Harry Crews fretted at times that his persona as a “wild man” overshadowed the reputation of his painstaking work, but that did not stop the obstreperous author, even in old age and declining health, from moderating his behavior.
“I showed up to interview him once, and he had a black eye,” says Ted Geltner, author of Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews, just released by the University of Georgia Press. The title derives from the elements Crews vehemently argued were essential for successful writing. (Crime novelist Michael Connelly wrote the foreword.) “People from his wild days would show up, and something weird was always happening with Harry.”
That observation is an understatement. This thoroughly detailed and bracingly frank biography has entire sections devoted to Crews’ brawling and his prodigious drinking and drug use, making for a compelling read. Crews’ life story, in fact, comes across like one of his novels: gothic, lusty, battered, excessive and gloriously lurid. “Even his countenance could lead to violence,” Geltner writes. “He had a face that when viewed by bank security guards, he said, caused them to immediately unholster their weapons.”
His arresting mug possessed an undeniable charisma, too, though, and that quality shines through this personal history and makes Crews compelling, even when he is misbehaving (maybe even especially when he is misbehaving). That, and his steely, unflinching discipline as a writer. No matter how dissipated Crews became, he managed to write some 20 novels, including: A Feast of Snakes; The Hawk is Dying; Body; Scar Lover; The Knockout Artist; and All We Need of Hell. Perhaps the most lauded of his books, though, is his sensitive and affecting memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place. He also produced an impressive body of essays, screenplays, and memorable journalism for Esquire and Playboy. (An inside look at cockfighting, anyone? Look no further than “Cockfighting: An Unfashionable View.”) He wrote every day he was able, right up until his death in 2012.
Born in 1935 in an impoverished and isolated Bacon County, Crews grew up just a few miles from the Okefenokee Swamp on a tenant farm. “The world smelled deeply of shit,” Crews wrote in Leaving Home for Home. “Always had. Always would. At only 10 years old, I’d known that fact for a long time. I cannot remember a time when I did not know it.” His father died, and his mother married a man who became the abusive, alcoholic stepfather of nightmares.
“It was, very often, childhood as a house of horrors,” writes Geltner, “and survival would simultaneously warp him and imbue him with an incredible strength and resilience. And the nadir of Harry’s life was to occur just five years in, when he would find himself looking up into the faces of a dozen shrieking children while floating in a pot of scalding water, next to the simmering corpse of a freshly killed hog.” While roughhousing with some other kids at his community’s annual butchering of the pigs, Crews fell into the large vat of near-boiling water, a mishap that left him scarred and traumatized, but not as much as his bout with polio, which caused his legs to draw up to the point where his heels were touching the backs of his thighs – a sight that made his neighbors gawk. “Right there, as a child, I got to the bottom of what it meant to be lost,” Crews wrote, “What it means to be rejected by everybody . . . and everything you ever thought would save you. And there were long days when I wondered why I did not die, how I could go on mindlessly living like a mule or a cow when God had obviously forsaken me.”
Eventually his legs loosened up, and he relearned how to walk by pulling himself alongside a pasture fence – down-home rehab — “but the shame of his disease remained firmly in his conscience,” Geltner writes.
The only books in the Crews household during this time were the Bible and the Sears-Roebuck “wish book,” which inspired the young boy to make up twisted tales about all the pretty models in it. He wrote his first story when he was 14, about a child detective armed, fittingly enough, with firecrackers. By then he knew he wanted to become a writer, and he embarked on the path of the autodidact, reading whatever he could get his hands on.
Crews served in the Marines and then attended the University of Florida briefly on the G.I. Bill, but, inspired by Jack Kerouac, dropped out to travel the country, where he worked in bars and restaurants as he roved around on his motorcycle. He eventually finished his studies, became a teacher, and embarked, for a time, on a domesticated lifestyle with a wife and two kids. One of his sons drowned in a neighbor’s pool, and his marriage dissolved afterward. Then Crews became, among other things, a legendary philanderer; he never remarried, but remained friends with his wife, Sally.
His first novel, The Gospel Singer – the story of a debauched troubadour, a midget with a giant foot, and a chicken-eating geek, ending in a conflagration of harrowing violence — was published in 1968, and from then on, the publishing world in New York took heed of this brash new writer from the South who seemed to be the cockeyed, swaggering heir to Flannery O’Connor. Geltner writes:
“One evening in the spring of 1969, Harry was at the typewriter, and Sally (his wife) picked up a chapter, sat down, and began reading. After a few sentences she looked up. ‘Harry,’ she asked, ‘you don’t intend to make a career out of midgets, do you?’ Indeed, though Harry claimed he hadn’t realized it at the time, she had a point. Third novel; third midget. . . . A question about ‘freaks’ was now an essential part of any discussion of Harry’s work. He eschewed the psychological analysis that said that freaks appeared because Harry saw a freak in himself. No, he said, it wasn’t just him. It was everybody, every last one of us. Those of us without deformities are just able to hide our inner freakishness.”
From this rich material, Geltner has wrought a seamless, briskly paced book that is panoramic in its scope on its outsize subject, putting him in the proper context of the tumultuous times – drugs were plentiful in ’70s-era Gainesville, Florida, where Crews was a long-time professor of creative writing — and his hard-won, well-earned place in the canon. Geltner is a professor of journalism at Valdosta State University, but he was a reporter for The Gainesville Sun when he first profiled Crews. He approached the author in 2010 about writing this biography, and Crews reportedly told him, “Ask me anything you want, bud, but you’d better do it quick.” The years of alcoholism had taken their toll, and Crews was having trouble even walking across his living room.
Geltner’s previous book was a biography of Jim Murray, one of the most influential sportswriters of the past century. “That was an easy book to write because he was such a beloved guy, and people wanted to say wonderful things about him,” Geltner says. “There were obstacles in writing about Harry, though, because he had ended badly with so many people, and the people who had not fallen out with him didn’t necessarily want to talk about the behavior they engaged in with Harry. They didn’t want that stuff on the record. I had never run into that before – so many people unwilling to be interviewed.”
Even the salt-of-the-earth folks in Bacon County mostly wanted to stay mum about their native son. Tom Davis, a local preacher, tells Geltner, “What I see from talking to people is that there has been attached to Harry’s name a sort of negativity. What they will tell you is ‘We really don’t want Harry to stand for Bacon County or we don’t want to hold Harry up as an emblem of what we want to be.’ It’s almost as if Harry was a whispered and unpleasant rumor that passed through these parts, rather than a real person.”
More’s the pity. Based on A Childhood alone, the county should erect a statue to the rowdy scribbler who gave voice to the “grits,” as he affectionately called the downtrodden, damaged and dispossessed Southerners from his pineywoods provenance. Here is hoping that Geltner’s biography will solidify Crews’ reputation not only as a peckerwood swashbuckler but also as a serious, prolific literary force who deserves a wider and more appreciative audience.
Would Crews, who died just as the research was getting underway, be pleased with this clear-eyed account of his life, which includes some less-than-flattering moments, or would he start swinging his fists?
“I hope he would appreciate it,” Geltner says. “He was all about not hiding anything. About ‘getting naked,’ as he put it, and staying ‘close to the bone’ in writing and in living. He had a fierce commitment to telling the truth.”