’t even really call it transgressive. It had no interest in tilting at bourgeois literature; Crews didn’t even bother admitting it existed.
Instead of trying to summarize it, I’ll just quote my favorite one-star review: “Horribly negative. The characters are totally perverted, sadistic and cruel to animals, humans, loved ones, etc. Good writing, but I felt sorry for a person with such horrible life experiences to base his work on. Rape, torturing a dog in the guise of training, then kicking it to death because it lost a fight, cutting off a man’s penis, causing an old man to s*** on himself are some of the highlights that should make you not want to read it. I burned my copy so no one would have to be subjected to it. The high point of the book was when the lead character’s mother wrote a note to her husband that said, ‘Bring me back now, you son of a bitch!’ hung it around her neck, then blew her head off with a shotgun. At least she got herself out of that horrible place on her own terms.”
In other words, it was the perfect antidote to a young head stuffed full of used-bookstore Classics and the New Yorker. At 20-something, that’s all I knew about what literature was. I could find moments I loved in Hemingway or Woolf, but they never moved me the way that Harry Crews book did. Even my favorite books, like Moby Dick or Blood Meridian, I loved mostly because of the way I could take them apart. Reading A Feast of Snakes meant everything to me, just because it meant there was room for books like that. That was the moment I realized I was no longer interested in pretending to be a writer, but I was willing to bet my whole adult life on it.
On a side note, it also got me out of the only book club I’ve ever been in. I joined because an ex-wife made me, and her friends forced on us some terrible book about some hip, urban couple that finds love through time travel. When it came my turn, I retaliated with A Feast of Snakes. It was like a grenade lobbed into the cheese cubes. After reading it, the friends quietly disbanded the book club and re-formed it without me.
And on another side note, I haven’t seen Tom in 15 years, but he’s still with me. When people ask me if I ever consider my audience, I say, “Yeah, and his name’s Tom.” He’s still sitting with me while I write, keeping watch for bourgeois bullshit and cheap sentimentality. Advising me to push harder, dig deeper. To put my whole ass into every line and never to give a thought to the folks at the New Yorker or how my lines’d measure up to the shit on the Classics shelf. To worry about nothing but breaking the reader’s heart, preferably after a belly laugh. Him and Harry Crews.
This post is part of our annual Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop— is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 8 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!
Benjamin Whitmer is the author of Cry Father; Pike, which was nominated for the prestigious Grand Prix de Littérature Policière; and coauthor (with Charlie Louvin) of Satan Is Real, a New York Times’ Critics’ Choice book.