“Crum,” by Lee Maynard

Lee Maynard

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Even though the West Virginia town I grew up in is nothing—nothing—like the town of 219 residents Lee Maynard describes in his 1988 novel Crum, I related strongly to this coming-of-age story. The novel is now, deservedly, in its third printing through Vandalia/WVU Press. It is the first volume of a trilogy, including Screaming With the Cannibals and The Scummers.

Maynard died on June 16th of this year.  Crum, which was his first novel, was banned in some places because of its explicit sexual language and what some consider its negative portrayal of West Virginia.  Yet Maynard is regarded by many to be one of the great West Virginia writers of our times.

Crum is bad-boy literature with gross-out scatological details and adolescent sexual obsessions. But those who stick with Maynard’s novel will find one of the best articulations ever of the love/hate relationship so many Appalachians have with their hometowns. Anyone who has said goodbye to friends and family might recognize, as I did, the pangs of loss packed in that suitcase along with the hope for greater opportunity.

Structurally, the novel is organized by seasons, roughly following the unnamed narrator’s senior year in high school, beginning with summer and closing in full circle with summer again. Maynard blurs the line between author and fictional narrator in an unusual epilogue where he returns as an adult to his hometown. In this section he is recognized by another as “Lee” and lets readers in on a secret: one character was entirely the product of his imagination.

Crum presents a painful glimpse of America: severe poverty that permits a boy to live in an unheated shed, the stench of schoolyard outhouses, and a kid who exposes his privates to anyone who’ll look, partly because he’s a bit weird, but mostly because Wayne County offers few options for entertainment. Even the Tug River is described as “the urinary tract of the mountains.”

Yet beneath the crumbling surface of a town with “no water system, no sewer system, no systems of any kind,” eventually I—and the narrator—realized Crum possesses some of the same traits that bind most Appalachians to their home. Leaving proves more difficult than the narrator first thought.

Not even he can deny the beauty of the hillsides in autumn, “the one season of the year that God seemed to have put there just for the beauty of it.” From a hilltop, the narrator stares at the “fairy tale” village below until, aching inside, he turns away: “It was too nice up here, Crum looked nice and it would just make my decision too hard, to look at Crum and find it beautiful.”

Though Maynard never lapses into sentimentality, people exert an even stronger pull than the region’s natural beauty. One friend follows the narrator to the edge of town as he leaves, tries to give him what little money he has, and reveals he committed a crime once to keep the narrator from receiving a severe beating. The confession is upsetting: “Nip was doing just what I tried to get away from, making me feel there was something to Crum, after all.” It takes all of the narrator’s resolve to resist this attempt to make him “feel like a human being. Like Crum was where [he] belonged.” All along, the narrator has known that leaving home “would have to be an act of surgery, a falling ax on an outstretched limb.” He knows he must “bolt, quickly and efficiently, severing everything at once.”

I found myself grudgingly sympathizing with the inhabitants of Crum. The girls use their sexuality as weapons to gain control and power. After reading Maynard’s evocative erotic scenes, I will never regard an apple slice or buttermilk with quite the same innocence.

The boys of Crum enliven their summers by pulling pranks, swimming in a polluted river, desperately trying to get laid, and loosely organizing into adversarial groups. Adults do the best they know how to get by. And even though the town I grew up in was nothing—nothing—like Crum—we took electricity and indoor plumbing for granted—maybe the inhabitants aren’t all that different from those of my town. Or yours.

Born in 1936 in Crum, West Virginia, Maynard graduated from West Virginia University with a degree in journalism. His writing appeared in Reader’s Digest, The Saturday Review, Rider Magazine, Washington Post, Country America, Dual Sport News and Christian Science Monitor. His other novels include Magnetic North, and Cinco Becknell. He was President and CEO of The Storehouse, a nonprofit food pantry providing food for the needy in the greater Albuquerque, New Mexico, area.

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