Friday, 20 April 2012
The Mulching of America
The Mulching of America - Harry Crews
The recent death of Harry Crews inspired me to pick this out from my TBR pile. I was intending to read it soon anyway. It's not that often that I've seen his books on charity shop bookshelves so when I did I was looking forward to resuming reading his work. I had read a good few of his books in the nineties, and loved them. They were pretty unique, as if written by the offspring of a union between Flannery O'Connor and Nathanael West.
Although The Mulching of America is not one of Crews best it was still an enjoyable read. The main character Hickum Looney is forever destined to compete for the position of being Soaps for Life's second best salesman. The Boss is always the best, and always will be. That is, until Hickum meets Ida Mae and not alone does she buy but she takes him to her friends helps him to break the all time sales record for one day. The most powerful force in this sales drive is the fear of death. "She (Ida Mae) breathed on him and he smelled the old friendly and final odor of death. It had never bothered him. Actually he had come to enjoy it. Everybody's breath to one degree or another smelled of death to Hickum Looney. Most people couldn't smell it because they were afraid of the truth." Selling to people who are closer to death is therefore easier and "she had taken him through enclaves of men and women who were sick and dying from the same incurable disease: age.". What Ida Mae seems to buy is the idea that he has somehow helped her push death back, and this is what she sells "from one elderly village to the next elderly village."
Far from gaining him approbation his feat sees him stripped of his clothes and his dignity by his fellow workers at the instigation of The Boss, "a little harelipped demon". He has to make it to his car, half naked and shit streaked and humiliated. I was reminded of Lemuel Pitkin, the hero of Nathanael West's A Cool Million. The humiliation is invoked at a teleconference with The Boss asking Hickum for the secret of his exceptional sales. Hickum doesn't tell him because "if he admitted that" - "It left him the way he always thought of himself: a plodder, a peddler of soap who should have been something else, anything else."
Back at the teleconference the rest of the salesmen chant together at The Bosses instigation. There is the fervour of a revivalist meeting but thew religion here is sales and more particularly, The Sales Manual. The Sales Manual, created by The Boss, is a methodology of selling, but also a system of belief, an alternate Bible.
Hickum expulsion from the 'revival' sans culottes seems to head towards nothing but further and deeper humiliation until he meets Gaye Nell Odell and her dog Bubba, a fearsome duo. Somehow they click and Hickum is rescued by her and rescues her. After some further adventures she moves into the symphony in beige. Beige, as she puts it, is "the color of everything."
This is turning into a plot precis but I'll leave the plot there. It's not really important. The fun in this book is the utterly ridiculous energy of Crew's satire but the weakness is the fact that he seems too distant from these characters and you feel distant as well. None has the essential gravity to take any form of purchase on your heart. It's still a vivid funfair ride through a nightmare vision of corporate America. We are all either believers or rejects. Or worse.
If you have yet to read Harry Crews I wouldn't start here - try Body, or Car. If like me you've read a few and enjoyed them this will be an enjoyable spin rather than a memorable journey.