cover image Mulching of America

Mulching of America

Harry Crews. Simon & Schuster, $22 (272pp) ISBN 978-0-684-80934-2

The four years since Crews's last novel (Scar Lover) haven't softened him any. This vision of America as a land of hucksters run amok is as black-humored and bilious as anything he's written. Crews's new protagonist is Hickum Looney, a middle-aged door-to-door salesman dedicated to peddling Soaps for Life to the needy and elderly as a panacea for life's ailments. Looney, like nearly every character here, is a con, willing to lie, flatter and bully his way into a sale. His sole commitment--to the Company--is shattered when, after years of trying, he breaks the sales record set by ``the Boss'' only to be rewarded not with the expected bonus but with humiliation: at the local regional office, he is stripped near-naked by the other salesmen and tossed outside into a parking lot. There he meets one of the many eccentric souls who propel the plot, Gaye Nell Odell, a whore who may not have a heart of gold but is no con: ``I'll give you what you want, anyway you want it. Head, hand, straight, dirt track, it's all the same to me. I give dollar value for dollar paid,'' she tells Looney later. She takes off her blouse to give to Looney, who in fear and anger has fouled himself (the narrative is charged with scatological shocks as well as freewheeling sexual tension). The pair eventually make their way to Looney's house, where Gaye Nell discovers that love tempers Looney enough so that, as the novel draws to a close, he has regained a semblance of humanity and honor. But in Crews's bleak universe, that doesn't translate into happiness. For the man behind the Company, the Boss, a demented, sexist fellow with a world-class harelip (``My narelip was given na me by Nod!'') has big plans for Soaps for Life, even at the price of bringing in women, including Gaye Nell, to further his schemes--and all who stand in his way, rebellious salesmen in particular, are candidates for ``the mulcher'' that churns out the organic fertilizer that allows the Company gardeners to grow such beautiful roses. Similarly, readers of this razor-sharp satire will feel as if they've been through a mulcher--along with the American Dream that Crews so cleverly, so savagely, chops to bits. (Oct.)