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Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews in Review

May 3, 2016 2 comments

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It was 2009 when I first picked up an old paperback with an intriguing cover depicting a snake, Ouroboros-style, eating its own tail. The book was A Feast of Snakes, its author Harry Crews unknown to me, but as I sat down to read I was electrified. I’ve only felt this way a handful of times, experiencing an instant, profound connection with a book and author. I enjoyed A Feast of Snakes so much that, upon completing it later that day, I started from page one and read it cover to cover again. Thus began my ‘Crews Cruise’, a year-long quest to obtain and read all twenty or so of the author’s books. The only book of Crews’ that I didn’t obtain and read at that time, aside from obscure titles like The Enthusiast and Madonna at Ringside, was the very expensive, never-released-in-paperback This Thing Don’t Lead to Heaven. I eventually rectified that omission in 2013, but by then Harry Crews was dead.

Having read pretty much all of the published secondary material on Crews as well, I proceeded to wait patiently for the author’s follow-up to his heartwrenching memoir, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place. Crews had completed writing it before he died, I’d read. That title, Assault of Memory, never came, but here’s the next best thing, a touching biography by Ted Geltner. (As an aside, I must be about the first person in Australia to have read this book, several weeks before its slated release date. I have my local bookstore, Barclay Books, to thank for that.) Not every author gets the biography they deserve. Some years ago I was rather underwhelmed by a book on the never-boring Brion Gysin, whereas on the other hand Julie Philips’ biography of James Tiptree Jr has to be the best I’ve ever read. Happily, Blood, Bone, and Marrow falls squarely in the latter camp.

Harry Crews led an immensely interesting life, but I’ve long been starved of information on all but the first decade of that life. The outstanding documentary “Harry Crews: Survival is Triumph Enough” makes for compelling viewing, but it’s almost completely devoid of anything about Crews’ actual publishing journey. Similarly, no one could write better about Crews’ childhood than the man himself, but that seminal memoir ends with the author still a small boy. Most of the remaining seven decades of Crews’ life were blank to me, interspersed as they were by snippets from interviews (most of them collected in Getting Naked with Harry Crews and Critical Perspectives on Harry Crews) and non-fiction pieces collected in Blood and Grits and Florida Frenzy. Geltner’s biography fills those blanks for me and I believe that that’s a major part of what a literary biography should do.

More than that, though, Blood, Bone and Marrow offers a compelling, often funny and frequently sad account of a deeply flawed and yet profoundly influential American writer. Harry Crews toiled his whole life against the cards life had dealt him and he went to his grave without knowing the answer to one of the most fundamental of life’s questions: Who is my daddy? What blood runs through these veins? When Harry Crews passed away in 2012 I felt like I lost a treasured great uncle. Around the same time I lost J. G. Ballard and William Gay, too. I can only thank and applaud Ted Geltner for bringing Harry Crews alive for me again, albeit fleetingly.

The epigraph of the book’s final chapter is a quote from Crews himself: “The big oaks have to fall down so the little oaks can grow up. And now it’s my turn to go down.” Harry Crews was a big oak, one of the biggest, and in my mind he’ll never go down.

A Manifesto for Tough Fiction

January 8, 2014 4 comments

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About five or six years ago now, I was between genres as a reader. A refugee from science fiction (you can read more about that here), I hadn’t yet found the kind of fiction that would sustain me into my next decade. I read some literary fiction and sometimes I read it with enthusiasm, but frequently I found (and find) literary fiction ponderous, slow moving and dull. Two books, read in 2008 and 2009, changed all that. The first was Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and the second A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews. One crime fiction, one southern fiction or southern gothic. Both by dead American men.

The Big Sleep was a revelation to me. Until I read that, I’d had a strong prejudice against crime fiction that I’d developed in my late teens after having to read a novel by Patricia Cornwell for a university assignment. Now, Patricia Cornwell may be a fabulous writer, for all I know, but in my mind I had a box containing books by people like her and John Grisham labelled under ‘Trash’. Chandler showed me the folly of that. I read each of his novels with enormous enthusiasm for the first time in 2008 and 2009, and thereafter I was on my way into crime land.

