Harry Crews

AN AMERICAN TRAGICOMEDY

 

 

'Young pussy and dope,' says Harry Crews, most singular of American writers, 'that's the answer.' I have to say I'm not sure what the question was.  The secret of prolonged youth, perhaps.  The key to literary immortality maybe.  More likely there wasn't a question at all. But that's what Crews tells me the answer is, as he pads across his living room, and lowers himself into his  chair, ready to start talking.

 

Harry Crews , it scarcely needs saying, is an unapologetically macho individual. Born and raised in Georgia, Crews worked as a marine, a pulp mill labourer and a tomato picker before turning novelist.  Today,  he  has acquired a reputation  as a literary hellraiser that makes Norman Mailer look like an Ivy League dilettante.  But the legend of 'Harry Crews - tattooed wild man of American literature' has  not been all to the good, tending as it has to obscure the real quality of his fiction. For Harry Crews is to the novel what Diane Arbus is to photography: a celebrant of the freakish and the outlandish, the sad and the mad - an American original.

 

It's taken me a while to be sat here in Harry Crews'  living room in Gainesville, Florida.Last time I tried  I was en route from Miami to  Jacksonville Florida, where I had a date with  a serial killer's fiancee, so it seemed a good idea to detour via Gainesville  to talk to Harry Crews. I phoned from Miami to check he would be there. No problem. I arrived at Gainsville airport, caught a cab to the address, walked down a short drive to a house almost engulfed by the surrounding woods, and found a note on the door saying, 'UNAVOIDABLY CALLED AWAY. CREWS.'

 

This time Geoff Cox, the man whose innovative  new publishing house, Gorse, has brought Crews back to a British audience for the first time in twenty years,  told me it would be different. Harry was mortified about what happened last time. It's just that his dog/aged relative was sick/very ill/dead, and it wouldn't happen again. This time,  I called from New Orleans, I called from Pensacola, I called  from Tallahassee. Even then,  I was palpably relieved when , after a pause of no more than half a minute,  the big wooden door of harry Crews' house opened.

 

The first thing that strikes you  on meeting Harry Crews is that physically he is not the man he used to be.  The photos on the jackets of his first books show a clean-cut ex-marine with a confident grin and a forehead and chin that look to have been hacked out of granite. Later photos show a man who practically defines grizzled, with a prominent tattoo sporting a skull above an epigram derived from ee cummings, 'How Do You Like Your Blue Eyed Boy, Dr Death?', and his eyes squinting out through a mass of scar tissue below a forehead  as cro-magnon as ever.

 

But, at sixty,  the past couple of years have treated Crews hard. His knee, already damaged in a motorcycle accident, cracked under him and the resultant months with his leg in the air means that Crews is still forced to hobble around the house.  He has the look of a man unhappy in his body, betrayed by the weakness of the flesh.

 

And, as we start to talk, it seems that it's not only his physical fitness he has doubts about.  Crews seems hard put to find a cheerful topic of conversation, be it the publishing industry, editors, American politics, or his own sales figures.  Yet given his start in life, it's remarkable that  he should still be alive at all, let alone producing work that is  more interesting than ninety per cent  of what comes out .

 

Crews was born in Bacon County, Georgia, at the end of a long dirt road, into the kind of rural poverty that is almost unimaginable now, the kind of poverty amid which the prospect of starving to death was an everyday reality. 'It was a little enclave of real peasants,' Crews told me, 'men  who lived with very little margin of error, who were out of time even then.'

 

His childhood was a troubled one, marked by illness and domestic instability. Only his mother remained a constant and positive presence. His escape route was a traditional one: reading. Reading matter for the young Crews consisted of the Sears Catalogue, an illustrated cornucopia of goods that families like his could only goggle at. So rather than use the catalogue as a shopping tool, Harry, as he recalls in his autobiography, A Childhood: The Biography Of A Place,  used the catalogue as a jumping-off point for fantasy, spinning tales around the models.

 

I first became fascinated with the Sears catalogue because all the people in its pages were perfect. 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. But the people in the catalogue had no such hurts... Young as I was, though, I had known for a long time that it was all a lie. I knew that under those fancy clothes there had to be scars, there had to be swellings and boils of one kind or another because there was no other way to live in the world.... And it was out of this knowledge that I first began to make up stories about the people I found in the catalogue. (A Childhood)

 

 A Childhood is both Crews' best and darkest work. It's all here: the three men he called daddy - the blood daddy who died when he was two, the bad step-daddy who drank and fought and shot at his mother, and his uncle Alton, the good daddy who imparted to Crews his unyeilding sense of what it is to be a man. And at the heart of the story  is an accident all too typical of such a harsh and unforgiving upbringing.

