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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.

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2015 in Review: My Top Ten Reads

December 21, 2015 Leave a comment

In 2015, for the second consecutive year, I read more than 100 books. A few of these were in conjunction with my work as an English teacher (indeed I read a couple of these books aloud to students), but the vast majority were for my own personal reading. Around a third of these were crime fiction, with the rest being literary fiction, non-fiction and the odd SF novel. This year I revisited the works of J. G. Ballard, William S. Burroughs and Philip K. Dick, all of whom are authors who were important to me in my twenties. I completed my reading of the works of Pat Barker, Mikhail Bulgakov and Derek Raymond, and I’m one book short of completing everything by Peter Temple, too. I read multiple titles by the likes of James Lee Burke, J. M. Coetzee, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Vicki Hendricks, Cormac McCarthy and Larry Watson. Authors that I read for the first time in 2015 include Julian Barnes, James Darnielle, Candice Fox, Christopher Isherwood, Henning Mankell and Ron Rash. I didn’t enjoy all of these books and authors equally, but all have something to recommend them. My author of 2015, however, was definitely Jim Thompson. I ended up reading twelve of his books. What follows is my top ten reads for 2015 with brief description and links to Goodreads.

Brittle Innings by Michael Bishop

It’s a sequel to Frankenstein, set in the US in the first half of the twentieth century. Oh, and the monster plays baseball. He can really hit them out of the park.

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The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember much of what happened in this slim volume. I do remember, however, than the writing was exceptional.

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Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee

I’ve read about ten of Coetzee’s novels now; this is yet another outstanding piece of work from the Nobel Prize winner.

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Liza’s England by Pat Barker

Pat Barker is an exceptional writer but in general I prefer her WWI books to the rest. This one, however, a bildungsroman set in England in the early twentieth century, is very powerful and far superior to the recently-released Noon Day.

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Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

This is a fascinating portrait of life in late-Weimar Germany told through the ‘camera’ of ‘Christopher Isherwood’. I’ve read four Isherwood titles recently, but this was my favourite of them.

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A State of Denmark by Derek Raymond

Probably the best of Raymond’s non-Factory novels, this is part Orwellian dystopian England, part rural Italy. Fascinating.

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The Hidden Files by Derek Raymond

Raymond’s memoir is part autobiography and part thesis on what he calls the ‘black novel’. Rambling but ultimately rewarding for authors of crime fiction.

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Savage Night by Jim Thompson

The first Thompson novel I read happened to be one of his very best, and it precipitated a book-buying-bender on my part. This is a slim and savage little crime novel that I greatly admire.

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A Swell-Looking Babe by Jim Thompson

I especially liked this Oedipal (and partly autobiographical) tale of Dusty Rhodes, hotel porter. It’s another Thompson stunner.

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Pop 1280 by Jim Thompson

I’m saving the best for last. This is by far my favourite book of 2015; it’s a caustic, outrageous comedy noir set in Hicktown, USA at the turn of the twentieth century. This has to be the very best of Jim Thompson and that’s really saying something. Go read this book immediately!

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The Red Fog Rises: On Derek Raymond

November 18, 2015 Leave a comment

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I hadn’t heard of UK crime writer Derek Raymond until I was given a copy of his novel The Devil’s Home on Leave about two years ago. I enjoyed that well enough, finding it to be exceedingly gritty and bleak (and thus to my tastes) and in time I got my hands on the other novels in the Factory series, He Died With His Eyes Open, How the Dead Live, I Was Dora Suarez and Dead Man Upright. The first of these I liked best, the last the least, and I didn’t enjoy the much hyped Suarez as much as I thought I might, although perhaps that was the point. Raymond can be artless at times and there’s a certain repetitiveness to his work, but it’s genuine, powerful and oh so very sordid. Ideally I’d obtain the entire Factory series in either the UK Serpent’s Tail editions or the US Melville House, but as usual (as you can see from the above photo), I’ve ended up with a bit of both.