I’d have gotten around to Chandler eventually, but it was a chance occurrence in 2009 that opened the door for me to a very different type of fiction. My mother had a box of books sitting in her house that she’d been given by a friend who was moving away, and as I always do I got to sifting through them immediately. I don’t know what about the cover or blurb of A Feast of Snakes it was that appealed to me, but when I read the first page I was hooked. Upon finishing the novel, I promptly started it again to fill the void it’d left. What followed was my ‘Crews Cruise’ (more about that here) that would end up rivaling the fervour I felt for the work of Philip K. Dick when I first read him in my late teens.

Books beget books. From Chandler, I read crime fiction by the likes of Megan Abbott, J. C. Burke, Alan Carter, Garry Disher, James Ellroy, Andrey Kurkov, Ken Kalfus, Julienne van Loon, Andrew McGahan, Derek Raymond, Peter Temple and David Whish-Wilson. From Crews, I read other southern fiction by Larry Brown, William Gay, Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor and Daniel Woodrell. The boundaries between these genres is porous and, ultimately, probably meaningless, with Abbott writing introductions to Woodrell’s books and Woodrell blurbing Abbott’s. But all of these authors, whether they are from the South or not, whether they write crime narratives or not, whether they are American or not, share something in common. They all write fiction that is pretty fucking tough in character.

Tough fiction is about the ‘real’ world. It isn’t usually fantasy or science fiction (although there are always exceptions, such as Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and China Mieville’s The City and the City. Tough fiction isn’t metafictional or self-referential. It isn’t self indulgent or bloated, and it rarely lasts for more than 300 pages at a time. Tough fiction contains a very strong, even overbearing line of narrative. It is about life and death and it is often rather violent. Almost always there is some kind of crime, a truckload of cuss words and plenty of misbehaviour. These books contain drugs, foremost among them alcohol. They are, like all the best stories, about people doing the best they can in the circumstances they find themselves in. Tough fiction rarely spends long describing settings and yet it conveys a very strong sense of place, of regionality. Tough fiction can be set anywhere, but it is often set in rural landscapes rather than urban ones. While it seems to me that this type of fiction emanates from the U.S., it can be written in the U.K., Australia, and other Western countries. Tough fiction is about Western Civilisation and its apparent decline. But it’s always been declining, as it was when Nathanael West wrote Miss Lonelyhearts and Day of the Locust in the 1930s.

Tough fiction is also usually class conscious, and it is almost always written from the bottom looking up. It often demonstrates a working-class ethos but it’s rarely political. Its protagonists aren’t hedonistic, but they crave sensory experience. They might be religious but more frequently they are not. In the past, tough fiction has more often than not been written by men, but this is changing. Pat Barker’s World War 1 novels are prime examples of tough fiction. So is the work of Zoe Heller, especially her first novel, Everything You Know. Sometimes tough fiction straddles other genres, for example horror. The late Paul Haines wrote fiction of the toughest kind, and so does Kaaron Warren, in books like Dead Sea Fruit. Some of the toughest stuff isn’t even fiction, like Jack Black’s long-ago crime memoir You Can’t Win, which was championed decades after Black’s death by William S. Burroughs. Burroughs was a tough guy himself, not only in Naked Lunch but in his later Westerns like The Place of Dead Roads. Tough fiction can also be short fiction, such as the stories of Raymond Carver. It doesn’t come much tougher than that.

All of the books mentioned above are examples of tough fiction, but I’ve saved what I think of as the quintessential tough fiction novel for last. I read James Dickey’s novel Deliverance, later made into a film of the same name, barely a year ago. Dickey was a poet and it shows in this book, because the prose jumps right off the page at you and smacks you in the head with its brilliance. And yet the story is about four dudes and their ill-fated canoeing trip. If you haven’t read Deliverance, then you must. Then you’ll know what I mean by the label of tough fiction.

