Screaming with the Cannibals by Lee Maynard
Vandalia Press, 2003 (ISBN 0937058815).
There are many famous writers in the world, but there are other
writers for whom the better word is "infamous." Lee Maynard, author of
controversial Appalachian novel Crum, not only fits in the 'infamous' category, it's possible that he revels in it. While promoting his new novel Screaming with the Cannibals, he recently traveled around with equally infamous writer Chuck Kinder (see Honeymooners review) for a series of readings billed as "The Outlaw Writers Tour." Needless to say, even without reading Maynard's book, it's easy to figure out that exists somewhere outside the mainstream.
In Crum, Maynard painted a brutal and brutally funny portrait of a
small West Virginia town and its people. He returns to the scene of the crime in Screaming with the Cannibals, a sequel of sorts, but one that doesn't require the earlier book for understanding. In fact, anywhere allusions to the earlier book pop up, rather that just give hints, Maynard retells scenes in brief, giving the reader all he needs to understand.
Screaming with the Cannibals follows the narrator—whose name is Jesse, something never learned in Crum—as he leaves home, a home he never loved. Grown now, but still not quite a man, he first winds up in Kentucky. He'd always been afraid of Kentucky because he'd been told the residents were cannibals. Jesse lives there for a while, then flees to South Carolina where's he chased by a deputy and introduced to the racial tensions so prominent in the mid-twentieth century.
While the scenes in this novels are somewhat tamer than those in Crum, there's enough craziness to keep the reader entertained: a man stuck by lightning while carrying moonshine, a jellyfish rodeo, and one of the best depictions of an old-fashioned revival ever written. In fact, the revival scene shows Maynard's greatest strength as a novelist: his talent not just for capturing images, plots and characters, but for understanding those things and putting then in a context so others can understand them, too:
I was stunned. I suddenly recognized the vaguely familiar feeling running around in my guts. It was lust, pure and simple lust, a basic drive to couple hard and fast with the first woman who crossed my path. I felt myself being drawn into it, into some ritual which I knew had nothing to do with God or religion or worship or goodness or sin, into some ritual which existed for its own sake. . . . . . A few years I would think back on it and would say to myself that the ritual, this thing called a revival, was an outlet for people whose lives did not provide such outlets, an outlet for people who slept in heavy nightclothes, who undressed and dressed for bed while standing in the darkness of their closets, who wore not makeup, who did not dance, who went to church five or six times a week, who lived hard, Spartan lives of incredible pain and dullness, and who were
told all their lives that they were sinners.
To praise Maynard's meditations on things, however, doesn't mean the story isn't compelling on its own. It is. It grip the reader in a white-knuckled fist and refuses to let go until an ending the nature which remains in doubt until the final pages. The second half of the novel, once Jesse arrives in South Carolina, stands out for being tense and emotionally draining. Some of this has to do with Jesse's struggle to find a job, fit it, pick up girls, and avoid the cruel Deputy Polk. However, it's also because of the way Jesse encounters the racism of the south that he see all around him.
Here again, Maynard's insights are astounding. Through the course of the novel, he shows Jesse learning about bigotry and segregation, seeing right off how ugly those things are. Having grown up in a place where there weren't any blacks, Jesse never learned to hate them.That's something really drives home, and some the reader feels throughout the novel.
Recommendation: In a way, Screaming with the Cannibals reminds me of The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski, another infamous writer. Though Maynard's book is set in the racially charged south of the mid-twentieth century and Kosinski's place in World War II Poland, both follow their protagonists as they travel around, seeing and discovering things for the first time, always trying to understand them. Both books are filled with moments of pure craziness or debauchery, and other moments of an ugliness so severe it makes the reader cringe. I cringed. Any book that can do that, deserves a careful read. So, pick it up. And be prepared to cringe.