Karate is a Thing of the Spirit (1971), by Harry Crews, is not easily described. I can see certain influences in it, especially Nathanael West, maybe Flannery O’Connor. But, fundamentally, it is the sort of novel that only Harry Crews could write. It concerns a young drifter, John Kaimon, who meets a group of radical practitioners of karate on a Florida beach, led by a man known as Belt. None of the karatekas goes by his or her given name. The one female karateka, Gaye Nell, is known only as “the brown belt.” The karatekas devote themselves to karate and to Belt with the zeal of religious fanatics. They consume pills instead of food (some pills are fruit; others are vegetables, and so on). They have given up all material possessions and all aspects of their former lives. John Kaimon joins the group, begins learning karate, and quickly falls into a love affair with Gaye Nell. Early in their relationship she more or less rapes him, though later he returns the gesture. The karate group provides security for various musical events and beauty contests in the area to raise money for a mountaintop karate retreat in Arkansas that Belt wants to build. Gaye Nell takes part in the beauty pageants to raise money. She has won, apparently, 23 competitions.
This is a novel of endless spectacle—the spectacle of the karate practitioners brutalizing one another, and the students they teach, as part of their training, the people on the highway who stop to watch the karate training in the empty hotel swimming pool where the karatekas train, the beauty pageants, the lovemaking of John Kaimon and Gaye Nell, the plane that crashes near the end of the novel.
What are the issues here? Karate in the novel is a way of life by which individuals give up their personal identities to a larger group. They renounce the material world. They devote themselves to a higher calling. Karate is a form of self-discipline. Through it, Gaye Nell represses personal emotional and physical passion. She uses her body to discipline herself and others and to get what she wants, to earn money for the group. Though John Kaimon initially buys into the ethos of the karate group, he never wholly gives up his personal self and interests. He falls in love with Gaye Nell, and ultimately he seeks to restore emotional identity to her through sex. She becomes pregnant by him and wants him to “knock the baby out” of her. John Kaimon visualizes himself as a baby in her womb. He is concerned about saving the baby and wants a life with Gaye Nell. He wants to ensure she doesn’t have an abortion. He needs to restore human identity to her. This is a very vague and uncertain description of what is going on between them in the novel.
The novel includes a number of homosexual characters and seems infused with a deep homophobia. If the karate group is all about self-discipline and abnegation, the gay characters are all about narcissism, self-indulgence, disease. Two of them, masquerading as women in a gay night club, pick John Kaimon up, take him to their dressing room, and rape him. When a group of gay individuals show up at the karate swimming pool and ask to be instructed by John Kaimon, he beats them brutally. Six of them return for an additional lesson. Whatever problem John Kaimon has with his own identity, the gay characters, as the novel portrays them, have assumed identities that reflect the material corruption and narcissism of their world. They also reflect the crisis of gender identity that Kaimon to an extent faces.
In one way or the other, all the members of the karate group come to karate in order to compensate for flaws in their own lives and identities. Belt, we learn, was tried for cowardice during the Korean War. He believes he should have been dishonorably discharged. He pays a company that specializes in printing fake newspaper headlines and certificates to produce for him a certificate that attests to his dishonorable discharge.
Kaimon wears a t-shirt adorned with the image of William Faulkner when he first appears in the novel. He frequently thinks about Faulkner. Although he has never read any of Faulkner’s fiction, he seems to think of the writer as a standard of moral force and concrete identity. He’s always thinking of how Faulkner is watching him, always wondering what Faulkner would have said or thought about one situation or another. Faulkner is the judgmental ancestor who gazes reprehensibly down on the contemporary Southern landscape of the novel. Clearly Crews felt his presence in his writing of the novel and is on the one hand paying homage to him and on the other questioning his relevance.
A climactic episode in the novel involves a July 4th beauty pageant, and Crews emphasizes the unruly, uncontrollable nature of the crowds (shouting out “Meat! Meat!” as they wait for the pageant contestants to appear. In the parking lot, cars are crashing into one another. The crowds mill and teem. Over the top fireworks displays, one of them a huge image of the American flag in the sky, are prominent motifs. The scene reminded me in a way of the riots towards the end of Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust. This seems to be Crews judgment of popular American culture: unruly mobs, mindless demonstrations of patriotism, lust, drunkenness, anarchy. The beauty contest (which everyone agrees Gaye Nell will win) is interrupted by a crashing plane and the ensuing tumult as spectators wade into the ocean to rescue the pilot (shades of Faulkner’s Pylon here).
Following this spectacle, John Kaimon and Gaye Nell retreat into a trailer house and have sex (it’s not exactly accurate to call their sexual encounters lovemaking). The trailer is dismantled and hauled down the highway while they continue to have sex. Gaye Nell hopes prolonged and perhaps violent sex will lead to her loss of the baby. Later, she and Kaimon return to the abandoned hotel for another sex session, and in this one he seeks to secure emotional reactions from Gaye Nell—he wants her to lose her self-discipline, to be lost in the passion of the moment. He succeeds, and as the novel ends (somewhat abruptly and without much warning) they are leaving the abandoned hotel together. For me, the changes or transformations that occur during these trysts are not especially clear—Crews does not explain the transformational dynamics of sex between Kaimon and Gaye Nell—but clearly the end result seems to be Gaye Nell’s domestication and John Kaimon’s rehabilitation of his male identity.
Many aspects of this novel are problematic—its politics, its homophobia, its ending. Yet it is powerful and disturbing. The opening scene in particular, where Gaye Nell walks forcefully through the Florida landscape in her bikini, heading towards the karate group practicing on the beach, is powerful and in many respects unequalled in contemporary literature. This isn’t an easily categorized book. Crews doesn’t write like a graduate of a creative writing program (even though he taught in one for years). His writing is unruly and brutal and spare and direct.