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Jeff Calder's Personal Archive > Harry Crews’ Mother is his Best Critic (1)
I took Harry Crews' Creative Writing class at the University of Florida in fall, 1972. I hadn't read any of his books and didn't know much about him, other than that he was a published novelist with a wild reputation. Crews was from South Georgia , but at this point he looked like El Mongol. He had a Fu Manchu mustache, a giant hoop earring , and his head had been shaved while, he said, "laying up with some woman out in the woods."
Crews had a couple of brilliant affectations. He had an unusual gait, like he was riding an invisible unicycle. And then one of his eyes was always closed while he enlarged the other to an absurd proportion, like a pirate. He was thin as wire, like the dust cover photo on The Gypsy's Curse, which he was working on at the time and from which he would read segments to the class. He had a tattoo of a hinge on the inside of his elbow.
Gainesville , Florida at the time had become fully hippie, with a lot of mushroom-potion drinking going on. Steve Cummings and I once wrote a song called "I'm From Gainesville (Somebody Shoot Me)." Anyway, set against the long hair crowd, which was very smug , Crews' circus performer appearance was shocking , and way ahead of its time, in a proto-Punk way. If you didn't do anything , he would give you a grade of B, and you didn't even have to come to class to get that. If you turned in a short story, he gave you an A..
I wrote a story titled, "The Air-Village Floater," which had a grandiose main character named Grant Boone, who shared a lot in common with Randy Pego. When Crews read it to the class--in its entirety, I might add--he was very complimentary, which made some of the students jealous. The story had a purple style, and it contained a ludicrous dream sequence which made it an easy target for criticism from the class. Crews leapt to my defense, and he said forcefully, in his exaggerated South Georgia accent, which was very funny, "I don't have any problem with the language. And you can also see things like that when you take little red and yellow pills!" At that, he made a little pinching gesture with two of his fingers.
I was one of several students he asked to join his Graduate Level course, but I had to fulfill my student teachin g requirement the next semester at P.K. Yonge Laboratory School, a wonderful progressive school where I "taught" one course in Voodoo, ESP and Parapsychology--because that's what the high school students were into in 1973--and another course in Rock & Roll for which I once organized an on-campus field trip with Tom Petty's group, Mudcrutch. Stan Lynch, who later became The Heartbreakers drummer, was one of my students. (Years later, Anne Boston and I ran into Stan in Hollywood ; of course, he retained no recollection of his former instructor, fond or otherwise, which I think can be easily attributed to celebrity and the rock & roll lifestyle, etc.) It was keyboardist Benmont Tench’s first gig with the band. Mudcrutch played so loud in the auditorium that they cracked the ceiling. As a consequence, that year’s commencement exercises had to be held on the outdoor green; wire fencing, barbed on top, surrounded the structure for months. Eleven years later, I ran into Benmont backstage at the Universal Theater in Hollywood when The Swimming Pool Q’s opened for Lou Reed. Benmont, a true gentleman with a memory for greatness, brought up the story and confided that the P.K. Yonge administrators had tried to sue the group for damages to the auditorium. (It's hard to imagine the suit going very far since Benmont’s father was, as all judges tend to be, “prominent.”)
Harry Crews thumbed his nose at the academic establishment, but for all his weirdness and sense of humor, he was a Classicist in his own way and a very inspiring teacher. My favorite writer in high school had been Gore Vidal, because he was very witty, and he had crushed William F. Buckley, Jr. in a series of televised debates during the 1968 political conventions. But from Crews, I learned about the many points of view from which a novel could be written, and about how you could make a book out of place like Lakeland , with its orange groves and phosphate pits. And I became aware of writers like Eudora Welty, whose short stories I found Crews reading in his office one day. (When I walked through the doorway, he said to me, squinting one eye and raising the other, as usual, "And to what do I owe this honor?") I grew to like Eudora Welty because she reminded me of my grandmother. Her novel The Golden Apples is an extraordinary piece of High Modernist fiction that is still decades in advance of what "Southern writing" is supposed to be. Gina Webb and I saw her read at Agnes Scott College the same week that Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band played in Atlanta in 1978, and both events were the cultural high points of my first year there, a time that was both exhilarating and lonely.
Crews was still a relatively unknown writer when I was in his class, but in the following two years, his monthly column began appearing in Esquire, and it made him a national literary celebrity. As these things often do, renown seemed to create a lot of personal problems for Harry. At least that is how it appeared at the time. When I saw him "read" at the University of South Florida around 1975, he was stinking drunk and had to be helped about by the novelist William Price Fox, on whom he would occasionally turn in mock anger. It was a sensational performance, antagonistic and existential, something like what Norman Mailer might have delivered during the mid-60s, if Mailer had been, oh, say, Davey Crockett. When someone in the audience asked what it took to be a real novelist, Crews replied, very slowly, drawing out each word deliberately, "Blood….Bone…Marrow!" And throughout the rest of the evening , which was foreshortened, he would periodically return to this theme, shouting out "Marrow!" at this or that perceived provocation.