If you like that, then you’ll like what I like. If you don’t, you won’t.

FOR FURTHER READING – SOME TOUGH FICTION

  • Megan Abbott – Queenpin, Bury Me Deep, The End of Everything

  • Pat Barker – The Eye in the Door, Toby’s Room

  • Jack Black – You Can’t Win

  • JC Burke – Pig Boy

  • Raymond Carver – What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?

  • Raymond Chandler – The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The Long Goodbye

  • Harry Crews – A Feast of Snakes, The Gypsy’s Curse, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place

  • Kenneth Cooke – Wake in Fright

  • J M Coetzee – Disgrace

  • Michael Chabon – The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

  • Joel Deane – Another

  • James Dickey – Deliverance

  • William Gay – Provinces of Night, The Long Home, Twilight

  • M John Harrison – Climbers

  • Zoe Heller – Everything You Know, Notes on a Scandal

  • Paul Haines – Slice of Life, The Last Days of Kali Yuga and Other Stories

  • Julienne van Loon – Road Story

  • Cormac McCarthy – No Country For Old Men, All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing

  • Andrew McGahan – Praise, 1988

  • Derek Raymond – The Devil’s Home on Leave, I Was Dora Suarez

  • Peter Temple – Truth, The Broken Shore

  • Kaaron Warren – Dead Sea Fruit

  • Nathaniel West – Miss Lonelyhearts, The Day of the Locust

  • Daniel Woodrell – Winter’s Bone, The Maid’s Version

  • David Whish-Wilson – Zero at the Bone

Categories: Book Reviews, Harry Crews

how do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mister Death? – RIP Harry Crews

March 31, 2012 Leave a comment

No one told me that Harry Crews died the other day. I inferred it from the fact that I’ve been getting a lot of hits on my Harry Crews posts on this blog over the past couple of days. It’s been around three years since I picked up and read – entirely by accident, my first novel of Crews’: A Feast of Snakes. Let me tell you this: the novel had such an effect on me that not only did I start reading it again virtually straight away after I’d finished it (which I never do) but I immediately became a Crews convert, hunting down every book the man had written in the space of about six months (bar one, which I can’t find for a reasonable price: This Thing Don’t Lead to Heaven).

So the man was 76 when he died. He’d lived a full and often rewarding life, and if you read his autobiography A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, you’ll discover how unlikely that would have seemed in earlier days. So I’m not sad. Crews has actually written a second volume of autobiography, which he said wouldn’t be published until after he was dead, so my thoughts selfishly turn to that. You can read much more about Crews and all of that on this most useful of websites.

So, what should you do now, and what am I going to do? If you haven’t read Crews and you want to, I recommend two volumes. The first is the novel A Feast of Snakes and the second is the 3-in-1 Classic Crews: A Harry Crews Reader. This gives you the very best of Crews, in my opinion. The autobiography is amazing, and so is Crews’ novel The Gypsy’s Curse. In fact, that’s what I plan to start re-reading today.

Harry Crews was a real writer, and one who actually achieved what he set out to do in the mid-60s: to produce a worthwhile and enduring body of literature. It was definitely worth the effort.

Crews cruise (nearly) complete

February 18, 2010 2 comments

That’s right. Aside from This Thing Don’t Lead to Heaven, I’ve managed to assemble a complete Crews collection in a little over four months for a little under $400. My copy of An American Family: The Baby with the Curious Markings arrived in the post today. Obsessive? Certainly. But all in good fun. I don’t have copies of a few obscure Crews titles, namely Two, Madonna at Ringside and The Enthusiast (the last of which is reprinted in Florida Frenzy AND All We Need of Hell, but whatever. Crews has his character Duffy Deeter say that ‘a man’s gotta have a little enthusiasm’ – well, Crews’ work has been my literary enthusiasm for the past four months.

