Harry Crews' 'Celebration': Trailer trash?

January 04, 1998|By Sarah Vowell | Sarah Vowell,Special to the sun

"Celebration," by Harry Crews. Simon & Schuster. 270 pages. $23.

I resent any book that makes me feel like a prude. I'll get grouchier yet if I have to bring up the basic points of feminism, bemoan cartoonish racism, or call myself an optimist. When I'm faced with a satiric novel such as Harry Crews' "Celebration" I'd rather talk about the important stuff, like whether or not the jokes are any good.

Crews is a revered Southern novelist from whom we should expect irreverent wisdom. But "Celebration" is so ugly, so not funny, so cynical, and so annoyingly, childishly, piggishly dirty-old-man that I'll risk the dreaded accusation of political correctness and call it mean.

This heavy-handed allegory of life-as-death is set in a Florida trailer park for the elderly called Forever and Ever. The folks who live there are sad and unloved and waiting around to die. For example, it is said of Johnson, an old man plodding through a long, now joyless marriage, "He sometimes felt like he'd be willing to open a vein for one tiny surprise, for one inconsequential secret."

Then Johnson and neighbors come alive when a teen-age bimbo inanely named Too Much moves in with the park's handicapped owner, Stump.

At first, the story seems like just a harmless cliche: Young sexpot comes along to remind old dullards about the importance of Laughter and Pride and A Good Old-Fashioned Roll in the Hay. Too Much sparks up Johnson's marriage and inspires a retired logger to get away from the television and climb a tree.

Also, for the first time ever, she makes Stump proud of his mangled arm because she kinkily includes it in their sexual routine, inspiring hackish sentiments along the lines that when Stump dies all he wants is to "come back as her cut-off Levi's, or else as a bar of soap and be sold to her." This is a good-time girl whose biggest ambition is to build a pole to dance around on May Day. Or is she?

As Crews' plot unfolds, the sleepers-awake cliche is replaced by an older, more offensive one. The goddess Too Much reveals herself as that horrid old chestnut - the bitch goddess. It turns out that she's smarter and more ambitious than she looks, which in Crews' world view seems to mean that she's an embezzler, a control freak and, yes, a kitty-killer.

She bosses around nice old ladies, torments the Uncle Tom black character and exploits the talents of an Asian carpenter (whom the narrator charmingly refers to as "the little Chinaman"), all in service of her desire to rule, if not the world, then at least

the cosmos of Forever and Ever.

There aren't any heroes. The strongest characters are Too Much, who talks about joy and celebration, but who has an evil heart, and Stump, who's honest and alcoholic and played for a chump. Not that there have to be heroes; it's just that I have to wonder who this book is for.

Is it for doomy old men who think bright but stacked, broads are as evil as their breasts are large? Or is it for Victorian cynics who believe celebration must be paid for, as it is here, with attempted murder and deceit?

Sarah Vowell is a contributing editor to pubic radio's "Thi American Life." She writes about music for GQ and for Salon, an on-line magazine. Her book, "Radio On: A listener's diary," was published by St. Martin's in 1997.

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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