Diamond in the Roughneck: The Books of Harry Crews

Anyone’s death diminishes us, said John Donne in the famous meditation that begins “No man is an island.” But when writers die, whole continents of the imagination go with them. This past spring alone we suffered the loss of arguably the two greatest masters of modern American fantasy and children’s literature, Ray Bradbury and Maurice Sendak. Just think how much poorer our lives would be without The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, without Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen.

By the time of their deaths, though, both Bradbury and Sendak had grown canonical, come to be viewed as cuddly teddy bears of American literature. The darkness and transgressiveness of their best work wasn’t precisely overlooked, just subverted. Bradbury’s accounts of the Martian genocide and the insidious brainwashing of screen culture, like Sendak’s visions of the various monsters of the child’s id, had gradually been reduced to teaching points. They no longer shocked or surprised us. We now detect in their books a displaced midwesterner’s lyrical nostalgia, a New York Jew’s exuberant cultural allusiveness.

Could this happen to Harry Crews? It seems unlikely. Crews’s motto seems to have been: “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” When this Rabelaisian southern novelist died on March 28 at age seventy-six, all the obituaries stressed the grotesquerie of his characters and the gothic excesses of his plots. After all, Crews’s fiction regularly depicts the hardscrabble, hard-drinking world of desperate crazies, freaks, and poor white trash. In books like The Gospel Singer, The Gypsy’s Curse, A Feast of Snakes, Car, and a dozen others, Crews takes us into the heads of midgets, snake-handlers, former cheerleaders, bodybuilders, revivalist preachers, deaf-mutes with vestigial legs who walk on their hands, aging boxers, sexual sadists, and every sort of bad girl and good ol’ boy. All the novels are drenched in blood and broken bones and existential despair, sexually overheated, and charged with a violence that ranges from psychological horror to castration, mercy killing, and mass murder.

To a large extent, Crews’s books present the life of this world as a carnival sideshow, gaudy, extravagant, and sad. The deaf-mute who walks on his hands — in The Gypsy’s Curse — explains that his name is actually Marvin Molarski, but “I dropped the ‘ski’ part of it and just call myself Marvin Molar. I figured I had enough wrong with me without being a Polack.” Note that last word: Crews uses the language of the people he writes about, and he pulls no punches. As a result, there’s an energetic gusto, a kind of swagger to his books that grabs you on the first page and never lets go. Remember the first time you read The Catcher in the Rye and heard the unmistakable voice of Holden Caulfield? Crews’s books are like that. They may be written, and carefully written at that, and their action may be Dixie-surreal, but their narrators all sound easygoing, conversational, and rational, even the worst of them. As Crews has frequently said, no man is ever a villain in his own heart.

For many readers, though, this novelist’s best book isn’t a novel. If there’s a finer American memoir than A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, I’d like to know what it is. The place of the subtitle is Bacon County, Georgia, a postage stamp of soil populated by dirt-poor tenant farmers, including Crews’s extended family. Most of the book consists of stories — about Crews’s father and stepfather, his mother, Myrtice, various uncles, and the black family down the road, all of them leading lives of unrelenting desperation but somehow emerging as models of cheerfulness, moral rectitude, and raw courage.

That may sound hokey, but these people are tough. A Childhood opens with a man losing a testicle to gonorrhea. He nonetheless goes on to cut a wide swathe among the ladies, before falling in love with a young girl named Myrtice and eventually working himself into an early grave to provide for her and their two children. Ray Crews succumbed to a sudden heart attack while lying in a bed next to his twenty-one-month-old son, Harry.

But that’s not the whole story. The night after the funeral, somebody broke into the family’s smokehouse and stole all the cured meat that Ray Crews had worked himself to death over. His son writes:

He was one of my daddy’s friends. I do not say he was supposedly or apparently a friend. He was a friend, and a close one, but he stole the meat anyway. Not many people may be able to understand that or sympathize with it, but I think I do. It was a hard time in that land, and a lot of men did things for which they were ashamed and suffered for the rest of their lives. But they did them because of hunger and sickness and because they could not bear the sorry spectacle of their children dying from lack of a doctor and their wives growing old before they were thirty.

A Childhood covers just the first seven years of Harry Crews’s life and is largely based on what the future writer heard people say and repeat and recollect around tavern stoves or at quilting bees. As he says, “Nothing is allowed to die in a society of storytelling people. It is all — the good and the bad — carted up and brought along from one generation to the next. And everything that is brought is colored and shaped by those who bring it.” There are some wonderful vignettes and character portraits:

Grandpa spent most of his time reading the three newspapers he subscribed to, newspapers brought by the mailman. It didn’t bother him that the newspapers were always two or three days out of date; he read them all from the first pages to the last, staying up until the small hours of the morning with a kerosene lamp beside him, all the while taking little sips out of a mason fruit jar full of moonshine which he kept on the mantelpiece over the fireplace. He didn’t get drunk; he just liked to have little sips while he was awake.

