All We Need of Hell by Harry Crews (Harper & Row: $14.95; 161 pp.)

Price, an ardent devotee of Southern fiction, is a professor of religion at Whittier College.

In “All We Need of Hell,” Harry Crews’ ninth novel but his first since his highly acclaimed “Feast of Snakes” a decade ago, Crews modifies a fascination with physical deformities and Southern manners that had placed him in the tradition of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. But he maintains the Southern trappings of his vision and voice, his fondness for grotesque twists and his concern with the isolation of individuals and their desire for personal communion.

Duffy Deeter, the savage protagonist of the novel, is a lawyer who has just lost a lock-sure whiplash case. He disdains the lawyer’s craft because, he says, lawyers know that “the image they are forcing to take shape there in the courtroom, is a lie.”

Seeking refuge from this warped world of words, Duffy envisions perfection in terms of body discipline, building his own “as deliberately as a mason builds a wall.” Duffy also pursues physical perfection. He practices Zen meditation, looks for the wholeness of the Tao and recites teachings of Lao-Tze and Confucius.

But the disintegration of his world accelerates during the days after the verdict in the whiplash case. With an imaginative brutality, he conquers the physical demands of intercourse with Marvella Sweat, who can still do the cheerleading splits that she learned at Ole Miss. Yet he remains unfulfilled, for Marvella reads science-fiction novels, a signal, for Duffy, that she is “dumb in the gravest kind of way.”


Turning from his conquest of Marvella to the handball courts where he has reigned undefeated for two years, Duffy encounters Tump Walker, an NFL all-star running back with hummingbird-quick hands and feet. After being leveled by Tump’s opened-handed blow and losing a tooth in the fall, Duffy delights in accepting the pain and playing through it. He retaliates with “a perfectly executed Okinawan roundhouse reverse” to the back of Tump’s head while returning “a three-walled zinger” for a point.

At home, Duffy’s son, Felix, lies like a slug in front of the TV. Duffy’s wife, Tish, no longer a gymnast, exercises primarily by writing checks for superfluous sofas.

A wild and often hilarious sequence of circumstances assembles the characters at Tump’s apartment, where we expect Crews to narrate a final grotesque disruption of relationships. But, with an unexpected twist, Crews offers a comic resolution, delighting us again with a taste of his vivid, intense, entertaining and enlightening imagination.