Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Totally Booked: A Feast of Snakes [REVIEW]

“A Feast of Snakes” by Harry Crews is searing, hypnotic, disgusting, brutal, visceral, hilarious, and deeply tragic. It’s a book that grabs you like a pitbull and locks its jaw. 

Set in the tiny town of Mystic, Ga., with a rattlesnake for a high school mascot and an obsession with serpents in general, the book follows Joe Lon Mackey. Throughout the course of the book, Joe Lon stumbles around Mystic depressed, drunk, stupid and violent, living with a wife and kids he hates, in the wake of his perfect high school football stardom. “That was the only decision there was once upon a time: what to do with the night,” writes Crews, as Joe Lon reminisces about drunk driving with his high school cheer captain girlfriend, as the king of the Mystic High Rattlers football team. 

His early adult life crisis unfolds during the annual Rattlesnake Roundup, a festival and snake hunting competition that draws people from all across the south, including his ex-girlfriend Berenice who went off to college without him, and her new boyfriend. Also in the mix are an abusive and racist town sheriff and a survivor seeking revenge, Joe Lon’s deeply traumatized younger sister, the current high school football star and his girlfriend, Berenice’s younger sister, a traveling preacher covered in snake bite scars, Joe Lon’s alcoholic father, and the pitbulls he trains for his dog fighting ring.

With a deceptive simplicity and ingenious attention to detail, Crew’s prose burns itself into the reader’s mind. Vulgar and perceptive, but darkly beautiful, his writing is truly alive. The way he returns to details like the sound of an injured dog’s breathing, a TV talk show playing in the other room, the unique curve of a snake’s body as it moves to strike, makes for incredibly memorable, immersive and moving scenes. 

The narrative spirals like an intense nightmare, a perfect storm of damaged and dangerous people, caught up in events pushing them to their worst. Crews writes Joe Lon, and all of his characters, with empathy and bravery, able to understand and channel their perspectives and attitudes towards life in his narration, without moving an inch away from their stupidity, violence and amoral behavior. If I could define one thing that makes this book great, it’s that Crews shies away from absolutely nothing. The effect is a narrative, however dramatic, crushingly real. 

Not only does Crews capture, through shifting third person narration, a broad cast of central characters with depth, the book also features incredibly memorable secondary characters, brought to Mystic for the Rattlesnake Roundup. There’s the thematically layered snake preacher, who deeply unsettles Joe Lon and pretty much everyone, shouting strange serpent-focused sermons, covered in snake bite scars. There’s a woman who makes elaborate tapestries of rattlesnake tails, including a massive portrait of a stag stomping a snake to death, which she tries to sell every year for thousands of dollars.

“A Feast of Snakes” has a lot to chew on symbolically. The snake, present throughout the novel, seems to represent (rather Biblically) the absolute worst of humanity: our capacity for violence, cruelty and pure selfishness. As the book goes on it becomes increasingly clear that the snakes of Mystic aren’t really the animals, but the people. 

Lottie Mae, the young victim of the town’s sexually abusive Sheriff, wanders about in a haze, seeing threatening snakes wherever she looks. In a dangerous, racist town like Mystic, her visions aren’t far from the truth. Of all the characters, she is one of the only ones who takes real action against the way things are, giving the sheriff exactly the punishment he deserves. 

Racism is omnipresent and unchallenged in the town of Mystic. Joe Lon remarks that Black customers aren’t allowed in his family’s liquor store, not as official rule, and not even because he really cares to keep them out, but just because that’s the way things have always been. He asks the sheriff to move his car away from the store, knowing that his reputation is enough to keep Black customers away. 

Class is another societal force that cannot be ignored in “A Feast of Snakes.” It’s a divide present throughout the book. As outsiders flock to Mystic for the Rattlesnake Roundup, the gap between those like Berenice and her new boyfriend Shep, from families wealthy enough to send them to University, returning happy, educated, and relatively well adjusted, and those like Joe Lon and his family, traumatized by their circumstances and trapped poor in Mystic, is drastic. Resisting any sort of ‘noble savage’ approach to portraying those disenfranchised, economically or otherwise, Crews instead shows the real outcomes of incredibly difficult lives, in characters like Joe Lon. In a way slightly comparable to the film “Parasite,” we see ‘moral’ or ‘normal’ wealthy characters, because their privilege has allowed them to live that way, to avoid the corrosive effects of a life like Joe Lon’s.

“A Feast of Snakes” opens with a quote from a Richard Eberhart poem, which captures the dreamlike intensity of the novel better than I ever could. “If I could only live at the pitch that is near madness, When everything is as it was in my childhood, Violent vivid, and of infinite possibility: That the sun and moon broke over my head.” This is the experience Crews provides to readers, through this short, shocking and ingenious work, one a reader truly won’t forget.

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Dylan Berman, News Editor

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  • D

    Danny Herre
    May 22, 2024 at 10:18 pm

    “The real snakes are the people” too real

    • D

      Dylan Berman
      May 22, 2024 at 11:35 pm

      Never believed in magic till I saw my dawg turn to a snake…think about it…