Thursday, July 7, 2016

Harry Crews and the “white trash” in his Novel Car

Harry Crews and the “white trash” in his Novel Car
            This ambivalence surrounding auto-mobility during the late 1960s and early 1970s was perhaps best represented in the fiction of southern writer Harry Crews. Crew’s “white trash” novel Car was published in 1972, and its strangeness reflected the era. The focus of the novel is one unusual family in the junkyard business, with one unusual family member who took it upon himself the task of eating, piece by piece, a 1971 Ford Maverick. The local Ford dealer envisioned this absurdity as a spectacle, with the car, the diner, and a “throne” for bodily evacuation all under glass for the public to witness. The novel is at the same time gross and sexy, with the Maverick-eater’s sister portrayed in leather, enjoying getting her breasts massaged from time to time as a prerequisite to back seat lovemaking, and a frustrated prostitute supposedly in charge of our dreamer-hero. A bigger question emerges than this bizarre happening in Jacksonville, Florida. Are we consuming the car or is it consuming us? Were we shaping the automobile to our societal needs, or was the automobile literally shaping us as human beings? The lead character in the novel, Herman Mack, dreamt the following as he was about to eat his first piece of the Maverick:
Filled with terror and joy, he tried to wake up. But he was not asleep. His eyes were filled with cars. They raced and competed in every muscle and fiber. Dune buggies raced over the California sands of his feet; sturdy jeeps with four wheel drive and snow tires climbed the Montana mountains of his hips; golden convertibles, sleek and topless, purred through the Arizona sun of his left arm; angry taxis, dirty and functional and knowledgeable, fought for survival in the New York City of his head.
            And his heart. God, his heart! He felt it separate and distinct in his chest. Isolated and pumping, he knew its outermost limits. And every car that raced and roared in his vision of himself finally ended in his heart. An endless traffic of Saabs and Fords and Plymouths and Volkswagens and modified buggies of every sort and Toyotas and cars from all over the world lined up and entered his pounding heart.
            He watched, amazed and stupefied, as he filled up with cars tighter and tighter until finally he was bumper to bumper from head to toe. His skin stretched. His veins and arteries blared with the honking of horns, jammed with a traffic jam that would never be over because it had no place to go. Cars, cars everywhere and no place to drive.
            But at the last moment, when he was gasping and choking with cars, truly terrified that they would keep multiplying until the seams of his skin split and spilled his life, a solution – dreamlike and appropriate – came to him in his vision. He was a car. A superbly equipped car. He would escape because he was the thing that threatened himself, and he would not commit suicide.
            If he needed more air he’d turn on the air-conditioner. If he needed more strength, he’d burn a higher octane gasoline. If he needed more confidence, he’d get another hundred horses under the hood. If the light of the world bothered him, he’d tint his windshield. And his immortality lay in numberless junkyards, . . .[1]

[1] Harry Crews, Car (New York: William Morrow, 1972), 73-4.

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