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Picks and Pans Review: Scar Lover

updated 03/09/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/09/1992 01:00AM

by Harry Crews

Pete Butcher is a nowhere man. He lives in a Jacksonville, Fla., boardinghouse, and he feels like a walking jinx. He's the only physically whole survivor of a series of horrendous mishaps that cost him his immediate family. His brother, for instance, is a vegetable, the result of a car crash that occurred while Pete was driving.

Pete prefers to mourn in silence and solitude, trying to ignore his history of futility and tragedy. It is only when he looks up from his funk long enough to notice his next-door neighbor, Sarah Leemer, that a few rays of sunlight interrupt his torment. Not that he wants to let those rays in. Sarah has breast cancer. After spreading to a lung, it is in remission. No matter, Pete doesn't want to hear about it. Her hard knocks simply remind him of his own.

In most fiction, Sarah and Pete would not be so afflicted and would simply fall in love and get on with their lives. But Scar Lover is a trek through Crews country, a place where welts and scars and all kinds of personal wreckage are the norm and must be paid for with buckets of pain.

Sarah and Pete, scarred physically and psychically, navigate their love right through the crisscrossing wakes of their ruined emotions. Pete gets stony when Sarah starts talking about her cancer in their most intimate moments. Still, she won't let him push her away. Pete's a mess, true, but he's honest and decent and won't hurt her, and that's a lot better than anything she's found elsewhere.

Scar Lover ranks with the best of Crews's novels (The Gypsy's Curse, A Feast of Snakes, Body). The prose is rhythmic and pure, the pace maintained at quarter-horse speed, the dialogue an eccentric blend of Southern charm and gothic humor.

One reason Crews's novels haven't found a wider audience is because they're about strange people, deformed physically or emotionally. This time he has written a love story and fashioned it in his gnarled way into something both hellish and enthralling. If the theme attracts more readers, they will find that Scar Lover is not a freak show. Like all Crews, it's as real as life. (Poseidon, $19)

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