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Classic Crews

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Although I’ve written about writer Harry Crews before, this is the first time I’ve read him.

I bought Classic Crews: A Harry Crews Reader this afternoon. This book includes the autobiographical A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, The Gypsy’s Curse, Car and a selection of essays.

Crews is very readable. In a “down home” sort of way he turns phrases just the right way to make the reader “see” the action and place he’s writing about.

Harry Crews grew up in Georgia, the child of sharecroppers. He spent time as a Marine, a potpourri of other wandering arts and along the way attended the University of Florida and became a writer.

I am a devoted reader of Flannery O’Connor. Crews writes about similar characters. (Truth be told, despite their complication, there isn’t a whole lot of diversity in poor people in the rural Deep South when it comes to characters.) However, his characters aren’t as funny as O’Connor’s. Perhaps that’s because he’s not making his characters up.

Crews writes about the real people who gave birth to his character and shaped his life. (Currently I’m reading Childhood, which is autobiographical. Perhaps I’ll find his made up characters funny when I get to his fiction.)

Here’s the beginning of Childhood: The Biography of a Place:

My first memory is of a time ten years before I was born, and the memory takes place where I have never been and involves my daddy whom I never knew.

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  • Allen Jones

    Harry Crews was a teacher and directed the graduate creative writing program at the University of Florida at Gainsville for decades and liked it, even though he knew that not more than a few students per year would have what it takes to become a writer. Interesting side note: he had been rejected as a student at the very same writing program a few years before they hired him.
    He was an unusual case of a longtime professor who didn’t consider himself an academic (he’s retired from teaching now). In fact, although he loved teaching, he loathed academia in general.
    He’s received critical success but has sold very few books, so buy some. Writing a few screenplays and having movie options taken on several of his novels has paid him more than all the income from his twenty or so novels. Tom Jones (the singer), of all people, owns the rights to Naked in Garden Hills, Crews’ second novel and the one he considers his best work.
    If you’re not from the South and have no ear for the language,or familiarity with the rural parts of the region, you may or may not pierce the style to get at the meat of his work. He’s a dead-serious writer in all his books, not that they’re all great. His personal least-favorite is The Mulching of America, which I found very damn funny, but it is structurally weak.
    He’s never written for a mass audience, even though, by his admission, nothing would’ve pleased him more than to have a book that sold a 100,000 copies or so. Europeans, particularly the French, seem to “get” his work more than Americans. It reminds me of the fact that authentic American jazz and blues musicians’ careers survived thanks to their greater appreciation by Europeans than Americans.
    Starting your reading with Childhood: A Biography of a Place might have been a bit of a mistake in that it is autobiographical and Crews is a fiction writer, a novelist, above all. A Childhood…, he has said, was the most difficult thing he’s ever written by far, since it involved family and other people still living and delving into his painful childhood. If he had known what it would cost him emotionally, he’s said, he would’ve never done it.
    Read All We Need of Hell, Naked in Garden Hills (out of print, but you can find it), Body, The Knockout Artist, and The Gospel Singer. His work will be around for a while, I feel sure.
    If you like his stuff, you’ll also want to check out the collection of interviews, A Large and Startling Figure.

  • HW Saxton

    Harry Crews is a great writer when he’s
    “On”.Some of his stuff can drag a little
    but I put the slow pacing of some of his
    stories on his southern upbringing.They
    do not like to take anything at a fast
    pace in the Deep South. Kidding,Sort of.

    I think his best works are examples of
    “Contemporary Southern Gothic” writing
    at it’s best. I used to play in a punk/
    blues band called: “Feast Of Snakes”.
    Named after the Crews book of course.
    About 2/3rds of our originals were taken
    from story titles by Crews,Faulkner,Jim
    Thompson and Charles Willeford.They were
    not any good but that’s not the authors
    mentioned fault.

  • allen

    Feast of Snakes is a fine novel.
    Ex-jocks, booze, animal cruelty, domestic violence, mental illness, cheerleaders, absurd ritual gatherings; with that many of our country’s favorite diversions, you’d think it would’ve been a best-seller.

    I got the title wrong for the book of interviews. It’s called “Getting Naked With Harry Crews.”

    comes from this Flannery O’Connor quote.

    “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.”

    —Flannery O’Connor, “The Fiction Writer & His Country”

  • allen

    In my last post, I accidentally cut the first part of the sentence before the quote. It should have read: The phrase “large and startling figure(s)” comes from this Flannery O’Connor quote.

    There is an excellent online bibliography of Crews’ work, by Damon Sauve, which uses “A Large & Startling Figure” as its title. The URL is: http://harrycrews.com/