There’s more to Derek Raymond than the Factory novels; quite a bit more, in fact. Next cab off the rank for me was the excellent A State of Denmark, a remarkable mix of 1984 and some really vivid writing about country life in Italy. This would be close to the best of Raymond’s earlier work, originally published under his real name of Robin Cook (he chose the pseudonym in the 80s due to the popularity of the other Robin Cook). The other early novel published by Serpent’s Tail is The Crust on its Uppers, the author’s first. I didn’t enjoy this very much, and nor did I like the late, weak Nightmare in the Street. Raymond did have one more good shot in him, as it turned out, the posthumously-released Not Till the Red Fog Rises, which I’ve just finished reading today. This reads very much like the Factory novels except that here we see things from the criminal mind of Gust, a dangerous man to cross. Finally there’s Raymond’s memoir The Hidden Files, a combination of personal history, treatise on the ‘black novel’ and a lot of other oddities thrown in for good measure. Out of print, expensive and obscure, this is nonetheless an important and very interesting book.

So that’s the end of my Derek Raymond adventure, or is it? As Robin Cook, the author published four other early novels that are yet to be reprinted and may forever remain so, given that the author died more than twenty years ago. They are named Bombe Surprise, The Legacy of the Stiff Upper Lip, Public Parts and Private Places and The Tenants of Dirt Street. All are obtainable secondhand, but all are expensive. After finding The Crust on its Uppers a chore to get through, I’m disinclined to blow my money on these obscurities, but perhaps I’m making a mistake? If you know, let me know.

In summary, Derek Raymond is for lovers of British noir. He’s not for the squeamish, and perhaps it’s best not to read too many of his books in one go. His best work, in my view, can be found in novels like He Died With His Eyes Open, A State of Denmark and Not Till the Red Fog Rises. If you like your novels served black, then you’ll very much enjoy these titles.

This World, then the Fireworks: My Jim Thompson Adventure

September 30, 2015 Leave a comment

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I read a lot of books, around 100 per year, and perhaps once a year I find an author I haven’t previously read who really gels with me. In 2014 it was Mikhail Bulgakov. 2013, Raymond Carver, 2012, Daniel Woodrell and Megan Abbott. My author of 2015 is Jim Thompson, 20th century American noir author. Pictured above is my recently-assembled collection of Jim Thompson novels, about 50% of his total output (and reputedly the better half). Hardcore, a collection of three titles (The Nothing Man, The Kill-Off and Bad Boy) arrived yesterday, and I’ve read everything else pictured here. Ideally I’d collect all the Vintage/Black Lizard editions, as I particularly like those, but financial necessities have meant that I got whatever was cheapest on Ebay, Better World or Abebooks. The only one of these I bought from a physical bookstore was Savage Night, the book that started it all for me. I enjoyed all of these titles to greater or lesser extents. My favourite novel is Pop 1280, but I also loved Savage Night, A Swell-Looking Babe and Polito’s biography, Savage Art. 

I’ve also watched three films based on Thompson’s films in The GriftersThe Killer Inside Me (2010) and Farewell, My LovelyThe Grifters was far and away the best of these. I have Peckinpah’s The Getaway to watch, as well as Coup de Torchon (based on Pop 1280). I haven’t read the books in Hardcore yet, although having made a brief start on The Nothing Man I feel sure I will enjoy that one. Fireworks is an interesting if uneven volume. I was a little disappointed with “This World, Then the Fireworks” to be honest, but I loved the early work and especially “An Alcoholic Looks at Himself”.

So my question to you, Jim Thompson fans of the internet, is what else of his is worth pursuing? My reading of the biography and various bits and pieces on the internet persuaded me to pursue these books and not the others, but perhaps you have a soft spot for a particular Jim Thompson work not mentioned here? I’m given to understand that the earlier biography is superfluous, but how do I know?

A note on costs. Now that the poor old Aussie dollar is only worth about 70 US cents (and falling), I’ve had to shop around for books a bit more. For several years I was only paying $10-12 dollars for new books from Book Depository, but it seems those days are gone, not only because of the exchange rate but also them hiking up the prices a fair bit. So I am back to secondhand books again, like I was before Book Depository ever came along. These 14 books cost me in total $133, or $9.50 per book, which is about 50% of what they’d have cost new (those in print, anyway).

