Why you should care
Because it’s rare to read writing this tough and still keep all your teeth.
Calling Southern writer Harry Crews “Southern Gothic” means even less than calling him “hardboiled” — it’s very possible that the departed scribbler of note would have hated both. Hated them as descriptors of his work, as they imply an oeuvre not grand enough in scope to cover what Crews covered.
… jealousy, revenge, murder, poverty and marvelously rendered misfortune.
To wit, life’s big issues: blood, mud and the unvarnished end of lives lived on the fringe. From crippled bodybuilders to pugilists who ply their trade punching themselves out, to the joys of eating fried rattlesnake, Crews carried it all as far as he could. Which, coming from the vantage point of a tattooed former Marine and Korean War vet, was pretty goddamned far. In his depiction of the human condition in extremis, Crews had few peers, and the peers he had — from James Dickey to the much-more accomplished William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy — even those could not be said to have lived what they had created in the way Crews had.
“The world that circumscribed the people I come from had so little margin for error, for bad luck, that when something went wrong,” Crews wrote in his memoir, “it almost always brought something else down with it. It was a world in which survival depended on raw courage, a courage born out of desperation and sustained by a lack of alternatives.” As a kid Crews was almost boiled to death when he fell into a scalding pot used in hog slaughter, this after earlier in his youth suffering a fever so bad his muscles cramped his legs into useless folded stumps. Along with a steady diet of familial upheaval, these experiences created the groundwork that fueled much of what came later, in his writing and in his life.
While women in Crews’ universe frequently played the unenviable role of very bad badgirls — witness Hester Maile in his The Gypsy’s Curse, whose most ardent desire is to meet a man who loves her enough to kill her — the twice-married and twice-divorced Crews (to the same woman, in a Crews-esque twist) always maintained a heady contingent of women readers. Singer/author/artist Lydia Lunch and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon for a time in the late 1980s even formed a band named Harry Crews, and used his entire body of work to frame their set list and track listing.
“We wanted to do some music as a tribute to his total fucking genius,” said Lunch from her part-time home in Kentucky, “and have it be as badass as what he wrote about.” Whether it’s their one album, Naked in Garden Hills, named after a Crews book of the same name, or nods from neo-country singer Maria McKee, or Sean Penn putting the man himself in his film The Indian Runner for a dollop of real, it’s plain that the Crews love overfloweth.
Listen, if you want to write about all sweetness and light and that stuff, go get a job at Hallmark.
— Harry Crews
This not despite, but because of, his obsessive level of attention to themes of jealousy, revenge, murder, poverty and marvelously rendered misfortune. But despite, and not because of, his drinking, drugging and divorces and the death of a son from drowning, Crews still managed to crank out 16 novels, sustain a long career as a professor and appear routinely in the pages of Playboy, Esquire and every other publication that could square itself with this sometime mohawked, sometime head-shaved son of the South.
In an interview published shortly after his death in 2012, Crews offered the best possible coda to a body of work and life lived hard, if not well. “Listen, if you want to write about all sweetness and light and that stuff, go get a job at Hallmark.” Damned straight. Watch the man himself here, storytelling in his inimitable style, in a clip from the road-trip documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.