When asked what one thinks of Harry Crews, the proper response is, “Which Harry Crews?” Even people unfamiliar with his writing often express disgust for his penchant for barroom brawls, drunkenness, bizarre tattoos and haircuts, and harsh classroom antics. Others dismiss him as a sensationalist who filled his novels with brutality and perversity in the attempt to sell books on spectacle alone. Still others take his work more seriously but are unnerved by his redirection of the Southern literary tradition to accuse us of the mess we have made of our world. They hate Crews for these reasons, the very reasons why I love him.
Harry Crews was born to destitute Georgia tenant farmers in 1935. He chronicled the hardships of his early years in A Childhood: The Biography of a Place (1978), considered by many his best book. He recorded his family’s poverty, his painful paralysis from polio at age five, his falling into a vat of boiling water (used to remove hair from hog carcasses) costing him much of his skin, and his confusion over the identity of his father. Crews hinted at times that these events and the constant threat of violence in his childhood accounted for his riotous lifestyle later. He joined the marines, studied karate, and for years was obsessed with weightlifting. Some claim that Crews did these things just to cultivate a badass image, just as he sought bar fights for his gonzo-style magazine pieces, revealed the long vertical scar on his stomach to anyone nearby (“Gutted me like a fish,” he liked to say), told extravagant stories about not remembering how he acquired certain tattoos (like the one of a hinge on his inner elbow, or the skull and e e cummings line “How do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mr. Death?” on his upper arm), and wore a Mohawk hairdo just to annoy the administrators at the University of Florida where he taught for many years and where countless tales of his unorthodox teaching methods continue to multiply.
The wild and violent aspects of Crews’s life are matched only by the freakish and savage scenes of his fiction. His first book, The Gospel Singer (1968), is his most traditional, and to many his best, novel. Its controlled, ominous tone alerts the reader to the violence that has to follow, and the barbarity intensifies through Crews’s career. In only 177 pages his A Feast of Snakes (1976) packs in rape, a severed penis, dog fights, and snakes feasting on people. The Knockout Artist (1988) tells us about a boxer who will do anything for a few bucks, including knocking himself out on command. After many pages of the relentlessly torturous regimen of body builders, Body (1990) works toward an act of violence as sudden, as unexpected, yet as inevitable as any in literature. The protagonist of Scar Lover (1992) is, well, a scar lover. Celebration (1998), in which a woman has sex with the handless forearm of her boyfriend (whose name is, of course, Stump), contains a ritualized murder resembling an ancient, blood sacrifice. Crews continues with the bizarre and brutal through his final novel, An American Family: The Baby with the Curious Markings (2006), which contains some of his most gruesome episodes involving pit bulls, a noose, and perhaps as much perversion as a 100-page novel can hold.
While some critics condemn the savagery and depravity of his work, others hate Crews for not obeying the genteel rules of his literary heritage. Crews is a Southern writer by geography as well as style, but the manner in which he subverts the grand old tradition of Faulkner and others makes some readers cry foul. Unlike the gentry who populate so many Southern novels of the early twentieth century and who pine for an imagined, mythic Old South (a theme that still haunts too many of today’s Southern authors), Crews’s characters are more often poor folk resembling the people Crews knew growing up, and Crews was more concerned with the dim future that he feared would drive us all to barbaric and maybe futile attempts to survive with dignity. Crews never forgot that...