Review: Geltner's fascinating, even-handed biography of Harry Crews captures the rough edges

Published May 26, 2016

"Put your ass on the chair."

That, Harry Crews wrote, is "the great, grand secret of writing." Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews shows us just how well he took his own advice — and just how hard it was to do.

Crews, who died in 2012 at age 76, was the big dog of a literary genre known as Dirty South or Grit Lit, notable for its bizarre characters, grotesque violence and satirical surrealism. His artistic forebears included William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and Erskine Caldwell, but Crews remade Southern gothic in his own rough-hewn image in 16 memorable novels, dozens of riveting nonfiction pieces and one of the finest memoirs in American literature.

He also shared his hard-won literary wisdom — and his legendary hell-raising ways — with several generations of students as a 30-year faculty member of the University of Florida's creative writing program. (The most successful of his students, crime fiction writer Michael Connelly, provides the thoughtful foreword to this biography.)

In Blood, Bone, and Marrow — the title comes from Crews' answer to a question about what it takes to be a real novelist during an appearance at the University of South Florida in 1979 — journalist Ted Geltner takes on a daunting task. Crews' outsized personality may well be better known than his literary work, and even the latter is filled with material from his life. So Geltner's subject is no little-known author hiding behind his prose; instead of bringing a quiet life to light, the biographer must pare away the outlandish myths to get to the man behind them.

Geltner teaches journalism at Valdosta State University and has worked as a reporter and editor at the Gainesville Sun and other newspapers. For this book, he interviewed Crews himself as well as dozens of the writer's family members, friends, enemies, lovers, academic colleagues, editors and former students. He also had access to Crews' archives at the University of Georgia. The result is a deeply researched, fascinating and even-handed biography of an enormously complex figure.

Any biographer of Crews faces a problem from the get-go: The man himself wrote a brilliant memoir, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, about the harrowing first six years of his life. Geltner wisely doesn't try to compete but gives us the basics. Crews was born into deep poverty in Bacon County, Ga. His father died when he was a baby, and his mother, Myrtice, almost immediately married his father's alcoholic, abusive brother. Crews would be haunted all his life by the question of his paternity.

At age 5, Harry was stricken by polio. The family was too poor to afford medical treatment, and he spent months bedridden, his paralyzed legs drawn up so far his "feet stuck to his rear end." Not long after he recovered from that, he fell into a vat of boiling water during a hog slaughtering, suffering burns over two-thirds of his body. The physical and psychic scars of that year would never leave him.

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A month after becoming the first member of his family to graduate from high school, Crews enlisted in the Marines, serving for three years. When he got out, he knew what he wanted to do: write. He had been a storyteller since childhood, and he pursued his dream relentlessly. Geltner gives us an interesting account of Crews' formative relationship with Andrew Lytle, a revered professor of creative writing at UF, who became something new for Crews: a positive father figure.

During his undergraduate years, Crews met and married Sally Ellis. Crews took a job teaching at Broward Community College, and they had two sons, Patrick and Byron (now a playwright and English professor). When Patrick was 3, he wandered out of their yard and drowned in a neighbor's pool. It was another psychic scar, and a body blow to the marriage. Crews and Sally would divorce, remarry, divorce again, but remain friends for life.

Lytle taught Crews his lifelong devotion to craft, but in the end the younger man had to make a break from him and his other UF mentor, Smith Kirkpatrick. After writing (and rewriting, at Lytle's behest) several unpublished books, Crews was visiting his mother when he was introduced to a flamboyant gospel singer. Soon after, he happened upon a Georgia town called Enigma. The germ for his first published novel, The Gospel Singer, was born. Lytle and Kirkpatrick thought the book good but flawed, especially its chaotically violent ending. But, as Crews said years later, "I don't think you could get a happy ending or a smooth closure from me with a whip." The Gospel Singer was published in 1968, to glowing reviews.

Its success led to his being hired at UF in a tenure-track job, where he swiftly became a hugely popular teacher, famed for his theatrical lectures and for his epic drinking, partying and philandering. He also published a new novel every year through 1976, each one hailed by critics (Harper Lee called him Faulkner come back to life) who responded to Crews' signature blend of wild humor, improbable sex and grisly violence and to his strange, even freakish characters — and his clear-eyed but tender treatment of them.

In 1974, with the personal, novelistic style of New Journalism all the rage, the editors of Playboy, which then had a circulation of over 6 million, persuaded Crews to try his hand at journalism. His 1975 Playboy story titled Going Down in Valdeez remains, to this day, one of the most vivid pieces of journalism I've ever read — and it was the first one he ever wrote. His "Grits" column for Esquire and stories for Playboy and other magazines on such figures as Charles Bronson and David Duke form a first-rate body of journalism, and he wrote all of it in about three years.

By 1976, he decided to begin the memoir that would be A Childhood. He expected it to be a kind of catharsis, but instead it called up all his demons. He published the book, perhaps his best one, in 1978, but then sank into what amounted to a nearly decade-long bender during which his substance abuse became dangerously prodigious: In one year, he was admitted to rehab 16 times. After beginning his career with eight novels in eight years, and although he wrote almost every day, he wouldn't publish another book for nine years.

But by the late 1980s and early '90s, Crews came back strong with All We Need of Hell, The Knockout Artist, Body and Scar Lover. Always both charismatic and intimidating, he began to sport prominent tattoos and a Mohawk hairstyle to assert his outsider status.

He also gained cultural currency, perhaps as much for his personal legend as for his work: Norman Mailer name-checked him in Tough Guys Don't Dance, punk rockers Lydia Lunch and Kim Gordon formed a band named Harry Crews and made an album of songs titled after his books, and Madonna and Sean Penn (then married) invited him to be their guest at the 1988 Mike Tyson-Michael Spinks match — which led to Crews' cameo role in Penn's film directing debut, The Indian Runner.

As the century turned, publishing was changing. Crews' books were always critically acclaimed but never bestsellers. As one of his editors said, "The review media were becoming more PC, more multicultural, more things that moved further and further away from Harry."

Although he continued to write every day, Crews' output diminished as his health failed. The years of brawling and substance abuse had left him with agonizing peripheral neuropathy, rendering him dependent on full-time care and heavy-duty painkillers. After several years of decline and one serious suicide attempt, he died at his Gainesville home.

Geltner wisely stays out of the way to focus on his subject, although he does share one story about their first meeting in 2010: "I entered the house, and there, sitting in a big tan recliner in his sunken living room, was Harry Crews, wearing a shirt, naked below the belt, working on the final drag of a cigarette." If there's a more dramatic way of acting out male dominance, I don't know what it would be.

Geltner doesn't flinch from the dark side of Crews' character. He details how often the author's drinking and drugs derailed his classes and public appearances, how many friends spent enormous amounts of time and patience looking after him, how often Crews got into physical fights (and, Geltner notes, usually came out on the losing end; a lifetime list of his injuries occupies nearly a third of a page).

Crews' sexual escapades, Geltner notes, were not always benign — though many of the women he was involved with were devoted to him, others saw him as a predator, among them some who were his students. One of them tells Geltner, "He destroyed the lives, psychologically, of a lot of people."

On the page and in the flesh, Crews was a controversial figure, and Geltner gives us the rough edges. Crews was as improbable as many of his characters, and so was his success. Even his mama thought so, when he told her his first novel would be published.

"Myrtice was incredulous. 'You mean, you made it all up, and they taken it and give you real money for it?'

" 'Yes, Ma,' Harry said. 'Yes, they have.' "

Those of us who are his fans can be grateful.

Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.