By Rich Weidman
An autographed photograph of author Harry Crews (1935-2012) hangs inside my hallway closet (for some unknown reason, my wife won’t let me hang it in the living room). It’s a grainy image of Crews with a trademark grimace and one of the scariest haircuts you’ve ever seen in your life. He’s flexing his right arm to reveal the tattoo of a skull accompanied by the words “How Do You Like Your Blue-Eyed Boy, Mr. Death?” from e.e. cumming’s famous poem. The inscription reads: “Live long and well, Harry Crews.”
I first discovered the works of Harry Crews quite by accident in the early 1980s. I had already devoured most of Flannery O’Connor’s novels and was particularly taken with Wise Blood, the story of Hazel Motes and his struggles to start “The Church without Christ.” A friend suggested I read something by “a fuckin’ nut” named Harry Crews who had apparently taken the Southern Grotesque tradition to its natural extreme. I was horrified to find out that the three Crews novels listed in the card catalog of the college library had all been ripped off by obsessed students who had come before me. So I had to settle for a tattered copy of his collection of essays, Blood & Grits. Although I admired the entire book, one essay stood out, “Going Down in Valdez.” It seems that Playboy magazine had commissioned Crews to head up to Alaska and write a piece on the pipeline. Crews spent most of the time getting shitfaced. You can tell he didn’t give a damn about researching the pipeline and its workers; his primary goal was to find a bar and get hammered. What really stood out about the essay was the night Crews got “sensationally drunk” and woke up outside a trailer with a hinge tattooed to his inside right elbow.
Later, I was working on my master’s degree in English at the University of Florida but I didn’t have the guts to take Crews’ course in creative writing. And besides, the class was always full with a waiting list a mile long. Crews was already an established legend by this time and word of his latest exploits traveled quickly throughout the English Department. Whether it was getting totally trashed with Tennessee Williams at Lillian’s Music Store or getting arrested in St. Augustine for standing on the bar at a sleazy nightclub called Slip Disk Disco and peeing on the head of a guy who had insulted him, Crews always kept things interesting. For some unknown reason, I got the strange feeling that the other professors might have been appalled by the behavior of their “colleague.” As for his own part, Crews didn’t seem to give a shit. When he wasn’t teaching students, Crews was out getting drunk, pumping iron, studying karate, taking a coast-to-coast motorcycle excursion, hiking a portion of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maryland, training hawks, kicking some ass in a sleazy bar or getting his ass kicked in same bar. He also claimed to enjoy watching so-called “blood sports” – boxing, cockfighting, dogfighting and bullfighting. And writing, always writing. He lived outside of Gainesville in a rustic cabin on a lake without any of the modern amenities: no television, no telephone, no newspaper and no mail delivery. Just an old typewriter on top of a makeshift desk constructed out of cinderblocks and an old door.
Throughout my short stint in Gainesville, I continued to devour many of Crews’ novels such as This Thing Don’t Lead to Heaven, All We Need of Hell and A Feast of Snakes. A couple of years later, after a night of drinking, I came home and plopped down to watch some television. Imagine my surprise to see Crews being interviewed by none other than Dennis Miller on his short-lived late-night show! Crews came out with a Mohawk haircut (complete with sideburns), declaring it “freak the citizens month!” He showed the audience his hinge tattoo. It was painfully obvious that Miller knew nothing of Crews or his work but he invited him out to “bust up some bars” after the show. Crews didn’t give a shit; he was all for raising a little hell.
One thing I’ve always admired about Crews is his brutal honesty when assessing his life and work. If you don’t believe me, just check out a copy of Getting Naked with Harry Crews (edited by Erik Bledsoe, University Press of Florida, 1999, 365 pages), a remarkable collection of 26 interviews with Crews that spans nearly 30 years – from the publication of his first novel, The Gospel Singer, in 1968, to his retirement from the University of Florida in 1997. It’s fascinating to hear Crews expound on his painful childhood, his literary influences and his elaboration on the art of writing. We witness the young and raw Crews as an up-and-coming talent, a down-and-out Crews at the lowest ebb in his career (during one interview, he downs a can of Budweiser at 10:15 AM) and a clean and sober Crews vowing to piss on the graves of his critics. It’s classic Crews all the way.
The son of tenant farmers, Harry Eugene Crews was born in Bacon County, Georgia, on June 7, 1935. Crews’ childhood was full of misfortune: his father died of a massive heart attack, he suffered a severe case of infantile paralysis that made him look like a freak and he was accidentally flung into a vat of scalding water, causing second-degree burns over most of his body. His mother married his uncle, a violent drunk who beat Crews on a daily basis. Needless to say, poverty was a way of life in Bacon County and Crews subsisted on a “steady diet of biscuits made with lard and water, no milk.” The first member of his family to graduate from high school, Crews joined the Marine Corps at the age of 17. He taught at a junior high school in Jacksonville and a junior college in Ft. Lauderdale before publishing his first novel at the age of 32 and returning to the University of Florida to teach creative writing. Crews admits that he always felt like an outsider at the university with no close friends among the other professors. He embarked on a period of great productivity that included such classic works as Naked in Garden Hills, This Thing Don’t Lead to Heaven, Karate is a Thing of the Spirit, Car, The Hawk is Dying, The Gypsy’s Curse, A Feast of Snakes and the intensely personal A Childhood: The Biography of a Place about his early childhood in Bacon County.
