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The Birth of a Salesman : Harry Crews deals hyperbole like a card shark : THE MULCHING OF AMERICA,<i> By Harry Crews (Simon & Schuster: $22; 256 pp.)</i>

<i> Dick Roraback is a frequent contributor to Book Review</i>

What’s life without taking a chance? Cream of Wheat, is what. Parcheesi. Mantovani. So let’s go way out on a limb here: “The Mulching of America” is the funniest book ever written about a door-to-door soap salesman.

Not just funny, either. Savage. Dealing hyperbole with both hands, Harry Crews bubbles to the surface again with the sort of satire that makes Swift look slow. Crews’ target--an easy shot--is the excess of capitalism. His cohort is a collection of workers of alternately meek and monstrous behavior, all (almost all) manipulated by the Man at the Top. The Boss--called the Boss, Crews is no slave to subtlety--is a genuine grotesque. Although rich, he nevertheless refuses to pop for the plastic surgery that would correct a harelip wide enough to drive a diesel through. The lip, he reasons, gives him a certain power. Not only is it a constant reminder that anyone in America can accomplish anything (irregardless), it distorts his speech--"My nare nip was given name by God"--to the point where everyone must pay the closest attention, a morbid twist on the old whispering technique. And lest one feel a twinge of pity, be it noted that the Boss is a rank sadist, a pernicious sexist, a bully of epic scope. In short, “as American as any businessman can get.”

Hickum Looney sells the Boss’ soap. He’s dull. It helps. Looney literally lives his life in beige, save for the obligatory “battered and dirty yellow Dodge.” Willy Loman may have ridden on a shoeshine and a smile, but the Boss is no Willy and the Dodge is no accident. “It was a nobody’s car. It would be apparent that the person driving such a car had no native intelligence, no natural talent, could expect no inheritance from any relative near or far, have no European teeth, and could always expect his breath to smell like kitty litter,” more perverse proof that anyone can make it in America.

If the Dodge gets the salesman there, the Official Sales Manual keeps him there. Written by the Boss, it is in its own way as classic as the Constitution. The manual covers everything from “The Look” (“haunted and full of stress”) to the shrewd observation that “it is damn near impossible to sell anything to a happy person.” A chapter on Shakespeare-quoting observes that the bard “did not seem to give much thought to what might or might not be true. He only wanted to win the point.” Likewise the Bible: “Christ himself,” notes the Boss with admiration, “would go either way on any issue.”

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What’s in the soap? What are its implied miraculous properties? Nobody knows and nobody cares. Anybody can move a well-made product, says the Boss, but “it takes a genius to make a piece of [junk] and sell it.”

It’s all hilariously crass. But just as you’re about to blow off the next hangdog peddler, Hickum Looney makes a huge mistake. He outsells the Boss. Beats the Boss’ legendary sales record. This is not done! The fact that Ida Mae, a customer, shows Hickum the way cuts no ice. More crazed than usual, the Boss vows to get Hickum. Being the richest man in the world would seem to make his task easy. . . .

Hickum has allies. One is Ida Mae, old, shapeless, “smelling like things long enclosed,” totally resistant to sales pitches: “That’s the way us girls get raped, you know, strangers showing up on our doorstep carrying suitcases made out of tin and wanting to use our phones.” Another is Gaye Nell Odell--a sweet young thing with a pit bull and a mouth on her you won’t believe--who rescues Hickum in his time of need.

The Boss, of course, has his own troops, each more peculiar than the next: a masseur called Peterbilt, a slimy little mechanic named Slimy, the Brobdingnagian Bickle, whose head is the size of a cue ball. . . .

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Ida Mae and Gaye Nell steal the show, though--the women always do--with their observations on the human condition. “There’s two things in the world that a woman--every woman--knows exactly where she left them,” says Gaye Nell, “her hemline and her pocketbook.” And: “Fair’s just another four-letter word.” And a host of notable aphorisms we dasn’t quote for fear of losing our reviewing privileges.

They are genuinely funny, these women. The book too. And vile, and vulgar. But funny. Parental discretion is advised.


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