He was the unlikeliest of university professors: often drunk; tattooed and be-mohawked back when such things were still transgressive; prone to bar fights. His fiction was dark, haunting and focused on the freaks and fringe-dwellers of mainstream nightmares. His nonfiction was even grimmer, drawn from the hardscrabble existence of a childhood shaped by tragedy, poverty and weeping wounds. Whether living on a small sharecropper’s plot in Bacon County, Ga., or in the shotgun shacks of downtown Jacksonville, he grew up in a place as distant from middle America as the slums of Mumbai. As he mused in the 2003 documentary, “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus” (http://bit.ly/GW9UYA),“The first thing that struck us was everybody in the Sears catalogue was perfect. Wasn’t any bald heads. Everybody had all the fingers that was coming to ’em. Nobody had any open and running sores on their bodies. … In our world, everybody was maimed and mutilated.”
Crews died last week, at age 76, from complications of neuropathy, a nerve disease that simultaneously dulls sensation and causes pain — an indelicate metaphor for much of his life experience. His writing, on the other hand, was an exquisite sensory experience, steeped in tactile truths, and a seeming compulsion to expose human brutality and individual vulnerability.
Needless to say, it wasn’t for everyone. His books were “preternaturally violent,” in the words of The New York Times, and populated by sexual and social deviants. While Crews eventually enjoyed a measure of literary and professional success, he never assimilated at the University of Florida campus where he worked from 1968-1997, teaching graduate and undergraduate fiction.
“For some unknown reason, I got the strange feeling that the other professors might have been appalled by the behavior of their ‘colleague’,” writes UF alumnus and Alternative Reel blogger Rich Weidman in a remembrance (http://bit.ly/HpCsNw). “For his own part, Crews didn’t seem to give a shit. When he wasn’t teaching students, Crews was out getting drunk, pumping iron, studying karate, taking a coast-to-coast motorcycle excursion, hiking a portion of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maryland, training hawks, kicking some ass in a sleazy bar or getting his ass kicked in same bar. … And writing, always writing.”
Crews, who briefly taught middle school in Jacksonville, lived outside Gainesville at the time, in a lake cabin that lacked TV, telephone, even mail delivery, and he typed at a desk made of cinderblocks and an old door. But if his life was cut off from ordinary society, his connection with readers was visceral. As the Times wrote after his death, “Though his books captivated many reviewers (they bewildered others and repelled still others), they attracted a cadre of readers so fiercely devoted that the phrase ‘cult following’ seems inadequate to describe their level of ardor.” (Indeed. Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth formed a band with punk legend Lydia Lunch and named it “Harry Crews” — quite possibly the cultural capstone in the universe of “cult following.”)
Crews wrote 23 books in his life, and they were not without flaws (or even typos). But they spoke in a voice equal parts Faulkner and Bukowski — inimitably human, terrifyingly real and unflinchingly honest. Thankfully, it’s a voice that won’t be silenced by death.
Crews left behind a handful of really exceptional books, generations of inspired writers and enough rage, bile and hope to shake up readers for decades to come. As he himself noted in his 1974 autobiography, “A Childhood,” “Nothing is allowed to die in a society of storytelling people.”
Here’s to immortality, Harry. RIP.