 

"WhenI was six I fell in a vat of boiling water that we'd been using for scalding hogs," Crews recalls. "We didn't have enough money for me to go to hospital so the doc came out, put a buggy frame around my bed to kep the sheets from touching my skin, and ran a light into this kind of hut from an outside power line. The heat of the lamp made my skin come off everywhere. People would come from all around just to see me. I think I learned then what it is to be a freak in people's eyes."

 

And when Crews grew up there was only one way he was headed and that was out of Bacon County. The marines beckoned, particularly as Crews was possessed of a talent that would smooth his path through a forces life: "I spent much of my young manhood in the ring fighting. If you can box in the marines you get to avoid a lot of other things. You never have to do guard duty, never have to do that wretched shit in the kitchens, just as long as you can bloody up another boy, stand on top of him and crow like a rooster. I was a light heavyweight, I lost two fights and won 33. I liked fighting  I liked the one-on-one-ism of it. A good fighter should be like a good pit bull dog, shouldn't mind the blood."

 

When he came out of the marines, Crews took advantage of the GI Bill to go to college at the University of Florida in Gainesvile. By then he was sure that there was one thing he wanted to do and that was to write. But college bored him and after two semesters, this being the height of the beatnik era,  Crews decided to take off and see America:  "I got on my 650cc Triumph, I was gone 17 months and put about 17 thousand miles on the bike. Went to Canada, San Francisco, the Rockies, down to Mexico, across from El Paso to New Orleans. I could cook and tend bar and that meant I could work in any city in this country the day I arrived there."

 

When he returned from his travels Crews went back to college and finshed his degree. "In my senior year I met the only wife I've ever had, Sally. That marriage lasted until 1972 and I've been without a wife since. She's a wonderful woman, a marvellous mother and all those things. I figured that if I couldn't live with her I couldn't live with anyone."

 

Then two momentous events in Crews' life occured. The first of them was a purely terrible event. Crews' first son, Patrick, drowned in a neighbour's swimming pool, a month before his fourth birthday. The second was the realisation of his great ambition, with a publisher's acceptance of his first and finest novel,   The Gospel Singer, a story of freaks and fraudulent saints, a backwoods Faust.

 

The Gospel Singer's acceptance  was the payoff for ten years of hard work, rewarded only by the publication of two stories in literary magazines. It was well reviewed on publication, in 1968, and, crucially, it led his alma mater, the University of Florida, to offer him a job, teaching Creative Writing in the English Department. It was a great job - good money, not much teaching, plenty of time to write, - a novelist's dream.

 

And for while things went very well indeed. His second book, 1969's Naked in Garden Hills - a North Florida epic that saw him moving from the  Southern Gothic of his first novel to the trailer park surrealism he made his own - received the best reviews of his career.  Further funny, weird novels like Karate Is A Thing Of The Spirit, Car and The Gypsy's Curse, appeared on a more or less annual basis though the early seventies. What connects them is their concern with people most of us see simply as freaks: a midget jockey, a band of karate nazis, a man who decides to eat a car.

 

"If you've been around carnivals," comments Crews, "as I have,  working on the freak shows, you'll realise that  most of us carry our abnormalities or perversities or whatever on the inside, and so are able to lead what people call a 'normal  life'. But if you're three feet tall you can't do that, if you're a lady and you've got a beard, you can't do that - for around every corner you turn you'll meet somebody that's a mirror to reflect back the improbable grossness of your condition. I see such people as having special consideration under the Lord. I've always been fascinated by what they have to go through."

 

The prestige gained by Crews'  steady stream of remarkable novels meant that his writing class became a sought-after institution. His fellow Floridian surrealist, Carl Hiaasen, for instance,  told me that he failed to be accepted on to the course as an undergraduate.

 

By the mid seventies Crews had also found a way of subsidising his trips away from the land of academe - magazine work. This, the most underrated aspect of his writing, began when Playboy called to ask him to write a piece on the building of the Alaskan pipe line. The result was a prizewinning slab of prime New Journalism, entitled 'Going Down In Valdeez',  and it established Crews as a kind of white- trash Hunter Thompson. The 1979 collection of Crews'  magazine  journalism, Blood And Grits, rates as one of his finest achievements.

 

It's a period he looks back on with affection: "I canooed the Suwanee River, I backpacked the Appalachian trail from Georgia to Maine. I did all that stuff  because it was a marvellous antidote to the other part of my life that is pen and paper and sitting down. The men I've spent my teaching life with - I've never felt a callus in their hands. Their hands all feel like women's. Rarely have I met a professor who has worked up an honest sweat."

