Crum: Lee Maynard's 'Love Letter' To His Hometown
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Lee Maynard's semi-autobiographical novel "Crum" is set in Crum, the small, dirt-poor West Virginia coal town where he grew up. The people of Crum who know the book tend to love it or hate it or both. It was even banned for several years in a state-run store. "Crum" was published in 1988. The sequel, "Screaming with the Cannibals," which came out five years later, followed the protagonist, Jesse Stone, out of West Virginia, across the Tug River into Kentucky.
In Lee Maynard's recently published novel, "The Scummers" - the final part of the "Crum" trilogy - Jesse still has the urge to wander and hitchhikes west.
The earlier novels, "Crum" and "Screaming with the Cannibals," have been published in new paperback editions.
In an introduction to "Crum" Meredith Sue Willis writes: (Reading) Each time I read Lee Maynard's "Crum," I ask myself why this foul-mouthed, sexist, scatological, hillbilly-stereotyping novel is one of my all-time favorites.
She finally answers that by saying the book explores and explodes its stereotypes. It might also be called a love letter from a native son to his home place.
Lee Maynard now lives in New Mexico, where he heads The Storehouse, a non-profit food pantry in Albuquerque. I spoke with him in 2003. He started with a reading from the beginning of "Crum."
LEE MAYNARD: (Reading) Crum, West Virginia, was 219 human beings, two sub-humans, a few platoons of assorted dogs, at least one cat that I paid any attention to, a retarded mule and a very vivid image of Crash Corrigan. At first there were no whores, but later on, I got to watch one in the making.
Crum, Unincorporated the road sign said, at the edge of town. It should have said: unnecessary. The place is located deep in the bowels of the Appalachians on the bank of the Tug River, the urinary tract of the mountains. Across the flowing urine is Kentucky.
Life in Crum was one gay, mad whirl of abject ignorance, emotions spilling over emotions, sex spilling over love, and sometimes blood spilling over everything. The Korean War happened to be going on at the time, but it was something being fought in another world. And besides, who really gave a damn about all those gooks, anyway? Our boys could handle them - or so they said in the beer gardens. And what the hell were gooks? I'd never seen one, or a nigger or a Jew or a wop.
I had heard those names from some of the men who had been outside of West Virginia working in the steel mills of Pittsburgh and the factories of Detroit, but I didn't know what their names meant, and I had never seen any of those people.
GROSS: That's Lee Maynard, reading from his novel "Crum."
Now, as you say, you grew up in an unincorporated town, which meant it didn't have what?
MAYNARD: It didn't have anything. It, unincorporated - as I understood it in those days, and I guess it's still that way - it means it has no infrastructure. There's no town government. There's no police force. There's no fire department, no sidewalks, no streets, just a bunch of houses sort of stuck in an enclosed little area.
GROSS: Did you realize that other places had sewer systems and police and water systems, sewer systems, all that stuff?
MAYNARD: Oh, yeah. Every now and then, we - I mean we would be taken, as kids, to other towns, and I would actually see sidewalks. I remember the first time I ever went to Huntington, which is relatively a large city in West Virginia, and I saw a manhole cover. And I was amazed that there were actually tunnels and wires and pipes down below the street surface, because the only thing below the street surface where I lived was more street.
GROSS: As we heard from your reading, there weren't any African-Americans or Jews or Italians in Crum when you were growing up. Did you know that they existed?
MAYNARD: I did, in sort of a tangential way. The only way I ever heard those people referred to was as I referred to them in the book. The people who lived in Crum and in southern West Virginia in particular in those days, they weren't too excepting. They were not really politically correct.
And in the high school, when I would misbehave, they would send me to the library - the library was more of a glorified closet than anything else. They'd send me to the library. I discovered there were actually books in this room, and so I would read the books and got to enjoy doing that. So I misbehaved a lot, so I got sent to the library a lot.
If you can imagine being sent to a library as punishment, that was sort of indicative of how it worked. And it was there that I found out there were other people and other places. And what the library really did was sort of build a fire under me in terms of wanting to leave and wanting to see other things.