Anyway, it’s been a great ride. If I manage to finish Hardcore within the next couple of weeks, then I’ll have read 11 JT novels, 1 collection of miscellany, 1 biography and 1 autobiography in about three months. That ain’t bad….

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Exit Screaming, Jim Thompson

August 14, 2015 2 comments

I’d vaguely heard of American crime writer Jim Thompson (1906-77), but only because one of his novels, Pop 1280, was featured on a list of Southern Gothic novels on Goodreads recently. I meant to grab a copy at some point, but I intended to sink my teeth into Ron Rash first. On a recent trip to Melbourne, I came across a Thompson novel in a discount bookstore. Five bucks. The title was Savage Night, the publisher was Vintage Crime/Black Lizard and, when I read the first few chapters, I was in love.

Turns out that Black Lizard reprinted about fourteen of Thompson’s novels in the nineties, and I wanted ’em all. Most are out of print in these editions now, so I’ve had to content myself with a mixture of Black Lizards and Crime Masterworks. But I love the covers and designs of the Black Lizards best. My second Thompson novel was probably his most famous, The Killer Inside Me, and while I liked it plenty, I thought it a little tame compared to modern crime fiction.

Next came After Dark, My Sweet, which I enjoyed well enough but found even less remarkable, at a distance of 60 years since first publication. This is considered to be in Thompson’s upper echelon, but it didn’t quite do it for me.

But if my third outing into the world of Jim Thompson was a slight letdown, my fourth, Pop 1280, was the best yet. Similar in character and structure to The Killer Inside Me, this ‘last great novel of Jim Thompson’s career’ would be a great novel in anyone’s career. Dark, twisted, vulgar, revolting, and yet riproaringly funny, Pop 1280 may well be among the best satirical noir novels even written.

And that’s where I’m up to. I’ve also just finished reading Robert Polito’s outstanding biography, Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson. I have no fewer than seven further titles enroute in The Grifters (I recently watched and very much enjoyed the film), The GetawayA Hell of a Woman, A Swell-Looking Dame, The Nothing Man, The Kill-Off and Bad Boy (these last three in the Hardcore omnibus), so I expect to be revelling in the dark, dark world of Jim Thompson for some months to come. I binge on authors like this when I can, which isn’t all the time as I don’t always feel overly enthusiastic about devouring (like Nick Corey) every single available morsel. And I haven’t promised, not even to myself, to read every word of Thompson, but this enthusiasm reminds of how I felt about Philip K Dick, and J G Ballard, and William Burroughs, and Harry Crews, and …

Country Noir: My Journey to the Rough South

June 7, 2015 2 comments

It’s not often that you can pinpoint the reading of a particular book as life-changing. Rummaging through a box of a stranger’s discarded books in 2009, my eye was caught by the cover of Harry Crews’ A Feast of Snakes. I hadn’t heard of the author, but the reading of this, the fiercest and bleakest of ‘country noir’ novels (a term coined by Daniel Woodrell), compelled me to track down and read every book the man had written, which took me through to some time in 2010. Much of Crews’ work falls short of this standard, but some of it is very fine indeed. I didn’t realise it at the time, but Crews was my entree into the world of what is often called Southern Gothic literature. Crews, from Bacon County, Georgia, wrote the seminal A Childhood: The Biography of a Place about his early life, and the various snippets of interviews with him that can be found on youtube make for absorbing and often hilarious viewing. Crews died in 2012, a couple of years after I discovered his work, and it won’t be long before I’m ready to re-read the fifteen or so novels I devoured so eagerly in 2009-10.

 

In 2010 I also read my second Cormac McCarthy novel, No Country for Old Men, which I enjoyed immensely (the film is outstanding too). I was less taken in by James Whorton Jr’s novels Approximately Heaven and Frankland, which I felt to be ‘Crews lite’ (to be fair, almost anything Southern could be described as such). Crews spoke reverently of his literary forebear Flannery O’Connor many times, so I obtained the Library of America edition of her complete works, but I wasn’t especially enamoured with her first novel, Wise Blood, and the rest remained unread for the time being. In 2011 I read McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which I found heavy going, but precious little else in this genre. Other than Crews, I hadn’t yet discovered authors I would bond with.