 

Throughout the seventies Crews did his level best to make sure no one took him for your typical English professor. So much so that  Harry Crews stories - of drink , drugs and debauchery - became common currency in the incestuous world of American letters. But for each observer who saw him as a romantic figure, a redneck Dylan Thomas, there were others that just saw him as sad,  just a literary version of Keith Moon, a tame wild man patronised by the establishment. 

 

But it was not the academic life itself that led Crews into his self-destructive ways. "It was me who  brought all that stuff to the university and to everything else I've done. I know that there are men and women who have had that kind of sustained trauma that was my childhood. Who've had that and been able to walk on past it and leave it alone . But there's others of us that it marks in such a way that we'll never be free of it."

 

By the late seventies  Crews decided there was only one thing to do, to tackle his demons head on. To this end he set out on the writing of A Childhood, hoping that the act of remembrance would bring some kind of catharsis: "I thought that if I recalled what happened to me in the most direct and concrete language that I could, and didn't lie, I would purge myself of that experience. Well, it didn't work. It was excruciatingly painful to recall and relive that stuff. And after I'd written it I just woke up one morning and realised I didn't give a shit any more."

 

"Whatever you could shoot, I shot - cocaine, heroin, speed.  My final  drug of choice was dilaudid. It has a better rush than heroin. It comes in a pill and you crush it in a spoon, just as you would with heroin, cook it with a match, warm it a little bit, then shoot it up, You're good for four, five hours. But the wonderful thing with dilaudid is you know what you've got in your hand. With heroin you don't know what it's cut with."

 

It was nine years before the next Crews novel appeared.  An  essay collection and a couple of short stories appeared, to give the illusion of productivity, but the truth was that Harry Crews was a long way out there.

 

Then, in 1986,  a  book called The Calling was published, written by Crews' best student, a writer called Sterling Watson. At the heart of The Calling is a novelist ,  Eldon Odom - transparently based on Crews - who is portrayed as once great novelist, now a sad lecherous drunk and major league bullshitter. It's a portrait and a book that Crews unsurprisingly resents: "All I did to Watson was try to teach him as much as he could learn. I bought his whisky, I got him his agent. I even wrote a blurb for his first novel. Then he wrote that book:  not only did he have me in there but my ex-wife, the girl I was living with at the time, my child. In the New York Times the reviewer said 'This is supposed to be a roman a clef  but you don't need a key for this book; anyone who knows anything about literature knows this is Harry Crews.' Watson called me after it came out. I don't know what he expected me to say. I told him it was a blood offence he'd committed, one that only blood can satisfy."

 

But it may  be that the shock of being portrayed not simply as grotesque, but as a fraud, acted as a spur for Crews.  The publication of  The Calling coincided with Crews' return to the literary fray. It began with a novel called All We Need Of Hell featuring a character called Duffy Deeter, who has served as Crews' fictional alter ego several times over the years. Ostensibly a black comedy,  the novel is at  heart an unsparing portrait of Deeter as a compellingly awful archetype of the bad father: violent, overbearing, never satisfied.  The father was transparently Crews himself - the writing group bully, the handball hard man.

 

Its publication saw the literary world finally rallying round to salute Crews' maverick talent. When novelist Barry Hannah wrote that  'We're lucky to have this book', many people knew that he wasn't just paying a compliment, but speaking the literal truth.

 

Ever since , Crews has enjoyed a real renaissance. His early work was reissued. The likes of Nick Cave, Lydia Lunch and Henry Rollins began to namedrop him in interviews, Lunch and Rollins even going so far as to name their short-lived band after him. Whether Crews' decision to acknowledge this new breed of fan by sporting a mohican and muscle T-shirt in his publicity photos was an entirely sound idea is of course another matter.

 

Whatever,  his next novel The Knockout Artist, a skewed boxing novel set in New Orleans saw him back in top form, and  when Sean Penn bought the movie rights, Crews found himelf  a Hollywood soulmate. Penn's then wife Madonna even got in the act when she asked Crews to interview her.

 

The next novel, Body, was better yet, refining Crews peculiar ability to meld black comedy into authentic tragedy. A study of a female bodybuilder and her singleminded attempt to become Ms Cosmos, it is clearly inspired by Crews' long relationship with Maggie Powell, a woman who Crews himself trained. 

 

Body is, in a sense, the ultimate Crews novel. Certainly it has the ultimate Crews title .  Few writers are so relentlessly concerned with the physical rather than the intellectual: 'Yes,' says Crews, 'It's because in athletics I can find the truth. You say you can lift 440 pounds on the bench - well I just happen to have 440 pounds and I got a bench... no more talk, we'll see what you got. I do think that it's through discipline of the body, and forcing the body beyond itself, that man  comes to realisation of all those abstract nouns you read about - mercy and compassion and forgiveness and love and the rest of it.'