GROSS: What did your friends think of you carrying around a book?
MAYNARD: They made fun of it, actually. And one thing you didn't do in southern West Virginia in those days was you never said gee, I'd like to be a writer. That was the equivalent to saying I'd like to be a ballet dancer, or I would like to be an actor or whatever. There were certain occupations that were legitimate and certain occupations that were just taken as jokes. And to have a hillbilly kid say, gee, I might like to be a writer, you never said that. It just wasn't something that he spent a lot of time talking about.
GROSS: Was it because it was out of reach, for didn't have, like, gay overtones?
MAYNARD: Oh, very much so - not only gay overtones, but tones of unreality.
MAYNARD: It's like, well, I might as well wish to be president or an astronaut in the days when astronauts were, I don't know, cartoon characters. So you didn't, if you...
MAYNARD: ...if you wanted to live through the day without bleeding...
MAYNARD: ...you didn't - you really didn't talk too much about that sort of stuff.
GROSS: How often did you bleed?
MAYNARD: Oh, regularly. To tell you the truth, Terry, I just couldn't seem to stay out of the way of it. I mean, I'll give a specific example. In the first paragraph that I just read from "Crum," I said there was a very vivid image of Crash Corrigan, and I wonder how many people out there actually know who Crash Corrigan was. He was a B Western movie star.
And I originally said a very vivid image of the Lone Ranger in the original copy, and I later changed it because Crash was greatly more obscure, and I sort of loved that. But one time in Crum, I sort of hinted to a group of guys that the Lone Ranger wasn't actually real, that he was a character created by some guy like I wanted to be, some guy who told lies for a living, and he created the Lone Ranger. And I took one of the worst wallopings I'd ever taken, because to sort of un-deify an icon like the Lone Ranger was pretty dangerous where I lived.
GROSS: You write that there were three things that most every kid in Crum High School had in common: poverty, ignorance and sex. You don't use the word sex, but we can't say the word that you do use. So we'll keep it to the word sex.
MAYNARD: All right. OK.
GROSS: So at what point did you learn about the connection between sex and pregnancy?
MAYNARD: Hmm. I'm really not sure that I know, Terry. I know that very early in high school, there were a lot of kids who would get pregnant and, you know, a girl would suddenly have a slightly altered figure, and then she wouldn't be in school anymore. And, in fact, you would never see her again. I mean, she would literally go away - as far as we knew - forever. So I think we connected it up pretty early, probably about what would be called middle school, we knew pretty much what the score was. I don't know if we knew how to fix it, but we knew what the score was.
GROSS: Right. I have to say, I felt so sorry for the girls who you knew, because they seemed to not necessarily get a lot of respect from the boys. And also, there was such curiosity about their bodies and everything that, you know, they'd get a lot of attention for sex, but not necessarily for other things.
MAYNARD: Well, that's probably true, although - and I have been taken to task a number of times by women who felt that the girls in the book were denigrated in many ways. Actually - and I suppose this is sort of self-defense - when I look at the characters in the book and when I look at the characters in "Cannibals," the girls are the only ones who have a clue really about what's going on and what's happening. The guys just sort of go from day to day sort of living a life that many of them may not have wanted to live. But it's the girls who kind of have it figured out.
The character of Yvonne, for example - or as we would say in West Virginia, Yvonne. The character of Yvonne is one of the only people who really knows what she's got to trade with and how to use it to get the hell out of Crum, and she did that. And as you know, she showed up again in "Cannibals," in a very significantly different role. But I've had some kind of literary types tell me that they like the way that women are treated, and the fact that in "Cannibals," maybe he's growing up a little bit, maybe he's a little more understanding. He does get a little older. But I think he has a better relationship with women in "Cannibals" than certainly he had in "Crum."
GROSS: Your father was a teacher. What did he teach?
MAYNARD: He taught English.
MAYNARD: But in those days, a teacher taught everything. You taught what you were assigned to teach. You know, if you had a teaching certificate, they sort of somehow assumed that that was an across-the-board management of various disciplines. And so, my father, you could find him teaching health or history or English or math. I mean, it all depended on what they needed you to do. They didn't really pay a whole lot of attention to whether you were good at teaching that particular piece of material.