He stopped only long enough to look about now and then to see if anybody was about to do something. If they were, he would explain in great and careful detail just how they should do it. He would do this whether he knew anything about the task at hand or not. Then he would go back to his newspaper.

Even before he could read or write himself, the young Crews invented a way to make up his own stories. With his friend Willalee Bookatee, he would open the Sears Roebuck catalogue and study the handsome people modeling business suits and ladies’ underwear. How perfect they were! By contrast, “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.” Harry and Willalee soon “decided that all the people in the catalogue were related, not necessarily blood kin, but knew one another, and because they knew one another there had to be hard feelings, trouble between them off and on, violence, and hate between them as well as love. And it was out of this knowledge that I first began to make up stories about the people I found in the book.”

Crews had time for such daydreaming because he was often bedridden. By the age of seven he had suffered a mysterious crippling paralysis that prevented him from walking for months, then he nearly died while playing crack the whip. He was flung off and sent hurtling into a huge cauldron of boiling water. Much of his skin dropped away from his flesh, but he survived. As if this weren’t enough, his beloved stepfather — Ray Crews’s brother — later grew more and more violent during alcoholic binges, finally taking a shot at Myrtice, who immediately escaped with her children to Jacksonville, Florida, where she found a job at the King Edward Cigar factory. The whole town, Crews recalls, smelled of combustion. To make some pocket money, the country boy took a job sweeping and cleaning up in a butcher shop — until the day when a man rushed in and asked, with desperate urgency, for a knife, which he proceeded to jam into his chest. He carried on a conversation with the terrified Harry until he finally collapsed.

Eventually, Harry, along with his mother and brother, returned to Bacon County, where further adventures — with hellfire preachers and little girls — awaited him. Already he possessed the curiosity and eagerness for experience of the true novelist. When a farmhand scurried off one night for some dark purpose, Crews writes: “I couldn’t imagine where he was going, but I knew I wanted to watch.”

A Childhood: The Biography of a Place is most readily available in the omnibus Classic Crews, which also contains two novels, The Gypsy’s Curse and Car. In some ways, the latter is Crews-lite, but it’s hard to resist the premise of the book. Herman Mack, a guileless and innocent young man who wants to be someone, to leave his mark, announces that he is going to eat a car, an entire 1971 Ford Maverick, half a pound a day, in small half-ounce chunks.

His family is appalled. The Macks own Auto-Town, a forty-three-acre junkyard, and cars are in their blood. The father, known as Easy Mack, had been one of the South’s best shade-tree mechanics; Herman’s twin brother, Mister, runs the car-crushing machinery; and sister Junell drives a tow truck called “Big Mama.” Junell generally meets her boyfriend, a state patrolman, only at major pile-ups, where, amid the wreckage, he likes to fondle her breasts in the back of his souped-up cruiser, while constantly repeating “I love you” and “I respect you for this.”

Herman’s car-eating stunt soon attracts vast media attention, bringing in contracts from national television networks and earning serious money for Mr. Edge, who runs the Hotel Sherman. He even gives the young man access — totally without charge and whenever wanted — to the hotel whore, Margot, who also happens to have a thing about cars, having lost her virginity to a football player with a Corvette. As Herman says, “Everything that’s happened in this goddam country in the last fifty years…has happened in, on, around with, or near a car.”

But what happens in the novel is…well, you should enjoy the book for yourself.

When you finish Car, you’ll want to go on to Crews’s other novels. The Gypsy’s Curse is less satirical and much darker — this is the one about the misfits linked to Al Molarski’s gym — but the writing may be even more outstanding. Here, for instance, is our first glimpse of Russell Muscle, a character who appears in several Crews novels:

He was lying on his back with his hands folded over his fifty-two inch chest. He turned his head, then he opened his eyes. A little sour spot settled on each side of his nose. He got off the bed and took five deep breaths. Except for his head, he was hairless, even his pubes. He used Nair liquid hair remover, about a bottle a day. The slightest bit of hair on his chest or legs drove him crazy. All the body builders stayed hairless, claiming as they did that hair blurred the line of the muscle, their definition, and Muscle was one of the great ones. He had more than forty titles to his credit, things like Mr. Muscle Beach, Mr. Southeastern United States, Mr. Florida, and Mr. Dairy Products. In the dark room, he glowed like a light. But it wasn’t just because it was dark. He glowed wherever he was. It was like his skin had been hand-polished all the way from his wide intelligent-looking forehead down to his beautiful feet where blue veins ran in perfect symmetry up into thin, almost delicate ankles and on finally into nineteen-inch calves that were honed and toned into razor-cut definition.

