A Singular Southern Gentleman Goes Out “Biting”
April 25, 2012 | by Gary Lippman
Whenever I rang the phone at a certain house in the kudzu-covered college town of Gainesville, Florida, I knew what I was likely to hear: not a polite “hello” or “good afternoon,” but a gruff-voiced, rural Georgia-accented statement of self: “Harry Crews.” And whenever I visited my friend Harry, the notorious American novelist and essayist who died (“bit the big bagel,” he’d say) in March at the age of seventy-six, I knew what I’d likely find: a great boulder of a man in a bathrobe sunk into a brown recliner chair in a living room filled with books, photographs, and, on one wall, the framed quilted image of a typewriter.
“Come on in, blood, grab a seat, how ya been?” Harry would call to me as I stepped inside. He took pride in rarely locking his home’s front door, just as he prided himself on keeping his number listed in the Gainesville white pages.
“All’s good,” I’d say, dropping into a chair that faced his. “New York’s fine, how you been?”
“Well, I’m hurting.”
Squeezing his blue eyes shut or squinting at me hard, Harry would run down his latest aches and ailments. But eventually he’d say, “Enough complaining—you don’t want to hear about all that,” and now the stories would start to pour forth in the distinctive Crews diction. Ribald stories they were, rollicking, sometimes touching, and always peculiar stories about himself and the people he’d known or invented or something halfway between “known” and “invented.” Harry would stay seated as he spoke, but he’d be moving nonstop, acting everything out as he read to me from his latest manuscript or just talking freestyle, gripping the recliner, opening his arms wide and speaking as fervently with his hands as he did with his mouth. Sometimes he answered questions I asked along the way; sometimes he answered questions I didn’t ask; other times he ignored my questions and then, ten minutes later, at an impasse, he’d say, “What was that thing you were just asking me?” It was a riveting show. And on the show went until he felt too weary or in too much pain to go further.
For Harry, more than for many other storytellers, stories were the thing. Stories were the vehicle by which, with a crucial leap of faith-in-self, he had survived, had triumphed. And whatever else he did—to steal a phrase he used about his greatest literary influence, Graham Greene—Harry always told you a story.
We first met at the start of 1992 in a Miami bookstore. Crews was giving a reading from his then-most-recent novel while my friend Sergio and I were browsing through the stacks. The first sight of Crews made everyone in the store gasp. That night he was sporting what he gleefully told the audience was his “freak the citizens” look, which consisted of a newly minted “do and too.” The “hair-do” was a Mohawk with separate sideburns and the “tat-too” featured a skull with the e e cummings line “how do you like your blue-eyed boy, mr. death?” In the tattoo, cummings’s words were wrongly capitalized, yet I wasn’t about to correct him on it. With the “do” and the “too,” as well with his sizeable height, bulging biceps, weirdly wrecked knees, and brow resembling the front of a metal helmet, Crews cut a sinister figure, not unlike how he described himself in the photos on his book jackets: “Here comes crazy Johnny and his chainsaw.”
Sergio turned to me. “He’s a writer?”
At the time, though I knew nothing of Crews’s perch on a far-out branch of the Southern gothic tree, I had heard that he was a scoundrel of American letters, a drunk and disorderly hard man whose behavior made Charles Bukowski seem—in terms of table manners, if not aesthetic chops—like Henry James. “I’m like a goddamned hurt animal,” he once described himself. “Like a dog … And when I come out, I’ll come out biting.” Predictably, he didn’t think much of “wimps,” who “see a little blood and bone and pain, and they think the game is over. They think once you’re hurt, you’re hurt forever … Wimps don’t know you can go out and get taped up real good and shoot up a little dope and get back in and hit somebody.”
Take that, Hemingway and Norman Mailer!
Even so, as I read Harry’s many books and got to know the man personally, what I learned complicated and even contradicted his reputation. Behind that baroquely tough exterior and behind all the machismo, blood sports, and hard-bitten grotesque characters in his books lay a friendly, even courtly person. Lord knows he wasn’t anyone’s idea of a Southern gentleman, but Harry was certainly Southern, and he was never less than gentlemanly with me. In fact, he was downright generous with his time and his hospitality and his views on life and art—views that were sensible, sensitive and wise.
Not that I took Harry’s friendliness for granted. During our talks, I sometimes mused to myself that if I’d met the man at an earlier stage of his life, when his trouble with alcohol, women, and violence still besieged him, we probably would not have gotten along. He would have seen me, or so I figured, as a pampered Yankee dilettante and looked with scorn on my feeble attempts at fiction, my shaky commitment to writing, my physical wimpiness, my social timidity—my whole damn self, in fact. I wouldn’t have been serious enough for Harry, and seriousness is what mattered most, especially in writing, where his ethos was about “getting naked,” being vulnerable at all costs, thoroughly authentic. I couldn’t risk “getting naked” then, in my life or my work, and to be honest, I usually still can’t. Nevertheless, the man I met in ’92 was a “lion in winter”; the storms of youth and middle age had dwindled in their fury, leaving him less vigorous physically, calmer in spirit, and charitable enough to overlook a kid’s faults and share some lessons with the kid and tell him those stories.