 

Around the time  Body came out , Crews finally gave up drinking, driven by the realisation that if he carried on it was going to kill him sooner rather than later: "I was willing to do whatever I had to do I tried going to AA meetings, they all tell these sad stories - the time they took a shit in somebody's ice box - well, we've all got a million of these stories and ultimately I found it just tremendously depressing.  I'd leave wanting a drink. In the end I found a guy who had a great track record working with addicts and worked one on one, part talk, part hypnosis. I didn't think it was do-able with alcohol, but I did. I quit.

 

"It's not easy, though. You go out with a woman and she says,  'What wine shall we have?' It's awkward. Same with the book tour I just went on. Everywhere I went everyone was sloshed and a lot of people are going, "We gotta get Crews drunk and watch him show his ass or mutilate himself." Well, they were disappointed.  I won't lie and say I enjoy being straight all the time. It's a fucking drag as far as I'm concerned.  If someone told me I had incurable cancer I'd be drunk tonight. To-night!'

 

Such  restraint is clearly  so alien to Crews' nature that it might serve to explain why his novels  since Body, Scar Lover and, now,  The Mulching Of America, are rather lacking in, well, body. There are moments of vintage Crews strangeness here, but  there's also a lack of drive here, of a sense that these books were clamouring to be written.

 

The same self-doubt , alternating with bluster, is apparent in Crews himself.  We'll be talking about what he;s going to write about next and he'll mention a nearly completed novel,  then mumble, 'But my editor probably won't like it.' Or we'll drift on to Bosnia and he'll gloomily offer that he thinks the conflict is insoluble,  before suddenly brightening and adding, 'Except by blood!' Perhaps the saddest point of our talk comes when we talk about his writing class. Crews has expounded the need for tough teachers, for ruthless taskmaster like Belt in Karate... or Duffy Deeter in All We Need Of Hell, or himself in real life. But when I ask which writers his course has produced, there's a significant pause, and the only name he can come up with is that of Sterling Watson, the pupil who fought back.

 

One name that Crews doesn't come up with is that of the Florida cop-turned-serial killer G.J. Schaefer, notorious for his so-called 'killer fiction', stories of rape and murder that Schaefer claims are fiction but the police believe to be literal records of his crimes. I'd heard it rumoured that he had been one of Crews' students, Crews confirmed it: "Yes,  he was a former student of mine. I even played handball with the guy. He seemed like a good clean kid. But apparently that's the wya a lot of those guys are. He killed all those girls, I think they  nailed him for two murders, because they could really make those cases, but they think he may have done as many as twenty-two.

 

"Playboy asked me to write about him. I finally got in to see him. He seemed to be in what they call denial. They found a lot of written stuff of his (Killer Fiction) and he wanted me to testify that I'd taught him to write like that. I said 'Man, I can't do that. If you'd written any shit like that and turned it into me you'd have been out of the class' Then he started talking about more stuff. And the more he talked  I thought 'I don't want to write about this guy, or what he did."

 

Its a very Harry Crews decision, that one. What he couldn't stomach in Schaefer was not that he was a murderer but that he was a liar. For if Crews in person is prone to both bravado and self-pity, his claim on us as a writer, and as a person, is that he is in the end honest. His is a screwed-up talent, but his saving grace is that he knows it. And perhaps his clearest articulation of this comes in a remarkable essay he wrote inspired by the mass murderer Charles Whitman, who climbed a tower in Austin Texas and started sniping at random, finally killing fifteen people. It's a piece that ends like this:

 

What I know is that all over the surface of the earth where humankind exists men and women are resisting climbing the tower. All of us have our towers to climb. Some are worse than others, but to deny that you have your tower to climb and that you must resist it or succumb to the temptation to do it, to deny that is done at the peril of your heart and mind.

 

All the way home to Gainesville, I felt that same tenuous diaphanous quality in the way I walked and what I did and what I said. Someone at that moment was climbing his tower, and I could only hope that he would not look down on me. But worse, much worse, I hoped that I would be spared being on the tower myself, because if I believe anything, I believe that the tower is waiting out there. I have no answers as to why it is out there, or even speculations about it, but out there somewhere, around some corner, or in some green meadow, or in some busy street it is. Waiting. (Climbing The Tower)

 

By the time we finish talking the room is in darkness. The last sound I hear on my tape when I play it back is the sound of Harry Crews apologising. I'm not sure what for.