cover image The Knockout Artist

The Knockout Artist

Harry Crews. HarperCollins Publishers, $17.95 (269pp) ISBN 978-0-06-015893-4

Crews, one of the most inventive practitioners in modern American letters, returns to a milieu that has long fascinated him: the seedy world of fighters and musclemen. Eugene Talmadge Biggs, ex-farmboy and ex-boxer (he won 13 fights and lost the next four by knockouts), knows an amazing trickhe can knock himself out with one punch to the jaw. Abandoned by his manager, Crews's glass-jawed hero has to support himself by exhibiting his trick at parties. After 73 self-inflicted KO's, the routine gets a little wearing. Meanwhile, Eugene is taken up by Charity, a rich, all-but-the-dissertation Ph.D. candidate bent on constructing a thesis that relates every fact in the world to every other fact. She thinks Eugene and his prizefighting friends are a gold mine of information for this dubious project. A brilliant specialist in black humor, Crews delivers the goods once again. His deadpan prose style is uncannily effective in meshing the surreal and everyday life. While the characters are mainly freaks, they come across so directly, often with an affecting sweetness, that they acquire extraordinary vibrancy. Crews is a modernist all right, but he isn't a facile one. The moral here and elsewhere in his work is old-fashioned: to thine own self be true. (April)