Besides sixteen novels, Harry Crews also produced a great mass of personal journalism — much of it reprinted in Blood and Grits — and gave dozens of startling interviews, many of them collected in Getting Naked with Harry Crews, edited by his former student Eric Bledsoe. This book helps to fill in the later life of the little boy we met in A Childhood. At seventeen Crews joined the Marines, then read every book he could find in various barrack libraries, fell in love with the work of Graham Greene (The Power and the Glory seems to be his favorite novel, as it is the favorite of Duffy Deeter, the despondent lawyer and physical fitness obsessive in All We Need of Hell), later spent a year and a half as a carny, short-order cook, and drifter, managed to earn a college degree from the University of Florida because of the G.I. loan, and duly cranked out five novels before The Gospel Singer was accepted by a publisher in 1968.

In the decade following, Crews produced nearly a book a year, taught writing at his alma mater, and lived like a wild man. “My personal life is, and has been, as long as I can remember, a shambles.” He kept his possessions down to what he could throw into the back of a pickup, worked out regularly in weight rooms and gyms, practiced karate, frequented cockfights, got into barroom brawls, and, after his divorce, took up with a series of young women. He once told an interviewer: “I’ve broken my neck and broken my nose nine times and had my left cheek crushed and one leg broken and the other one at the knee entirely torn out, had fingers on both hands broken, ribs on both sides broken, had my sternum for God’s sake cracked. I’ll quit there.” A writer, he calmly explains, needs to make himself vulnerable, naked, and open to experience. “The miracle of the world, the miracle of a rebirth of the senses, the miracle of an accepting heart can only be paid for with blood and bone. No other currency has ever been acceptable.” Little wonder that Crews has long been likened to those gonzo masters Charles Bukowski and Hunter Thompson.

After his two best books — the novel A Feast of Snakes in 1976 and A Childhood in 1978 — Crews seems to have drunk away much of the 1980s, producing little but some excellent journalism for Esquire and Playboy. When he finally dried out and stayed sober, he turned out another half-dozen novels — The Knock Out Artist and Body being perhaps the best — before his hard-worked and abused body finally gave out on him. Sadly, this raucous, lovable hellraiser spent his last decade in a wheelchair, dying from neuropathy.

All in all, Getting Naked with Harry Crews is not just fun to read but also revelatory. Crews tells us, for instance, that Car “came directly out of my fear of, horror of, and hatred for automobiles. I don’t even own a car.” He emphasizes that “I take all my books to be about the nature of faith. How does a man come to believe what he believes? How do you get to belief and how do you hold on to it? God, wife, job, whatever.” A Childhood, he says, was the hardest of his books to write, Car one of the easiest (six weeks), and Naked in Garden Hills his favorite. He insists that his fiction isn’t precisely autobiographical but admits that he draws heavily on aspects of his own life and that of people he knows.

Crews also means for his books to be comic, in a black-humored, Boschian way. Nonetheless he adds that “I never set out to be funny. I’ve never thought of myself as a funny person. Not many people laugh when I’m around. I walk into the bank and all the guards put their hand on their guns.” He explains that he writes about freaks and midgets because they confront the “crushing reality” of their lives every time they encounter anyone new. “You don’t get over being two and a half feet tall.” Besides, he stresses, “fiction always deals with extremes. Fiction is always about someone whose ass is on the line.” A hatred for wimpiness and bluff and prevarication accounts, too, for his obvious admiration for athletes. As he says, you can’t fake it on the playing field. If you claim to be able to bench-press 450 pounds, let’s load up the bar and just see. “Ultimately, sports are just about as close to what one could call the truth as it is possible to get in the world.”

Except, of course, for the truth of fiction. Crews’s books can be shocking and unpleasant; they are meant to shake you up. But the prose always sings, and you cannot tear yourself away from them, even when they offer, to use a biblical phrase, the fascination of the abomination. As Crews told one interviewer: “So far as I can see, nothing good in the world has ever been done by well-rounded people. The good work is done by people with jagged, broken edges, because those edges cut things and leave an imprint, a design.”

Harry Crews’s best work does even more: It leaves a wound, it leaves a scar.