(For a taste of Harry’s conversation, go for the interviews collected by Erik Bledsoe in the volume entitled, yes, Getting Naked with Harry Crews. Bledsoe’s introduction, brief as it is, also serves as the best biography of Crews currently out there.)
Our friendship consisted of monthly phone talks and visits I made each year to his home. (Harry didn’t travel much in the past two decades.) The connection started at the book reading in Miami, when he invited me and Sergio to visit him, “if you’re ever passing through Gainesville,” and it became more personal in 1999. That year my infant son, Gabriel, was diagnosed with hydrocephalus and needed emergency brain surgery, and, desperate for counsel and support, I remembered that Harry had decades earlier lost his elder child, a boy of four, to accidental drowning. “When he drowned,” Harry said once, “I thought I would never get over it. I wish I could’ve died at that moment.” But “it’s not unrelieved suffering. There’s awful good things, sweet things, wonderful things, moving things, uplifting things, things that make you whistle, sing, dance, hug your neighbor.” Turning to Harry, hearing his compassionate pep talks, made quite a difference for me, just as I hope that my positive words to him when he felt down in recent times bucked up his own spirits.
“Death will annoy me,” Harry once quipped to a journalist. As it turned out, it was the illness of his last years that really annoyed him, with “annoy” being a major understatement. When death came, it came as a friend. I was with him at his home only days before his passing, and he seemed, as he phrased it then to his ex-wife and lifelong intimate, Sally, “ready to get off the train.” During that final visit, I read to Harry from a Graham Greene novel, and I spoke of his literary mentor Andrew Lytle, and I presented him with a gift, an early twentieth-century edition of the Sears-Roebuck catalogue. Everything appeared to please him, but he relished the catalogue the most. I’m not surprised. In his masterful memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, Harry wrote of how Sears-Roebuck provided the only books in his Depression-era sharecropper home besides the Bible, and the catalogue’s images fired his young imagination, prompting him to make up stories about the people in the drawings.
Of course, I was pleased to see that Harry liked my gift. But his suffering was predominant, and I found myself bittersweetly recalling a weekend at his house the year before, when we watched the Super Bowl game together, laughed a lot with his devoted local friends Darlene and Henry, and naughtily dipped into his stash of Oxycontin. (Only one of us, I should point out, was legally authorized to ingest that heavenly pain relief.)
During the Super Bowl weekend last year, I spoke proudly to Harry about my son, who’d survived his health crisis in infancy and had just reached his teen years. Without hesitation, Harry grabbed one of his books from a shelf and scrawled in it a kick-ass message to my boy and then handed the book to me, saying, “See how he digs this.” As usual, books were one of our favorite things to talk about. Over the years, Harry had turned me on to Greene and Flannery O’Connor and I’d turned him on to Borges and Knut Hamsun. In both those latter cases, he claimed, he’d read through the paperbacks I gave him in one or two extended stints on his brown recliner. We discussed the latest output of his contemporaries, especially Thomas McGuane, Andre Dubus, and Jim Harrison.
“Good fiction is not there to prove anything,” he once said. “Good fiction is there to make you breathe with another human being, bleed with him, to suck you out of your skin for a little while and put you in somebody else’s skin, to participate in another man’s doing the best they can with what they got to do it with.”
Needless to say, we discussed his own contributions to what he called the “Hell’s-a-Poppin’ School of Literature.” When I opined that The Gypsy’s Curse, a tour de force narrated by a handicapped deaf-mute bodybuilder, was his best novel, Harry told me that he preferred Naked in Garden Hills, which I hadn’t read. I didn’t even own it, and just my luck—Garden Hills had been out of print for decades. (The Gypsy’s Curse, along with A Childhood and another novel and four particularly fine essays can be found in the still-available volume Classic Crews.) Fortunately, I was able to snag a copy of Garden Hills, and devoured it just after Harry’s death (regarding it as “unfinished business”), and damned if the old boy wasn’t right: with its bravura formal construction and strangest-ever characters in the Crews canon, Garden Hills easily achieves Harry’s stated aim with his writing to “knock your dick in the dirt.”
Harry’s influence on me as a budding creative writer came not just from his insights about craft and his mandate to “get naked” with subject matter. Equally important, if not more, was the example he set in terms of drive and self-discipline. How can you not get revved-up when you hear assertions like, “I can be hungry, homeless, wet, in debt, fucked up, but if I’m writing, that’s enough. It really does give me that kind of payback”? Making sentences was like a religious calling for Harry: “When I start writing,” he told a journalist, “I say to God, ‘God, give me five hundred words. I don’t want to be greedy, although I am at times a very greedy person. Give me five hundred words and I’ll be satisfied. I don’t want to know the rest of the book. All I want to know is the next five hundred words. Thank you. Amen.’ ”
Elsewhere, he said, “It takes a brand of courage and a tolerance, a very high tolerance, for failure, frustration, and self-doubt, for running up into something that looks like it’s totally impossible, and instead of turning around and abandoning it, you sit to it and say, ‘No, goddamn it, there’s an answer in here somewhere, and I’m going to find it or fuckin’ die’ … Most anyone can deal with that sort of thing for a day or two, maybe even a week or two, but try dealing with it for a year or two. You get up every morning and it’s still there, right where you left it.”
