“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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  1. Dearest Miss Donna – my Daddy is from the area of Crum , WV. He lived there until four or five years old , but my Grandmother May Copley and the rest of her large family from the Conn’s lived there for a long while. Her sister Maisel and her husband had a store in that area . My Daddy’s family moved on into the coal mining area of Logan , WV. North Davis #2 among the company homes that the miners could buy. Right out the back door was a nasty creek ( the sewer and garbage system!) and across and straight up was the beauty of a blue green mountain side. Among this steep mountainside was the plentiful garden, an apple orchard and the hog pen . If lucky the family would get a hog every year. The Company story was two blocks over for necessities of a more urgent kind. Bascum Copley, my Grandfather’s brother owned that store.
    My grandmother was officially named Biddie May and married my much older Grandfather Curtis Lee Copley when she was a mere 14 and he was in his 20’s ! She was always one of the prettiest of all of the Conn sisters and she knew it too! When she entered first grade she held a strong mind and registered on her own getting rid of that defining small name ” Biddie” and became just May !

    They began life right off having kids, Mildred Erlean, Donald Lee ( my Daddy), Bill , Curtis Jr. and then Delores Jean , the baby! A large family with many starving mouths to feed. My Grandfather was a drinker and quite abusive when he did drink . My Daddy would have to go and get him out of the bars before his whole paycheck was spent . There were rows with his Mommy and Dad and times he knew he was going to one day step in to stop them . Daddy was seriously malnourished. He was 5’2″ when he graduated from high school and weighed in at about 115. He had odd jobs for some time until he finally joined the Air Force as his older sister did . Once he left , he added inches to become 6’2″ tall and a lean 170 pounds. He actually is quite handsome and very intelligent.
    Once my Daddy did leave Logan , he rarely returned because it was just so hard in my
    opinion . He did send his Mommy presents of Noritake China from Japan and photos of places. He called home and sent money if he could. He never asked for money or help as his brothers and sisters did through the years. My Daddy was very proud .
    Daddy married my Mom, Betty Rose in Columbus, MS while he was stationed at that Air Base. My Mom was from military family too but had grown up as a little girl in country life in Tula, MS when she was first born . Their lives were similar in the way they were raised .
    I am so glad that I came across your review of Mr. Maynard’s work . I am an avid reader , I taught Literature and Creative Writing for over fifteen years and now I am a freelance writer / editor/ blogger while I am a caretaker for my lovely parents who both have cancer . I would not change anything to be spending this time with them right now. This is a special time for me.
    I had not heard about Mr. Maynard’s death. His books were on my list to read soon . I had only heard of him last year.
    Thank you so much for sharing this article. I would love to read something of yours too. I love Appalachian literature as well as Southern Literature. I guess I would , I live in Oxford, Ms. I am at home here with so many writers that everywhere you step you step in a puddle of them!
    I graduated at Ole Miss and William Faulkner has overshadowed me since I was little . My distant cousin was a self made writer in Southern Grit Lit , Larry Brown . I was not allowed to read his work until I was older and even then my Mom did not agree but he was good at writing about the poor and uneducated that are a reality in all areas somewhere around the dark crevices in every town or city. The locals who were given too much hard luck and refused to turn to anyone or God for their own pride was one thing they could say they owned . Larry’s children , and my cousins are amazing ! They were brought up between two hard worlds but they were also taught by both parents to dream to the max and keep working until you get what you want ! They all work hard , they are good to others and they seem to be succeeding with God’s help too!
    I am so sorry for rambling , but I feel like I know you . Your writing is very recognizable in my heart.

  2. Tommy Wadsworth says

    Lee Maynard was father to my brother in law, Toran Maynard. I had the good fortune to be, ‘on the river’ (a term pro boatmen use to refer to guiding or piloting a river raft, no matter the river) with Lee on a couple of river trips. The camaraderie of a river trip is good way to become acquainted with folks in a deeper way than most of our standard day to day interactions allow.

    I’ve read the Crum trilogy as well as Magnetic North and Cinco Becknell and remember checking out the motorcycle Lee rode on the trip to the Arctic circle. That trip was the basis for Magnetic North.

    I highly recommend all of Lee Maynard’s novels !

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