One day, my friend Robert Ray, who is a singer/songwriter in the Vulgar Boatmen and a Film Studies Professor at the University of Florida , passed Crews in a corridor at the school. Crews, appearing forlorn, asked Robert, "How are you doin’, son?" When Robert answered, "Fine, Harry," Crews responded, "I'm just glad it's working for someone."
As a final note, The Swimming Pool Q's song from The Deep End, "Stick In My Hand," is loosely based on events in the Harry Crews novel, Feast of Snakes. The following is a profile of Harry Crews that I wrote for the now-defunct Atlanta Gazette, published March, 1977, a year before I moved from Florida to that city.
HARRY CREWS’ MOTHER IS HIS BEST CRITIC
March 3, 1977/Volume 3/Number 28
Harry Crews crouches under a dark root of the Southern Literary Tradition. An extension of early Erskine Caldwell more than of William Faulkner, Crews has had much made of his evil humor, his freaks, his berserk crowd scenes, and his characters twisted-up in obsession. Referring to his latest novel, Feast of Snakes, a critic for Time complained, “There is too little distinction between the truly grotesque and the gratuitously bizarre.” The Time statement, eight well-crafted novels, and his monthly Esquire column “Grits” all suggest that Harry Crews is slithering toward his personalized black hole at the forefront of American letters.
Perhaps the men who call the shots regard Crews as some form of Lit-Reggae, an exotic toy, or the penultimate Neck. On his current favor with the magazine world, Crews had these comments from his University of Florida chair: “”I been around that block. Six months from now they’ll find some other fair-haired boy. That’s okay, too, I’ll just do something else.”
In Harry Crews’ more “academic” first novel, The Gospel Singer, a golden-voiced, fair-haired boy comes home to find the whole town mystified with his holy image. When the community of Enigma, Georgia, discovers his less-than-holy nature, The Gospel Singer is left dangling by a rope.
Eight years after The Gospel Singer, Feast of Snakes comes full-circle to Georgia, the town of Mystic, and Joe Lon Mackey. Joe Lon is no fair-haired youth. He’s a failed ex-football star for the Mystic High School Rattlers. He “sells liquor to the niggers,” has a sister who stays locked-up watching TV at top-volume, and a weak-stick father who raise fighting pit bulls. Joe Lon lives with his pitiful wife and diapered children in a trailer.
Feast is Harry Crews’ consummate portrait of inescapable mass hysteria. The Annual Rattlesnake Festival comes to Mystic. People worship snakes. They chase each other with snakes. Thousands ignite a huge paper mache snake. They eat snakes, too. At the peak of the serpent-mania, Joe Lon snaps into a shooting spree. Mystic’s Festival-goers toss him into a pit. The Boss Rattler comes up with a face full of deadly vipers having a feast of their own.
In his novels, the South of Crews’ side road world is littered with so much that is strange, comparisons with Edgar Allan Poe and Tennessee Williams, among others, ineluctably result. Crews rejects the stereotyping of writers in the South, as he explained one night after his creative writing class in Gainesville.
“The problem is when you say he’s a Southern writer a whole lot of categories start clkcking in place. Click, click, click.”
Crews features are double-tough. He always seems to have a hatpin stuck in his great toe. Like a freak in The Gospel Singer, he has bones for eyes. The top of his head is a 35 degree angle, a slope down which a marble could roll evenly to a forehead stretched drum-tight over his skull. Muscles at the corner of the brows seem to pull straight back into baby-fine tufts of hair.
His class has been three hours of fidgety entertainment. Co-eds passing in the hallway gaped for a moment, as if Crews were a warted cretin on display. The finest of instructors, he belittles and coaxes his undergraduates, always bring his brutishness to bear on the technical flaw.
“A hard taskmaster is no fun, but is there any other way to be?” said Crews. “They never listen to what I say anyway. My job is to fire’em up so they’ll go home and do something. That’s the way I was under Andrew Lytle.”
During the course of the evening Crews often leapt from the table to make a point with evangelical intensity (and tangency). As the classroom emptied, he waxed pensive and leaned back in his chair, extending his index and pinkie fingers.
“In the past two years, I’ve discovered the great possibilities of posturing.”
The first instance of Crews’ posturing goes a littler farther back than two years. As a child Harry frequently grabbed at this mother’s dress to tell her he wanted to preach.