Influence and exemplar that Harry was, I hesitate to call him my literary mentor. He didn’t serve the role for me that Andrew Lytle served for him—but this was because I didn’t let him. Unlike the writing students Harry taught at the University of Florida since he published his first novel in 1968, I rarely showed him my own work or discussed it with him in any specific way. From time to time he’d ask to see pages from me, but I made excuses, too cowardly to risk Harry’s bad opinion of me. Still perceiving myself as that pampered Yankee dilettante, I didn’t want to hear any confirmation of it, even one that was gently voiced. And by the time I did develop some backbone, the state of Harry’s health had deteriorated too much for him to do any close readings.
Now that the phone in the Gainesville home’s been disconnected and the brown recliner is empty, I’ve been cursing my inability to show Harry my writing, and I’ve asked myself a question I never consciously asked before. Since he wasn’t a full-fledged artistic mentor for me, what precise part besides “older friend” did Harry play in my life? More specifically, what part had I wanted him to play? Was I seeking not just a mentor but a hero to worship? A “star” whose light would reflect on me, lending me (or so I hoped) a vicarious glow?
Guilty as charged.
Kim Gordon, the bass player for Sonic Youth, once quipped that fans go to rock concerts in order to watch performers publicly “believe in themselves,” and more than any of his other personal qualities, it was Harry’s humble yet firm self-belief that I valorized. For a self-doubter like myself, hearing Harry say, “I’m gonna be exactly who I am, and people who don’t like that, well, fuck ’em,” was bracing, to say the least. In earlier times, though, Harry had suffered from crippling self-doubt, too, both as an author and as a person, and his jaundiced view of himself was a sort of photo-negative view of my own low self-perception. While I was feeling inadequate as a pampered Yankee dilettante—and as far worse than that—he’d once felt inadequate as a “Grit”—a white Southerner living below the poverty line. Despite laboring for fifteen years on novels (four went unpublished) and stories (a “roomful” of unfinished ones), Harry believed that his Grit origins made him unworthy to cast a pebble into the sacred silver waters of Literature. Then, during one fraught writing session, came an epiphany—a road-to-Damascus moment that changed everything. Such “blood moments,” as Harry would describe them, allow you “to find out who the hell you are, what you really believe, what you’re capable of … Are you a coward or are you able to control your fear and behave with what the world calls courage?”
In its obituary for Crews, the New York Times printed a few lines from Harry’s description of his epiphany, but it’s worth quoting at greater length:
As weak and warped as it is, and as difficult as it is even now to admit it, I was so humiliated by the fact that I was from the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp in the worst hookworm and rickets part of Georgia I could not bear to think ot it, and worse to believe it. Everything I had written had been out of a fear and loathing for what I was and who I was. It was all out of an effort to pretend otherwise. I believe to this day, and will always believe, that in that moment I literally saved my life, because the next thought—and it was more than a thought, it was a dead-solid conviction—was that all I had going for me in the world or would ever have was that swamp, all those goddamn mules, all those screwworms I’d dug out of pigs and all the other beautiful and dreadful and sorry circumstances that had me the Grit I am and will always be. Once I realized that the way I saw the world and man’s condition in it would always be exactly and inevitably shaped by everything which up to that moment had only shamed me, once I realized that, I was home free.
Perhaps, as Harry liked to say, “survival is triumph enough.” He lived through so much damage, self-inflicted and otherwise, that he did end up seeming triumphant. Yet Harry’s greater triumph, one that made possible his artistic success, was in a battle for something more than mere survival—the battle to own, to be, bravely, nakedly, purely himself. Few people, in my view, fight this battle in any sustained way, much less win it. But this singular Southern gentleman “came out biting” as only he could, and for those of us who cared about Harry, who read his work and heard his stories and learned from him, that “bite” was an inspiration to behold.
Crews never finished writing one of his books, as he once admitted, “where I didn’t say, ‘Well, son, you blew it again’ … But if you’ve given every fuckin’ thing you’ve got … you ought to say to yourself, ‘Well, old son, it ain’t Shakespeare and it ain’t Dostoevsky … but it ain’t too bad for an old boy out of South Georgia.’ ”
Not bad at all, blood. Take it light. Catch you later.
Gary Lippman is a lapsed lawyer and former Fodors travel writer whose play Paradox Lust appeared off-broadway, whose fiction has appeared in Open City, and whose heart is in the Highlands.