GROSS: Where did he grow up?
MAYNARD: Right where he died. He died about 500 yards from where he was born in southern Wayne County in West Virginia.
GROSS: So the same county you grew up in.
MAYNARD: The same county I grew up in. The Maynards moved into that county in 1790 in a place called Kiah's Creek at that time. I think it's now called Kiahsville. And they're still there. I don't know if you could get them out of there with a bulldozer.
GROSS: Did you ever ask yourself - I'm sure you did - what is it that made your father - even though he had a master's degree - what made you want to stay in Wayne County, whereas when you were in your teens, you knew you had to get out?
MAYNARD: I have absolutely no explanation for that, except that there are two kinds of - and I'll limit this to West Virginia. There are two kinds of West Virginians. There are those who grew up there, who love it there, would never leave there, you couldn't pull them out of there with a truck. And there are a few like me, that I have always felt - did you ever hear that thing by Maugham that - where he said some men are born out of their time and place? They long for a place they know not. They're strangers in their homeland. That's a paraphrase, but that's pretty close.
MAYNARD: And that's what I felt like. I felt like, all along, that there's something weird going on here. You know, there's been this huge accident, and I'm it. And I need to be someplace else. But my father certainly never felt that way. I think my father was probably in his 50s before he began taking vacations outside of West Virginia.
GROSS: How did you do it? How did you actually get out?
MAYNARD: Oh, I ran away. I started running away from home when I was 14. And my parents would never admit that. They'd say, well, he's visiting relatives. But I was actually just gone. I was on the road. I was a big kid. I probably stopped growing Terry, when I was maybe 15 or 16.
I'm kind of an oversized guy. I probably weighed 200 pounds then. And so I didn't look like I was 14, and I don't think I ever looked like I was 14. So I could hitchhike with relative ease, and back in those days, hitchhiking wasn't that big a deal. Everybody did it. So I would go away. And then I found out that I wanted to learn more things, and I found out it was expensive to go to schools where you didn't live. And so I would always rotate back to West Virginia and go to school, and then run away again. I kept that up for years.
GROSS: Would you be welcome when he returned home?
MAYNARD: Yeah. It was sort of like if you don't really discuss, it in didn't happen. And...
MAYNARD: ...you know...
GROSS: Yup. Mm-hmm.
MAYNARD: ...you know how that goes.
MAYNARD: And my mother would say, oh, you're back from your uncle's. And sometimes that was true. My uncle lived over in Ohio, and I would go over and he would put me to work. I was, essentially, when I'd run away I was an itinerant farm worker. I would sort of travel around with folks who took - you know, cut hay and made hay and picked apples and that kind of thing. I think we made - I think 50 cents an hour I think is what we were paid to do that. And after a while, I'd get tired of that and I'd go back and go back to school, and eventually kind of wormed my way through.
GROSS: My guest is Lee Maynard. The final novel in his "Crum" trilogy, "The Scummers," was recently published, along with new additions of the first two novels.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: We're listening back to an interview I recorded in 2003 with writer Lee Maynard. His "Crum" trilogy begins in a small, West Virginia coal town where he grew up. The final novel in the trilogy, "The Scummers," was recently published. Let's get back to the interview we recorded after the publication, the original publication of the second novel in his trilogy "Screaming with the Cannibals."
The title "Screaming with the Cannibals" relates to a sentence from Crum and the sentence is about how growing up you were told never to swim the Tug River to Kentucky because Kentucky folks ate their young. They were cannibals. And in "Screaming with the Cannibals" there's actually a scene in which you're screaming at a revival meeting in Kentucky with people from Kentucky.
Were the people of Kentucky the monsters you were told to avoid?
MAYNARD: Oh, of course not. I mean, we were told that - adults in Crum would tell you anything to keep you out of that river.
GROSS: Oh, was that the point?
MAYNARD: Oh, that was the whole point. Yeah. They really had nothing against the people in - well, they did have something against the people in Kentucky. They had something against people outside of Crum. So, you know, all these...
