I remember my professors at Marshall University, back when I studied journalism about 100 years ago, warning me to avoid using the word “unique.” There are few if any things in this world, they cautioned, that are truly the only one of their kind.
But “unique” seems the only appropriate word to discuss the colorful books penned by Lee Maynard, who died June 16 at 80 years old. Maynard was a controversial West Virginia gift to contemporary American literature. Few readers of his books came away without a strong opinion of them. They either loved or hated what he wrote.
Maynard was born and raised in Wayne County, and that upbringing, far from any sidewalks or supermarkets, infused his writing with a love of the land and honest respect for nature. But ultimately his books would owe at least as much to the brand of humor found in films such as “Animal House” and “Porky’s” as they do to Thoreau’s “Walden.”
When he was 14, Maynard and his family moved away from Crum, the little town where he grew up. It’s likely a good thing he left Crum behind, because his debut novel, “Crum,” rubbed lots of folks there the wrong way.
When the Washington Square Press, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, published “Crum” in 1988, Maynard put a disclaimer on the book’s first page: “Other than the town of Crum, nothing in this book is real. The people do not exist, the events never happened.”
But that didn’t stop people from seeing themselves and their town in the book. And many didn’t like what they saw. Moreover, Maynard laced his debut novel with lots of profanity and explicit sex, offending other readers.
“Crum” chronicles a year in the life of a teenage narrator who dreams of escaping the poverty and isolation of his hometown. Noting the roadside sign at the edge of town said “Crum — unincorporated,” Maynard’s narrator suggests it should have said “unnecessary.”
“During the winters in Crum,” Maynard wrote, “the days were long, boring and cold, and during the summers the days were long, boring and hot. In Crum, only the temperature changed.”
To relieve the boredom, the boy and his buddies have a series of adventures (and misadventures) that are both comic and poignant — dynamiting outhouses, brawling with boys from across the river in Kentucky and, of course, discovering the opposite sex.
The original edition of “Crum” soon went out of print. But word of mouth would make it a cult classic, with scarce secondhand copies often selling for $100 or more.
Sometimes called “a book that wouldn’t die,” Maynard’s first novel was republished by Vandalia Press (an imprint of West Virginia University Press) in the summer of 2001. It was the first book published by Vandalia and within a year became the first best-selling book in the history of the WVU Press.
Patrick W. Connor, director of WVU Press at the time, praised the book: “While the explicit sex and use of profanity may offend some, I think readers who honestly remember their youthful trials and tribulations will appreciate the frankness of this novel.”
Connor’s opinion wasn’t shared by all. The book was roundly denounced as perpetuating the hillbilly stereotype. And Tamarack, the state-run art and crafts center in Beckley, deemed it unsuitable for sale.
Maynard was philosophical about being banned in his home state. In an interview posted on the WVU website, he said:
“My first reaction was about 30 seconds of rage and indignation. I was like, my god, who would do such a thing? Then I thought, hey, I’m in some good company — Twain, Faulkner, Maya Angelou, Shakespeare — they have all had their books banned at some time, in some place. There is always someone trying to regulate your life, telling you what to think and what to know, and in the final analysis, I really appreciated being added to that list. Ultimately, it didn’t bother me at all. I loved it.”
By 2002, most of the ill feeling against Maynard in Crum had died out, and that year saw the Wayne County Public Library host a reception for him.
In 2003, Maynard followed “Crum” with a sequel, “Screaming with the Cannibals,” in which his narrator, now older, leaves home and ventures into Kentucky.
Growing up in Crum, the boy and the town’s other youngsters had been warned that the savages across the river in Kentucky were bloodthirsty cannibals who had been known to eat their children. Crossing the river, he finds no cannibals. Instead, he simply discovers folks there are pretty much like people in West Virginia — some are good-hearted and some aren’t.
The third and last volume of the trilogy, “Scummers,” was published by Vandalia in 2012. At the same time, Vandalia published a new edition of “Crum” with a new cover. Maynard wrote other books as well. In all, Vandalia published six books by him. But he surely will best be remembered for his “Crum” trilogy and especially for that breakthrough first entry in the trio.
When “Crum” was first published, Publishers Weekly, the widely read publishing industry trade journal, turned thumbs down on it.
An unidentified reviewer wrote: “With its preoccupation with adolescent sex, and a plethora of obscene and scatological language, silly pranks and fisticuffs, this inaugural novel in the Washington Square Press original fiction line will only appeal to readers with sophomoric tastes.”
But it was Maynard who would have the last laugh. “Crum” has been hailed as a classic coming-of-age novel. Fellow West Virginia authors, including Meredith Sue Willis and Stephen Coonts, have warmly praised it.
Willis has said it’s one of her “all-time favorites,” Coonts has labeled it a “masterpiece,” and over the years, “Crum” has become required reading in literature classes at a score of prestigious universities.
Abby Freeland, sales/marketing director and fiction editor at WVU Press, worked closely with Maynard over the last several years.
“I quickly learned,” she said, “that on and off the page, Lee Maynard’s greatest gift was his ability to put everyone he met at the center of the room.
“While he often blurred the lines between truth and fiction in his writing, preferring to remain a mystery to his fans, there was never a doubt that he was authentic and absolute. He was kind, thoughtful and generous, and he knew how to cut through the noise and find the truth.
“Without him, the world has diminished, but his light will shine on through his work.”
James E. Casto is a retired associate editor of the Herald-Dispatch.