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Crews’ world is full of blood and bone

Getting Naked with Harry Crews, edited by Erik Bledsoe. University of Florida Press, 1998.

The first time I ever heard of Harry Crews — some 30 years ago now — was when a friend gave me a copy of The Gospel Singer and said, “Don’t tell anyone where you got this.” I read it immediately, and in the parlance of some of my young friends now, Crews “cleaned and polished my brain stem.”

It was a darkly humorous tale, filled with gothic figures, murder, sex and mayhem. I’ll never forget the funeral parlor scene in the opening, the terrifying lynchings (two of them) at the conclusion, and the bizarre events in between. My favorite characters were Foot (a midget with a 27-inch inch appendage), Willalee Bookatee Hull (a black minister and rapist), and the protagonist, who has a magically sweet voice and a black heart. I still remember the quote, “In a world where God is dead, mankind worships each other.” When I finished the book, I just opened it and started again.

Occasionally, I gave The Gospel Singer to friends, but they frequently returned it unfinished and asked me why I read “that trash.” I had no answer. I only knew that I had read something that spoke to me as no other writer had ever done. For years, I read everything Crews wrote. The Hawk is Dying followed by the quirky Car (the protagonist decides to eat an automobile), Naked in Garden Hills, This Thing Don’t Lead to Heaven, and finally the book that told me why Crews appealed to me — Childhood: The Biography of a Place. In this painful autobiography, Crews, records the details of his own origin, a story of hardship and grinding poverty in rural Bacon County, Georgia.

Crews acknowledges that he grew up bitterly ashamed of his voice (that means his redneck dialect), his family and the place where he lived. For years, he made desperate attempts to escape the ignorance and poverty of his roots, only to discover that it was bred into him — blood, bone and soul.

“I have Georgia in my mouth,” he is fond of saying, “every time I speak.” Finally, after years of trying to escape his origins, Crews came full circle. He realized that the only subject he could write about with accuracy was his own life. Eventually, he learned that what he viewed as his greatest shortcoming was ... a gift! He could speak from the perspective of a poor white Southerner at a time when no one was doing that in Southern literature — someone who had experienced crippling poverty, a daunting host of childhood ailments (including polio), and the pity and contempt of those who judged him, including the school system, the privileged town folk and the world beyond Bacon County.

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Crews came to feel a passionate kinship with outcasts — people who had been rejected because they were physically and emotionally “different.” In effect, for Crews, physical abnormalities became the outward embodiment of the inner disfigurements that we all have. Consider this incident from his childhood: When Harry was about 6 years old, he accidently fell into a barrel of scalding water during a hog killing. Jerked from the boiling water by a neighbor, Harry watched the skin unroll down his arms and drop off his fingers (along with his fingernails). He carried severe scars for the rest of his life.

A short time after the incident, he recalls sitting on the porch with a number of other children and turning the pages of a Sears catalogue. He and his friends amused themselves by making up stories about the people pictured in the catalogue. Several of his playmates wondered why “the pretty people” didn’t have any scars — no acne, no disfigurements. Crews knew that it was impossible to grow up in rural south Georgia (or Appalachia, for that matter) without being “marked by your environment” — scars, missing fingers, broken teeth, etc. Crews said that his playmates decided that the beautiful folks in the advertisements had scars. You just couldn’t see them. In a sense, that is what Crews finally came to write about — the scars that are not visible, the ones that are inside.

Getting Naked With Harry Crews is a comprehensive collection of interviews with the author from 1968 until the present. The title is a Crews metaphor for telling the unvarnished truth. The result is a bit overwhelming. Beginning with interviews that reveal Crews as a boastful, garrulous and angry writer determined “to write 20 novels,” the collection progresses through the author’s violent and provocative career.

Some early interviewers treat him with pompous condescension, while others view him with awe and trepidation. He discusses his alcoholism (“the dark twirlies”), his legendary propensity for violence — at the present his nose has been broken nine times, along with both hands, most of his ribs, his neck and both legs — and his checkered career as a journalist for Esquire and Playboy, including his famous pieces on Robert Blake, Charles Bronson, Vic Marrow, and the Texas sniper Charles Whitman.

This impressive collection contains a diversity of motifs. Crews has spent 40 years defending himself against charges of populating his works with freaks, raw sex and gratuitous violence. His defense is impressive and consistent, although the repetitive questions of his interviewers occasionally becomes an irritation. Again and again, he laments the rapid loss of Southern language (“Eventually, we will all talk like disc jockeys!”), the loss of family, manners, customs, a “sense of place,” the decline of reading, and the destruction of nature. He also unabashedly endorses blood sports (boxing, cock fights, dog fights) and reasserts his belief that mankind has a black and beastial heart. There are other themes, too: a smoldering rage at the loss of his own youth; despair at his lack of critical success; and the belief that his next book will be “the best one.”

Not too long ago, I saw a PBS interview with Crews, and it was memorable. Harry’s scarred and broken body was covered by tattoos and he sported a bristling, gray Mohawk haircut. To me, he resembled one of those ancient carcasses unearthed from some Icelandic peat bog. Under the timid prodding of his interviewer, Harry explained his appearance. In effect, he had given up trying to look “academically presentable.” He said that from here on out, he chose to be the old maverick freak that he was. Obviously, he took considerable delight in discomfiting his colleagues at Florida University where he has been a full professor for 20 years (in the school that had once denied him acceptance to their graduate program).

The final interviews in Getting Naked With Harry Crews are a bit more reflective and somber. Crews has a multitude of ailments now and he tends to think more about death and dying. “I’ve always been interested in the skull beneath the flesh,” he says as he considers his own mortality. “Now, I’m gonna find out what it is like to die.” Then, he quotes one of his favorite deceased celebrities, Diane Arbus, who said “My favorite thing is to go someplace that I have never been.

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