GROSS: And something against the people in Crum.
MAYNARD: That's right.
MAYNARD: Well, yeah. I mean, we all have to look down on somebody. So, I mean, and everybody looks down on West Virginia so actually I'm quite proud of that. I love being there where people say, well, what's going on down there and lo and behold, it's me. But in Crum, they would tell you anything to keep you out of that bloody river. I mean, they did not want you swimming with light bulbs and garbage, you know...
MAYNARD: ..and dead horses and other bits of unidentified body parts floating down this river. And so naturally we did. I mean, good heavens. If you tell a bunch of kids like that don't do this you know bloody well they're going to do that. And so we did. But the people in Kentucky turned out to be, as I think I said in "Cannibals," pretty much like the people in West Virginia.
In fact, I was in an airport, Washington airport. I've forgotten which one now. And I was sitting - I missed the plane. I'm sitting with a guy and he said - you know how you do. It's late at night and you're sitting there talking. He said where are you from and I said, well, I grew up in West Virginia and I lived a long time ago in a little town called Crum. And the guy just broke into laughter. And he said I'm from Inez, Kentucky. And Inez is probably the closest town across the river to Crum. He said let me tell you a story. He said when I was a kid they used to tell us not to go in that river because if you got over on the West Virginia side those people would kill you and eat you.
MAYNARD: And I'm thinking, well, you know, it's all Appalachia. It's all Appalachia.
GROSS: There are scenes in both novels at revival meetings. What was church like when you were growing up?
MAYNARD: It was pretty fundamental. I had witnessed - I mean, I was in a Baptist church. Now, the Baptists in those days, they were fairly conservative folks. They certainly had heard of Jewish people, although I doubt if they had seen any. So as a religion they really didn't know anything about that.
They were highly, highly suspect of Catholics. They knew that all Catholics kept guns in the basements of their churches so they could take over when the time came.
MAYNARD: And they weren't too damned sure about Presbyterians and Methodists. So going to those churches were sort of an experience and quite honestly it was one that I did not particularly enjoy. I was kicked out of the Baptist church one time during a service, an evangelistic service which I'd gone to because my mother asked me to go. So I went.
And I have sort of stood on the stump outside the old clapboard church and witnessed Pentecostal services through the crack, scared to death of actually going inside. And it was - to me it was something that - it didn't taste like I thought religion should taste like and I didn't begin to understand what organized religion could be and perhaps should be until I left Crum and got down into the South and then later on to the West.
GROSS: What did you discover?
MAYNARD: I discovered religion was joyful. The religion that I had seen practiced was not a joyful thing. I think the phrase fear God, I mean, I'm not sure I wanted a God that I was just terribly afraid of all the time.
GROSS: Was the focus always on sin?
MAYNARD: Oh, yes. Oh, my goodness, yes. And, you know, among those sins were wearing lipstick, a dress that didn't cover your knees or in some cases your ankles, playing sports, smoking, certainly drinking, and coveting thy neighbor's wife was right up there on the top of the list, not to mention just abject sin such as fornication. So there were a lot of ways to go to hell.
And I used to think, well, there are so many ways to go to hell I don't know how one actually gets to heaven ever.
GROSS: Your first novel, "Crum," was not well received in the town of Crum. It was censored in some places. Who censored it?
MAYNARD: It got actually censored or banned, Terry, in the republication stage. When "Crum" first came out, it came out to very mediocre reviews. The stir that it created was basically a hometown or home county stir. Wayne County has a town in it called Kenova. I also used to live there and of course that's right next to Huntington which is a fairly good-size town and, you know, has real live newspapers and all that sort of thing.
And so I was taken to task for basically telling a story that I thought was pretty much the truth. So when "Crum" was republished then people realized that this book was not going to die and there must be some truth in it. And so that's when it began to get noticed from places outside of West Virginia and Appalachia. The reaction to the republishing was by and large extremely positive but there are still folks down there who - they're not exactly fans of mine.
GROSS: What was the very first piece that you wrote that was published?
