In Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews, Ted Geltner writes about the outsized life and talent of the novelist, journalist and longtime University of Florida writing professor, who died in 2012.
Crews' life was perhaps even more dramatic and strange than those of characters in his books, such as This Thing Don't Lead to Heaven, The Hawk Is Dying, A Feast of Snakes and The Knockout Artist. In this excerpt from the biography, just named a Best Book of 2016 by Publishers Weekly, Geltner describes Crews in Gainesville in the 1970s.
Colette Bancroft, Times book editor
To go along with his running, he had taken up another hobby/obsession into which he could pour his seemingly unlimited reserve of intensity: the training of hawks. As a youngster on the farm he had developed a fascination with predatory birds. During the many hours and days he spent with his grandmother when he was too weak to leave the house, he would watch her feed and care for biddies, young chicks hatched in the pen next to the house. Grandma's biddies occasionally became lunch for the hawks that patrolled the skies of Bacon County. One of Harry's earliest memories was of Grandma's response to the deadly hawks. She put one biddy out in the yard to entice a hawk, but not before she put arsenic on the feathers on the biddy's head. As if on cue, the hawk descended on the farm, coming in low, right over the fence, its red tail fanned and its talons stretched. It grabbed the biddy without a sound, the last bird it would steal from Harry's vengeful grandmother.
As an adult, his fascination with hawks reemerged. "A bird that drinks blood and eats flesh seemed to me then, and seems to me now, an aberration of nature," he wrote. He began to study the history of falconry. He was delighted to learn that Attila the Hun went into battle with a hawk perched on his arm. He discovered The Art of Falconry, by Frederick II, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and it became his ornithological bible. He decided he would trap and train birds using the ancient techniques that Emperor Frederick had written about seven centuries earlier, using leather hoods and jesses for the birds, and feeding them off his wrist.
He trapped two hawks, a red-shoulder and a red-tail, at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, a twenty-thousand-acre savannah located ten miles south of Gainesville. Soon, he had converted his garage in their quiet residential neighborhood into a coop, nailing plywood across the garage opening from floor to eye level, and filling the top in with chicken wire. Not all the neighbors felt this was an acceptable use of the garage.
He also met with some resistance to his new hobby in the English Department. Word of Harry's hawk operation, like many of his colorful pursuits, had filtered through the faculty. A female professor heard that a hawk had died as a result of Harry and Frederick II's training techniques, which included starving the hawks into submission. At a cocktail party, Harry and the professor got into a heated discussion about "the noble bird," and the temperature of the discussion climbed higher and higher as Harry, several drinks coursing through his system, loudly defended his methods.
"You have no right! You have no right!" the professor screamed as yet another party was reduced to chaos. The scene would reappear a few years later, slightly fictionalized, when Harry's novel about hawk training was published.