Hal Crowther writes prose the way Stevie Ray Vaughan played guitar: with inexplicable passion, punctuated by explosive bursts of finger picking laid down over an inviting carpet of swampy soul. There's not much dancing around on stage. You either get it or you don't.
Most of the 28 essays in this book were first published in The Oxford American, with others appearing in the Independent Weekly and the Spectator. They are, by necessity, economical and straight to the point. Magazine and newspaper editors evaluate prose by the inch, not by the depth of thought in the prose. Some of the best essays in this collection are based on actual events into which the writer has wandered without much expectation. "The Last Wolverine" is about his literary idol, James Dickey. In 1,500 words or less, he builds him up into a literary lion, then tears him down with an account of the poet's visit to the office of Time magazine, where Crowther was employed as an editor. Dickey spoke to an audience of would-be poets and accentuated his lecture with an inappropriate comment of a sexual nature to one of the women present, then grabbed Crowther in a drunken headlock that very nearly turned out his lights.
In "From Auschiwitz to Alabama," he bemoans the horrible medical experiments that were performed on unsuspecting black Alabamians by the federal government, but he resents that people outside the South would blame Alabama instead of the federal government. Writes Crowther: "The U.
S. Public Health Service was not controlled by Alabama racists, or in collaboration with them. These sweet doctors were most attracted, it appears, by a passive, impoverished rural population with no tradition of standing up for itself." By the time you get through reading this collection of essays you realize that Crowther has a love-hate relationship with the South that is as complex (and bizarre) as that of any fictional character created by William Faulkner or Tennessee Williams. You'll want to pat him on the back just as often as you'll want to put a headlock on him with the intent of turning out his lights.