Harry Crews at work on new volume of memoirs

GAINESVILLE

Harry Crews has been writing about pain for a long time. These days, the novelist and retired professor is talking about it a lot, too.

"I've lived a violent life," Crews growls, in a voice that calls up his Georgia roots.

"I've had a knee taken out, my neck broken, my ribs broken, all kinds of stuff. I'm all busted up."

He is 73, and his big square fist is still powerful when he shakes hands. But he can walk only with difficulty; he slumps restlessly in a well-worn living room chair.

His blue eyes are sunken, sometimes difficult to look into. In flowing blue ink across the top of his right arm, under a tattooed skull, are the last lines from E.E. Cummings' poem Buffalo Bill's defunct:

How do

you like

your blue-

eyed boy,

Mr. Death?

The sunny room is testament to a writer's career: shelves packed with books, posters and photos of Crews appearing at literary conferences and hanging out with celebrities like Charles Bronson.

"I start writing at 2 in the morning," Crews says. "What doesn't get written by 9 doesn't get written. I write every day of the year."

He's working on the second volume of his memoirs, titled Assault of Memory.

"I won't finish it," he says.

Rattlesnakes, pit bulls

The current issue of the Georgia Review, a distinguished literary journal, is devoted to Crews.

It contains a harrowing and heartbreaking excerpt from his memoir in progress, a selection of his letters to and from his editors, and an article by author Larry Baker about teaching Crews' novels to college students.

Crews says, "I recently sold what writers call your trash basket, but the literati call your archives, to the University of Georgia."

Crews has published 16 novels, an acclaimed memoir, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, and hundreds of magazine articles. He taught creative writing at the University of Florida for 30 years.

Although he has never written bestsellers, Crews built a reputation as a stunningly gifted writer, an inspired teacher — and a crazy, scary, wild man. Tales of his escapades in the bars, backwoods and bedrooms of the university town are legion.

"A lot of women lived here," he says, waving a hand at his house. "Some of them not for very long.

"People do like to exaggerate about me. But I don't care. Hell, I was drunk every day for 30 years. I drank with both hands. But I wrote every day."

Crews is the big dog and living master of a genre variously called grit lit, Southern gothic, rough South and redneck fiction.

An earlier generation of Southern writers, notably Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner, staked out the territory. Crews did what he has done all his life: cranked it up.

His novels teem with rattlesnakes and pit bulls, humans scarred in body and soul, grotesque violence and spiritual quests, nobility and ignorance, outrageous humor and offensive language and every strange sex act you can imagine, and some you probably can't.

Other writers of his generation share this literary ground, notably Cormac McCarthy and Hunter S. Thompson.

But Crews' work is like no one else's. Beyond the bizarre surfaces of his novels, he is a sharp observer of society — even a prescient one. His novel Car, in which a man undertakes to eat a 1971 Ford Maverick a half ounce at a time, on TV, is a pitch-perfect predictor of the cultural morass of reality TV — written in 1972.

And, although Crews' characters can be freakish, even foul, he always writes about redemption, about how even the worst of us, maybe most of all the worst of us, long for love.

Warped and twisted

Crews was born in Bacon County, Ga., to a poor farm family. His father died before Harry turned 2. At 5, he was paralyzed for months by polio; at 6 he fell into a cauldron of boiling water during hog-slaughtering season, burning his entire body.

His childhood was full of beatings: "Where I come from, everybody mistreated everybody else. Anybody gets raised like that is going to end up warped and twisted.

"Most people think that I'm posturing," Crews says. "I don't think that's true at all.

"It was a bitch, my childhood. And today there aren't many writers living who rode a mule to school."

Crews served as a Marine during the Korean War and was the light heavyweight boxing champion of its 1st Division. As soon as he got out, he began working to become a writer.

"I've been writing as long as I can remember," he says, recalling a detective story he wrote at age 8. "I knew I couldn't have a pistol in the story, because my detective was 10 years old. So I gave him a string of firecrackers.

"He'd holler, 'Stop or I'll shoot,' and light the firecrackers, and lo and behold it won the day."

After he left the Marines he enrolled at UF in 1956 to study writing. He joined the UF faculty in 1968, the same year he published The Gospel Singer. He published a novel every year for eight years, and another eight over the next three decades.

He became a legendary teacher. His former students include novelists Kevin Canty and Jay Atkinson, but the bestselling among them is mystery writer Michael Connelly.

"I didn't have a personal relationship with Harry Crews. I was too intimidated," Connelly wrote in an e-mail. "It didn't help that I loved his books. The idea of him reading something I would write for class was debilitating to me.

"His writing and his persona were more inspiring to me than anything I picked up in class, though I do remember hearing him give the classic piece of advice I still follow today: 'If you want to be a writer then you have to write every day.' "

Crews loved teaching. "I liked to teach people who liked to learn. I have no time for the C student. The C students don't work."

But neither publishing novels nor teaching classes makes many people rich.

"The real money," Crews says, "is movie rights."

Only The Hawk Is Dying (1973) has been filmed so far. Shot in Gainesville in 2006, it has played film festivals but not seen wide distribution.

Sean Penn, whom Crews calls "a good friend," has options on two of Crews' books, A Feast of Snakes and The Knockout Artist. Crews had a brief role in The Indian Runner, which Penn directed in 1991.

Another movie was in preproduction until it hit a glitch. Johnny Depp has optioned Crews' 1974 novel The Gypsy's Curse, set in Tarpon Springs. Its main character, Marvin Molar, is a legless body builder.

"The guy walks on his hands. Where the hell do you find somebody to play him?" Crews asks reasonably. "Well, he did."

Depp, Crews says, found a legless circus acrobat who walked on his hands, had the build, everything. But he couldn't pass the physical exam required by the film's insurers. "So it's no go," Crews says with a shrug.

'In the nature of an assault'

In addition to the aftershocks of a lifetime of injuries, Crews has postpolio syndrome and neuropathy. The latter, he says, "is vicious. Don't get it if you can help it. The only symptom is pain, and there ain't nothing they can do for it except give you morphine."

He is long divorced. He and his wife had two sons. The elder, Patrick, drowned in a neighbor's pool when he was 4, devastating Crews.

His surviving son, Byron, is a playwright and English professor at Wright State University in Ohio. "We're a highly dysfunctional family," Crews says. "I have a grandson I've only seen twice."

Crews can't drive anymore. He depends on the kindness of friends.

His most recent novel, An American Family: The Baby with the Curious Markings, was published in 2006. He reads fiction avidly, but he is writing now about his own memories. A Childhood didn't get him to his teens; he has a lot of memories left.

"Memory is an assault, isn't it?" Crews says. He pauses. "My memories are in the nature of an assault."

A vanishing smile crosses his face. "I just kind of like the ring of that little phrase."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

>>Fast facts

A Harry Crews primer

• A fine introduction to the work of Harry Crews is Classic Crews: A Harry Crews Reader (Touchstone). It includes his memoir, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place; two early novels, The Gypsy's Curse and Car; and a selection of his essays.

• Among his best novels are A Feast of Snakes, The Knockout Artist, Scar Lover and Karate Is a Thing of the Spirit.

• Collections of his nonfiction include Blood and Grits and Florida Frenzy.

• To order the special issue of the Georgia Review featuring Crews, go to www.uga.edu/garev/.

Harry Crews at work on new volume of memoirs 03/09/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 7, 2008 5:24pm]

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