2012 proved to be an important year for me in this regard. As often seems to happen when you so diligently trawl remaindered book piles in newsagents and discount stores, I discovered William Gay (pictured above) quite by accident. I was extremely impressed with his stately prose in The Long Home, Provinces of Night and especially Twilight, and a couple of years later I very much enjoyed his stories in I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down. Gay died that same year, a month before Harry Crews, but I’ve recently learned that a ‘lost’ novel of his, Little Sister, Death is to be published later this year. Gay saw himself as an acolyte of McCarthy but, initially at least, I preferred the work of the apprentice to that of the master. Gay was born in Tennessee and much of his work is set there. 2012 and 2013 were also the years I read virtually all of Daniel Woodrell (pictured below), starting with Winter’s Bone. I enjoyed pretty much all of Woodrell, but especially Tomato RedThe Death of Sweet Mister and the author’s most recent, The Maid’s Version. Much of Woodrell’s work is set in the Missouri Ozarks, perhaps not Southern in geography but certainly in tenor.

I’d read a couple of novels by Larry Brown (pictured below) previously but, like in the case of McCarthy, I was a little less enthusiastic and seemed to read only one or two of his titles a year. I liked Joe but not Fay, and it wasn’t until 2014 that I finally read a Brown novel I fully enjoyed (his first, Dirty Work). By now I’ve read most of Brown, including Jean W. Cash’s biography. His second collection of stories, Big Bad Love, is currently enroute, and I couldn’t get through The Rabbit Factory as it reminded me of Crews’ late and not so amazing work. As mentioned above, Brown saw himself as a follower of Crews (he has an essay on this subject), but when William Gay was first published in 1999, he was seen as a ‘new Larry Brown’ (even though he was considerably older). Brown was the first of these authors to die, far too young, in 2004.

Like I’ve said, I’d been reading Cormac McCarthy on and off for years, starting with The Road in 2008, which I saw more in the context of dystopian fiction at the time. I read the ‘Border Trilogy’ out of sequence (The Crossing in 2012, All the Pretty Horses in 2013 and Cities of the Plain in 2015), and I recently enjoyed Child of God. This leaves me with three of the author’s early novels, The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark and Suttree (enroute), and a couple of recent titles. In many ways, McCarthy is the granddaddy of the writers discussed here, born earliest (1933), published first (1965), and now the oldest (81). In this regard he reminds me of another long-living writer-patriarch, William S. Burroughs, who might himself have had more of a place in this conversation were he not so widely and perhaps incorrectly known as a Beat writer.

And then there’s the rest. By the time of this writing, I’ve managed to read five novels by North Dakota native Larry Watson without enjoying his work very much. I liked Montana, 1948 and Orchard, but found In a Dark TimeSundown, Yellow Moon and American Boy dull and staid. Perhaps it’s because while Watson is certainly a ‘country’ author, he’s by no means Southern? My problem with Ohio born Donald Ray Pollock is somewhat the opposite in that I found his novel The Devil All the Time and collection Knockemstiff too dark and horrible without any kind of redemptive feature at all. Nor did I appreciate the only James Lee Burke novel I have read, The Tin Roof Blowdown (too trashy), although I did like his early collection The Convict and Other Stories. I fully expected to take to the works of New Orleans native Elmore Leonard, but I didn’t think a great deal of Rum Punch or Tishomingo Blues and thus I haven’t yet read further. I’ve read one James Sallis (pictured below) novel, Drive, and I have a further two enroute in Cypress Grove and Cripple Creek. I’ve recently read a few of Flannery O’Connor’s stories (especially enjoying ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’) but I wasn’t at all a fan of Philip Meyer’s much hyped American Rust or John Grisham’s A Painted House.