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Book Review – Naked in Garden Hills by Harry Crews

February 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Naked in Garden Hills is Harry Crews’ second novel, first published in 1969. It’s long out of print now, which comes as a surprise as it’s surely one of Crews’ best novels, as he himself has claimed in interviews. It received positive reviews at the time of publication. And yet, as far as I can tell, there was the hardcover release in 1969, a US paperback in 1970, and a UK paperback in 1973 (published by Charisma Books and pictured above, on the right). I’m mystified as to why it hasn’t been reprinted since. I know Crews changed publishers from William Morrow to Knopf with the publication of The Hawk is Dying, I know he in all likelihood offended members of the ‘academy’ with his anti-intellectual rants in Esquire and Playboy, and I know he disgraced himself publicly on a number of occasions by getting himself blitzed on booze and making an ass of himself. But that’s still doesn’t explain why Naked in Garden Hills is thirty-plus years out of print. It is, and should be regarded as, an American classic.

The novel has a setup so strange that it can’t be read as anything other than pure surrealism. Garden Hills is a town at the bottom of a phosphate pit in Florida. It is owned by Fat Man, a six-hundred pound man who drinks the diet milkshake Metrecal by the caseload. Working for Fat Man is Jester, a ninety-pound, four foot tall midget who dreams of the horses he never rode and the races he never won. Dolly, the Phosphate Queen of Garden Hills, is a young beauty who has recently returned to Garden Hills from New York to set up a go-go club. In short, this is a lively cast of bizarre characters.

At the heart of practically every Crews novel is a kind of carnival. Sometimes the carnival is explicitly so, like in The Gospel Singer, and other times it is not stated as such. Practically everyone in a Harry Crews novel is some kind of freak (a term Crews himself dislikes) – be they midgets, obese landowners, or illiterate long-distance runners. Crowds are to be feared, tastes to be questioned, schemes to be exposed as scams. Characters in Crews’ novels are operating in a God-less vacuum that makes them do crazy things to rediscover meaning in their lives. But as Crews is teaching us, these terms (freak, crazy) are relative, that in fact we are all this thing inside our hearts. His singular ability is to humanise these grotesque caricatures in such a way that we eventually forget their freakish qualities. Naked in Garden Hills does this exceptionally well.

Even though this was just Crews’ second published novel, this is not the work of an apprentice. Crews would have been about 34 at the time of publication, and he’d already mastered the art of narrative that he learned from Graham Greene and others. One thing I’ve become attuned to in the last few of his novels I’ve read is his ability to weave past and present in such a way that the overall narrative becomes a rich tapestry. So we have Dolly ordering a go-go cage in chapter six, only for the chapter to end up as a long retelling of her voyage to New York City. This story in turn sheds light on her current ambitions and motivations. Crews uses this technique extensively in his chapters to often profound effect. Crews would write about a dozen novels after this one, but it’s doubtful that he improved on the technical prowess on show in Naked in Garden Hills.

One thing I’ll say against this novel is that there isn’t much sense of a forward progression in time. Garden Hills, apparently, just is. For example, we learn that Dolly is opening her go-go lounge, but there’s nothing like an opening ceremony or main event. Naked in Garden Hills is curiously devoid of events, especially toward the end. Additionally, there is little sense of how much time is supposed to have passed between one event from the past and the present time. It can be a little confusing. Despite this, I definitely enjoyed reading the book.

Sadly for me, I’m almost out of Harry Crews novels to read now. I haven’t been able to get more than half way through The Mulching of America (I’m not at all impressed) and my copy of An American Family is yet to arrive. I’ve read no less than 18 books by or about the man in the past four or so months, which rivals my binges on Philip K Dick and Graham Greene in earlier years (I once read 25 Greene novels in a six week period). It’s been fun, but it’s almost over. This Thing Don’t Lead to Heaven remains the only one I can’t find, but I’ll be damned if I’m paying $150 for it.