MAYNARD: I wrote a piece called "The Rock," and I still have it. It was published in some little newspaper back in West Virginia and it was a kid - I mean, it was one of these terrible things. I mean, it was a kid sitting on a hillside in West Virginia and down below the hillside was a road and across the road was a railroad track which is a scene right out of Crum.
And we used to sit up on those hillsides and find round, I'll say saucer-like rocks but actually they were more plate size, and we'd roll them down the hill. And, you know, after about 10 yards this rock had the velocity of a cannon and it weighed about 30 pounds and it's just ripping down this hillside.
And so the story was the kid is up there and he rolls it down and it hits a car. And the car veers off into the railroad track and causes a train wreck. And at the end of the story the kid simply walks away because he hasn't a clue what else to do from there. And that was the first thing I think that was ever published. And it was total fiction. Total fiction.
GROSS: And it was published as fiction, too, right? Not as a report.
MAYNARD: Oh, yes.
GROSS: Right. OK.
MAYNARD: Oh, absolutely.
GROSS: My guest is Lee Maynard. The final novel in his Crum trilogy, "The Scummers," was recently published, along with new editions of the first two novels. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: We're listening back to an interview I recorded in 2003 with writer Lee Maynard. His "Crum" trilogy begins in the small West Virginia coal town where he grew up. The final novel in the trilogy, "The Scummers," was recently published along with new editions of the first two books.
What was it like for you after leaving Appalachia when you started to maybe, you know, read books or news reports about Appalachia? Or maybe when you were introduced to, like, the James Agee book "Let Us Now" - not "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." What was it called? It is "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." Yeah.
MAYNARD: Yes, that's true.
GROSS: Yeah. Which is, you know, photographs and essays about the people of Appalachia, and there were the anti-poverty programs and so on. So looking at the poverty in Appalachia from an outsider's point of view, how did it look to you?
MAYNARD: It looked awful. I mean, some of it I didn't understand. I mean, growing up there when you then leave and you read things about Appalachia you kind of say, well, that's not what I remember. I mean, it's sort of like you're poor and you're ragged by someone else's standards. Everybody needs a yardstick by which to measure things and if you've never had any other experiences - if you're born and raised in Crum, nine out of 10 times if you haven't been anywhere else you think it's OK.
Well, I didn't think that even though I'd not been anywhere else. And so when I finally got somewhere else and looked back on this by reading someone's article or essay or editorial or whatever it was, I thought are they talking about us? I mean, gee, I don't remember that. And so it was sort of like people kind of, again, looking down on an area that frankly I felt most of them didn't know a damn thing about.
And I think they still don't. There's a - particularly in West Virginia. West Virginia is just plain flat different and if you were born and raised there, there is this, I don't know. I described it in "Cannibals" as this invisible wire that you're attached to. It can't be cut. So when you get out here and you look around and, I mean, I can remember denying that I was from West Virginia when I was probably in my 20s.
Are you one them hillbillies, boy? No, not me. Heck, no. I was born and raised in Richmond, sir. And now, I mean, after a while I thought what in the world is that all about? And it finally dawned on me that I was pretty damn proud of being from back there.
So when I read that stuff - even in my 20s and 30s I would read this stuff and I thought these people haven't set foot in that place. I mean, they don't really know what they're writing about. It was kind of hurtful.
GROSS: You still have family in Wayne County, West Virginia. How often do you go back?
MAYNARD: Well, for a long time I hardly went back at all. The only family I have left there really is my brother and his wife and kids whom I adore greatly. And for a long time I simply didn't go back there. But with the republishing of "Crum," gosh, I've been back there a couple times a year now for three or four years.
And it's been great fun. I stay out of Crum if I can but by gosh, there's some folks down there that think I'm wearing a target on my back, I guess, but all in good fun. But it's wonderful and I really enjoyed going back.
GROSS: Lee Maynard, thank you so much for talking with us.
MAYNARD: It's my pleasure, believe me.
GROSS: Lee Maynard recorded in 2003. His book, "The Scummers," the final novel in his "Crum" trilogy, was recently published along with new editions of the first two books.
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