“By then she knew I didn’t someday mean to be a preacher. She knew that at that moment I wanted to preach. She’d set up a chair, cover it with a pink doily from the sewing machine table and pro me up in the seat. I’d usually start with whatever I’d been hearing at the local Baptist church. Something like, ‘Man. He is made of mud and spit. We are mud, we are spit. Spit and mud. You take the mud and mix it with the spit. And spit with mud.’” Crews kneaded his hands together in the classroom fluorescence.
Born and raised in Bacon County, Georgia, he has been a storyteller as far back as he can remember. All he had to read as a child was the Sears Catalog and the Holy Bible.
“Everybody in the Sears Catalog was just so perfect, I couldn’t understand it. All the people around me were either maimed or full of worms.”
Crews will publish his ninth book, Biography of a Place, in June for Athenaeum. He’ll dwell on his upbringing and his strong willed mother whom he deems his best reader.
“I always say it takes her as long to read one of my books as it takes me to write one. Shocks the hell out of my brother what she’d read one at all.”
Recently released in paperback, The Gypsy’s Curse is perhaps the best example of Crews’ remarkable, unparalleled imagination. The author enters the consciousness of Marvin Molar, a deaf-and-dumb strongman with arms 22 inches in diameter and legs six inches long. Marvin survives by performing stunts like balancing in the neck of a pop-bottle on one finger and rotating. Though The Gypsy’s Curse has a fantastic element, it is a touching portrayal, what Douglas Day described as “a kind of radical sadness emerging in Crews’ work.”
Film may bring Crews to a larger audience. The screenplay for The Hawk is Dying is in progress. The producer of Barbara Streisand’s Up the Sandbox had bought The Gospel Singer and laid groundwork for a movie version. The location and sets were readied outside of Montgomery, Alabama, when, with 14 days left before shooting, the producer made a porn film. He flew to Colorado, imported 19 girls from Nevada and then pranced around on the screen himself. When the prints arrived from the lab, so did the FBI and 19 indictments on the Mann Act. Crews was left sitting in a Montgomery motel.
With the possible exception of The Hawk is Dying and Karate is a Thing of the Spirit, Crews books can’t be considered autobiographical in a strict sense. (He was a karate student for several years before he realized “how back the people in it acted. I’m convinced it should never have been brought to the West.” In The Hawk is Dying, set in Gainesville, Crews gave George Gattling his own address and phone number; like Gattling, Crews illegally trapped two hawks he attempted to train, much to the displeasure of certain local circles.)
Yet like his characters, Crews has a life that is pell-mell with occasional “desperate” overtones. His reputed liquortooth has gotten him into trouble more than once. During a story on fundamentalist Billy James Hargis, Crews got tossed in a Tulsa jailhouse. On his first Playboy assignment, an Alaska pipeline story, Crews woke up to find a tattoo on the inside of his elbow of a perfect blue hinge.
“My gig is to get naked,” said Crews. “I don’t like to build walls around myself.”
As the evening in Gainesville drew to a close, the author discussed aspects of his local life. He summoned a pained expression—he can talk a game as mean as he looks.
“Nothing I hate worse than somebody getting up in my face and talking about how they couldn’t read it. Can’t understand how I’d come to write such a thing.”
He pointed to the far wall of the classroom.
“Happens everyday! I just wanna press’em up on the wall and work inside on the body and…”
Crews is actually a jovial blowhard, but there could be no greater folly than to regard him with less than a ten-foot pole. Besides his karate training, Crews was a Marine for three years. The G.I. Bill put him through the University of Florida. After his sophomore year he took off on a cycle and traveled out west and in Mexico. Returning to school he studied under Andrew Lytle, novelist and editor for many years of The Sewanee Review. Crews received a BA but was refused admission to the graduate program at the University of Florida. He taught several years at a junior college in Fort Lauderdale. Crews takes great delight in the fact that the Florida English Department asked him back to teach. He is now a full professor who appreciates the benefits of academia, like the University library.
“Some of those guys who wouldn’t let me in are still here. I love walking past’em in these halls. I didn’t care about their old books anyway.” Sitting inside the classroom had made Crews itchy. Out in the school building’s hallway he chugged right along with his cartoon step. He mentioned moving into Gainesville from his lake house to be closer to his son. He lamented not being able to enter Lilian’s, a plush hotshot watering hole, because he had Esquire and Playboy stamped on his forehead. Down in Orlando recently a driver pulled his car over and yelled at him, “Say, aren’t you Harry Crews!”
"I just can’t believe anybody could recognize a person from a picture on a book.” Crews said. He made his way into the college town night and stood still in his barest moment.
“God help us all,” Crews said in his grit put-on patois. The back of his parka filled with wind as he jogged away, not to almost certain glory but to a camper van.