Starting in the late 1970s, Crews went on an extended drinking binge that lasted nearly 10 years. In the late 1980s, Crews turned to scriptwriting and made friends with such actors as Sean Penn, Madonna and Robert Duvall. Crews even appeared for about 30 seconds in Penn’s directorial debut, The Indian Runner. By this time, Crews had sobered up and he churned out a couple more classics such as All We Need of Hell, The Knockout Artist, Body and Scar Lover. In All We Need of Hell, Crews remarks, "He didn't like to be too far from his books. They were—the best of them, anyway—efforts to get a handle on the world, to name the abyss, to wrestle with it, and at the same time to avoid bullshit."
Crews has published 23 books to date and his work has been variously labeled as “Southern Grotesque,” “Southern Gothic,” “Grit Lit,” and “Redneck Macho.” All of his novels are populated with freaks, lowlifes, misfits, losers and psychopaths. In Naked in Garden Hills, a 600-pound entrepreneur named “Fat Man” devolves into a sideshow freak. In Car, a character named Herman Mack actually consumes a 1971 Ford Maverick, piece by piece. In The Gypsy’s Curse, a legless deaf mute named Marvin Molar lives in a Florida gym and thrills everyone with his hand-balancing act. In A Feast of Snakes, a former high school football star goes on a killing spree at a rattlesnake roundup. In The Knockout Artist, a washed-out prizefighter punches himself out for cash. Believe it or not, a midget makes an appearance in Crews’ first three novels: Foot in The Gospel Singer, Jester in Naked in Garden Hills and Jefferson Davis Munroe in This Thing Don’t Lead to Heaven. According to Crews, all of his books concern the “nature of belief.”
Through all the triumphs and tragedies of his frequently chaotic but always fascinating life, a battered and bloodied Crews always bounced up off the canvas, ready to go one more round: “I can be hungry, homeless, wet, in debt, fucked up; but if I’m writing, that’s enough.”
THE QUOTABLE CREWS
“Alcohol whipped me. Alcohol and I had many, many marvelous times together. We laughed, we talked, we danced at the party together; then one day I woke up and the band had gone home and I was lying in the broken glass with a shirt full of puke and I said, ‘Hey, man, the ball game’s up’.”
On the Beat Generation
“That Beat thing was just a little ripple in a very large pond. If Jack Kerouac had only been able to keep it together, hold it together. You know he died a rank conservative about a hundred and fifty miles from where we sit, in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, living off his mother, with a John Kennedy half dollar taped in his navel?”
On Contemporary Readers
“The reading public bothers me, though. They don’t want to read about the blood and bones and guts of an issue. They want to read about something they’re not going to have to think about, and if it does hurt them, as say Love Story does, it won’t last very long. What has happened in this country is a failure of the imagination.”
On Critics of His Work
“So, the dumbasses out there that are watching television until they are rotting in their souls, watching Walter Cronkite and Happy Days, who cannot read my fiction, and say that it’s gratuitous, I say they have no eyes, no ears, no heart, no mouth, no sympathy, no charity for the human predicament. And they think that the human predicament and situation is living over in suburbia with a high wall around yourself and worrying about your annuities and your tax-sheltered income.”
“Movies can be fantastic experiences, but if one out of twenty or one out of forty is worth a shit, then you’re lucky.”
“Hell came right along with God, hand in hand. The stink of sulfur swirled in the air of the church, fire burned in the aisles, and brimstone rained out of the rafters. From the evangelist’s oven mouth spewed images of a place with pitchforks, and devils, and lakes of fire that burned forever. God had fixed a place like that because he loved us so much.” —A Childhood: The Biography of A Place
“I had possessions once. I mean, I had them up around my fucking neck. I thought and felt that I was not in control, that they owned me. After all, if you have a house and a car and nine jillion pieces of furniture, you’re not mobile. You’re not anything. You’re stuck. Some people will say it’s a great way to be stuck, and maybe it is for them, but the notion of having a bunch of shit that I have to stay around and take care of doesn’t wear well with me.”
“But in terms of the satisfaction you get from doing something or the way you feel about it, money ain’t shit. Money does not count. It just simply does not. If money meant anything, then you would never become a writer anyway.”
“Contrary to popular belief, I’m not a violent person. But if you wrong me, I’ll kill your fucking ass, and I’ll spend the rest of my life in jail. I’ll kill your fucking ass and you can count on it; depend on it.”
On William Faulkner
“Faulkner’s rhetoric is the sea around us whose depth more than one of us has drowned. He is such an overwhelming talent that he has damaged a whole generation of writers, because they all come along and try to be Faulkner and to write about the stuff that to him was a blood-and-bone issue and to them only a kind of romantic nonsense. You see, you can’t fake any of this in art.”
“Being a fiction writer is a good way to go crazy, it’s a good way to be a nervous wreck, it’s a good way to become a drunk. You continually pick at yourself, the little sores that you have. They scab over and you pick them open again. Other people not only let them scab over, they let them scar over. They leave it alone. Writers don’t do that. They can’t keep their fingers out of the sore. They’ve got to keep it bleeding. And it’s off that blood that they make their stuff.”