Harry Crews, beyond the bravadoApril 1, 2012
By Dwight Garner for the New York Times
“How do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mr. Death?”
So read the tattoo that the rowdy Georgia-born novelist Harry Crews had inked beneath a skull on his right arm — the phrase comes from an e.e. cummings poem — and that he liked to be photographed displaying.
Crews died Wednesday at 76. I suspect Mr. Death is already finding him to be a handful.
His best books mix comedy and moral outrage, which he combined and lighted on the page like diesel fuel. Their swaggering characters had outsize personalities; so did he. A gallery of gruff faces squint from his dust jackets, from the grizzled swamp sage on the back of his 1978 memoir A Childhood to the Mohawk haircut and pit-bull grimace he later favored.
Crews wrote about the South’s white poor, a world he knew intimately. He was a tenant farmer’s son, and he felt the burden of his hard upbringing.
“I was so humiliated by the fact that I was from the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp in the worst hookworm and rickets part of Georgia I could not bear to think of it,” he wrote in an Esquire magazine essay, later collected in the book Blood and Grits. “Everything I had written had been out of a fear and loathing for what I was and who I was. It was all out of an effort to pretend otherwise.”
His characters tended to have similar upbringings, and they often became freakish performance artists in an effort to escape their fates. Herman Mack, the protagonist of Car (1972), commences to eat an entire Ford Maverick; in The Knockout Artist (1988), Eugene Biggs exploits his ability, via his fantastically vulnerable jaw, to knock himself out. These men are absurdist one-trick ponies.
For sure they are men of action, not words.
“Knowing, like thinking, accomplished nothing,” Crews’ alter-ego protagonist says in his novel All We Need of Hell (1987). “Thinking always left you precisely where you were. You couldn’t think your way out of a gas chamber or across barbed wire. The act was the thing.”
Crews’ undergraduate writing teacher was Andrew Lytle, the Southern Agrarian who had also taught Flannery O’Connor and James Dickey. Norman Mailer once compared Crews to Dickey, and there was some of O’Connor in his grotesques. But his characters were his own.
The rap against his work has long been that he went to the well too often for the same themes, and that the women in his work tended be cartoonish. There’s some truth to both of those observations. What’s more, Crews was never the most subtle writer. As his career went on, his stuff lost nuance — he became more of a belter, less likely to worry his way through a complex sentence or thought.
But when Crews was on — as he was especially in his first novel, The Gospel Singer (1968), and in Car and in his memoir — few writers could touch his authority and muscle. The novelist Russell Banks, reviewing All We Need of Hell in The New York Times Book Review, put it quite well: “His prose has the qualities he says Coach Jake Gaither of Florida A&M required of football players: ‘Agile, mobile and hostile.”’
Crews is not an easy writer to dip into. “The smell of blood is on them,” he has said of his books, “the sense of mortality is a little too strong.” But the effort is stoutly repaid. If you haven’t read him, A Childhood is probably the place to start. It’s among the rawest and most undersung memoirs of the last century.
About his youthful fascination with the Sears catalog, Crews writes in that book:
“Nearly everybody I knew had something missing, a finger cut off, a toe split, an ear half-chewed away, an eye clouded with blindness from a glancing fence staple. And if they didn’t have something missing, they were carrying scars from barbed wire, or knives, or fishhooks. But the people in the catalog had no such hurts. They were not only whole, had all their arms and legs and eyes on their unscarred bodies, but they were also beautiful.”
Crews learned to find strange beauty just about everyplace. “There is something beautiful about scars of whatever nature,” he wrote in his novel Scar Lover (1992). “A scar means the hurt is over, the wound is closed and healed, done with.”
Harry Crews was always an outsider, a man who battled serial demons. About drinking, he wrote:
“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. ”’
The literary world needs its outsiders and outlaws, now more than ever, and with Crews’ passing there are very, very few of them left.