Harry Crews – Survival is Triumph Enough

February 14, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve been meaning to watch this short documentary concerning Harry Crews for some time now, but I hadn’t been able to for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it appeared that you could purchase and download it on a site called bside.com for about $2, but whenever I tried to add it to the shopping basket nothing happened. Then I realised that the film is now hosted on another site, indieflix.com, which may explain why it wasn’t working on bside. I didn’t really want to order the dvd, simply to download it, so I was pleased today to see that indieflix are finally allowing people to buy and download the film. You pay $2 for 30 day access to this 30 minute film. Here’s the youtube trailer:

And here’s the page on indieflix:

http://www.indieflix.com/film/harry-crews-survival-is-triumph-enough-29834/

So what is it like? Well, if you are looking for anything to do with Crews the writer you’ll be sorely disappointed here. I don’t think he mentioned a single one of his books in the film, or his writing career at all. For the most part, this is about Crews’ early life. There are a number of harrowing anecdotes, most of which had been written about in A Childhood. So I guess I’m saying there isn’t much new information here. But I don’t care. Watching Crews rail against the world in his seventies is triumph enough for me.

Book Review – The Hawk is Dying by Harry Crews

February 14, 2010 Leave a comment

The Hawk is Dying is Harry Crews’ sixth novel, published in 1973, and it’s the twelfth of his novels I’ve read to completion (this is if you include Car and Where Does One Go When There’s No Place Left to Go? as novels – they are more novella length). Anyway, I liked this one well enough, even if it won’t end up being one of my favourites overall. Before I go on to discuss the novel in detail, let me say that Crews’ early work (up to and including A Childhood) is remarkably consistent in quality. There’s nothing approaching a poor book in the first nine he published (eight novels and one memoir), and when you think that the essays collected in Blood and Grits and Florida Frenzy are also equally strong, that’s eleven quality books straight. At least it will be if Naked in Garden Hills and This Thing Don’t Lead to Heaven live up to expectations. In interviews, Crews has often spoken of the writing regimen he stuck to throughout his career. Get up at four, ‘put your ass in the chair’ for three hours with the intention of producing a mere 500 words, and that’s it. It worked for him – his books are uniformly well constructed – and there’s seldom if ever a dull or superfluous chapter.

In The Hawk is Dying , we are introduced to George Gattling, a forty-three year-old seatcover salesman living and working in Gainesville, Florida (the majority of Crews’ novels are set here).  George works with a man called Billy Bob. He lives with his sister Precious and her retarded adult son Fred. And George is sleeping with one of his employees, a young woman called Betty. Each of these main characters is memorable in his or her own way. George is finding his life to be without meaning in the way that almost all of Crews’ protagonists do. In the absence of God, he struggles for something to believe in, having rejected most if not all of the trappings of Western capitalism.

Duffy Deeter, protagonist of All We Need of Hell, explains it best by saying that ‘a man’s gotta have enthusiasm.’ What he means by this is that people need things to believe in (or obsess over). Practically all of Crews’ novels have at least one character embodying this motto. The Gospel Singer believes in sex; John Kaimon believes in karate; Hermann Mack believes he can eat a Cadillac car; Joe Lon believes in nothing and goes on a murderous rampage as a result. In The Hawk is Dying, George Gattling believes in austringency: the art of hawk training.

This is a novel in which Crews appears to be writing fairly transparently about his own life. He says he has trained hawks himself. He lived in Gainesville for much of his life. He was about George Gattling’s age when he wrote this. And, like his protagonist, Crews himself rejected most of the lures of capitalism. This is an entertaining and sometimes mildly amusing read. Though it does deal with some pretty raw material (a mysterious death in a waterbed being the event that the novel hangs on), it seems a little tamer than The Gypsy’s Curse and much tamer than A Feast of Snakes. Those would be the next two novels he wrote after this. It seems that Crews is really building himself up to something in his fourth, fifth and sixth novels. But I would still agrue that that something reached its fullest expression in his seventh and eighth novels, The Gypsy’s Curse and A Feast of Snakes.