“Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews”
Author: Ted Geltner
Foreword by Michael Connelly
Publisher: The University of Georgia Press
Price: $32.95 (Hardcover)
When the writer Harry Crews died on March 28, 2012, his many fans were grieved and some were surprised, believing that Crews had died years earlier. Many who knew of his wild man lifestyle were surprised he had made it that long. But Harry Crews, with his karate, body-building, Mohawk haircut and tattoos, was a very tough guy, or at least appeared to be.
I was a fan.
Crews’s novels, especially “A Feast of Snakes,” which takes place at a rattlesnake rodeo somewhat like the one at Opp, Alabama, and “The Gypsy’s Curse,” which has as protagonist a legless, deaf-mute body builder who lives in a gym, are thoroughly original and inimitable.
Crews often offered an explanation for the number of grotesque characters or “freaks” in his novels: inside, we are all freaks, but most of us are able to hide that because of our normal exteriors. If you are a bearded lady or four feet high, there is no hiding.
It could be said, allowing a deferential nod to the ghost of Erskine Caldwell, that Crews invented a subgenre of Southern lit to be called grit lit, the stories of angry, redneck, country boys who typically drink too much, take too much dope and in their frustration and despair are obsessed with sex and violence.
That tradition continued: Crews had many admirers, and some were writers such as Barry Hannah, in the story collection “Airships,” and Larry Brown, in the collection “Big Bad Love,” who worked variations on the Crews material. Hannah’s crazy men were a little upscale of Crews’s, often pilots or physicians, but Brown’s were right on the same rung, farmers and firemen, angry and drunk.
Harry, Barry and Larry organized the club, with newer writers like Tom Franklin coming along after.
Only a couple of years before his death, journalist and teacher Ted Geltner contacted Harry Crews and asked if he would cooperate in a biography.
Crews’s reply: “Ask me anything you want, bud, but you’d better do it quick.” Crews was already very ill. Geltner had a superb place to start. Crews had published a powerful memoir of his earliest years as a sharecropper child in rural Bacon County, Georgia, “A Childhood,” in which he wrote of the poverty and hunger all shared in the Great Depression and of his own special misfortunes. As a little boy, Harry contracted polio and his legs were useless for a year.
Later, he was accidentally tossed into the boiling caldron being used to scald pigs and lost all his skin from the neck down.
Can beautiful writing come from such origins? From anywhere, it seems. The human creative imagination cannot be snuffed. Crews studied the Sears, Roebuck catalog and made up stories about the models, linking them in soap opera complications.
Crews, for reasons even he seems not to have understood, for he was not a good student, persevered in high school in Jacksonville, Florida, and graduated in 1953. After high school he joined the U. S. Marines, thinking he would be sent to Korea, but the war ended. He then enrolled in the University of Florida on the GI Bill, not to become educated in any general sense of the word, but to learn to be a fiction writer. He became the student of Andrew Lytle, the ultimate patrician southerner, not a redneck, but a writer who knew a fellow writer when he saw one.
Later, as writing teacher at Florida, Crews became legend. There were male acolytes and female groupies in droves.
Throughout the debauchery, Crews remained devoted to his writing, and took, unlikely as it seems, the British author Graham Greene as his model: unless hopelessly impaired, Crews wrote his 500 words every day, which resulted finally in 20 published volumes.
Crews rarely sold a lot, except perhaps for the memoir, but he developed a literary cult following. Some of his reputation even reached Hollywood. His first novel, “The Gospel Singer,” interested Elvis Presley but Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, ever mindful of Presley’s public persona, scotched that idea. Then the pop singer Tom Jones became interested enough to buy the rights, but the film was never made. After these non-starters, his novel “The Hawk is Dying” was made, on location in Gainesville. It starred Paul Giamatti, and was shown at Sundance but went straight to video. A later novel of Crews’s, an oddity entitled “The Knockout Artist,” in which a failed boxer learns he can knock himself unconscious with one blow and earns a living at entertaining at perverse New Orleans parties, caught the attention of Sean Penn. That film was never made either; Penn worked at writing the screenplay himself, but learned, as others had discovered, that Crews’ strange tone/ atmospherics on the page could not be easily translated to the screen.
But Penn, finding Crews himself a cinematic character, hired Harry for a small part in a film he was directing, “The Indian Runner.” In this movie Harry plays the father of a young man shot by the police and, in a dramatic courtroom scene, sings a “sorrowful, defiant version of ‘John Henry.’”
Although his novels did not adapt to the screen, Crews himself had a knack for screenwriting and, even when book sales were poor, earned a considerable amount from Hollywood, doing screenplays for movies that were, as is usually the case, never produced.
Young men often think being a writer means being a brawler and a drinker. Faulkner with his bourbon and Hemingway with his daiquiris have driven many a would-be writer to drink, so to speak. This biography, as we watch Harry destroy his marriage, lose most friendships, ruin his health, struggle through rehab over and over, fight and be beaten up because he is too drunk to defend himself, should have the effect of a temperance tract. Avoid all this.
Except for Crews’s determination to perfect his craft and turn out that 500 words every day.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.