It hasn’t escaped my attention that these authors, with the exception of Flannery O’Connor, are all white American males. It has been a source of some consternation to me for years now that 90% of my influences and literary idols are men, but try as I might, I can’t seem to find females authors I enjoy to the same extent, with the exception of US crime writer Megan Abbott and English literary author Pat Barker. Nor have I failed to notice that most of my influences are American. Of the twenty authors I consider most important to me (only some of them mentioned here), eleven are Americans, six are from the U.K., and the only ‘Australian’ author, Peter Temple, was born in South Africa. What does this mean? Am I a reader and writer out of step with the Australian society around me? Should I pack up and move to the Rough South, or is there a place for me here in country Western Australia?

 

 

2014 in Review: My Top Ten Reads

December 21, 2014 2 comments

2014 has been a watershed year for me in terms of the quantity of books I’ve read: for the first time since I started recording these things in 2008, I’ve hit 100 books completed for the year. Most people are fairly astounded when I tell them I read this many books in a year, but I do favour shorter novels and it probably only averages out to about one hour of reading per day across the whole year. That’s an hour that many other people would spend watching television, say. It’s not that I don’t waste time on trivial pursuits — I certainly do — but my commitment to hunting, buying and reading books is such that I always have an immediate to-read list of 10-15 titles.

I tend to be an ‘author reader’, by which I mean that once I decide that I particularly like the work of a certain author, I will hunt down every book by this author and hopefully read every word. It doesn’t always work out this way; at times I decide that I’m not so interested in a certain writer after all, and end up with a pile of their books that I no longer want to read. In 2014, I read three or more books by the likes of Pat Barker, Larry Brown, Mikhail Bulgakov, Michael Chabon, M John Harrison, Haruki Murakami, Peter Temple and Alan Warner. Most of these writers would normally be classified as authors of literary fiction or crime, and that’s a fair representation of where my reading interests now lie. I read a number of young adult novels as part of my job as an English teacher, some of them multiple times, which rather pads out my overall figures. My author of the year would have to be Mikhail Bulgakov. Until this year, I hadn’t read a word of him and now I’ve read his entire published prose output.

2014 may have been a watershed year in terms of quantity, but what about the quality? According to my Goodreads star ratings (which I have completed very assiduously this year), 21 books gained a five star rating. Of these, I have chosen my top ten reads for the year, limiting myself to just one book per author. Here are the ten in no particular order. All come highly recommended from me. Clicking on the covers will take you to the listing for the book on Goodreads.

Union Street by Pat Barker

I’ve now read almost all of Barker, with the exception of her novel Double Vision which I can’t seem to get into. This novel, her first, is the very best of her non-WWI output. Grim, dark and extraordinary powerful.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

In truth I possibly enjoyed A Country Doctor’s Notebook even more than this, but this is the magnum opus and the place where pretty much everyone starts with Bulgakov. I don’t regret giving this devilish satire of Stalin’s Russia my attention.

My Summer of Love by Helen Cross

A friend recommended this and I’m glad she did. I thought this was far superior to Cross’ second novel, The Secrets She Keeps. I loved the writing in this one and the plot had a couple of real kickers to it, too.

An Iron Rose by Peter Temple

Peter Temple is the Australian master of crime fiction and this is one of his very best, maybe the best of them all.

The Dark Road by Ma Jian

Ma Jian is my favourite Chinese writer and I’ve been waiting patiently for some years for a follow-up to Beijing Coma. Well, it was worth the wait. Not for the faint-hearted, the squeamish, or those inclined to depression. It’s that dark.

The Sopranos by Alan Warner

I’ve read a lot of Warner this year, probably two-thirds of his opus, but this one had me laughing the hardest and it’s not often that happens when I read. The sequel, The Stars in the Bright Sky, is a pale imitation.

Dirty Work by Larry Brown

I have mixed feelings about Brown but I have nothing but praise for this, his first novel. The book consists of two profoundly injured Vietnam War veterans chewing the fat, but it’s fat well worth chewing. Here’s a book with heart.


I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down by William Gay

I love country noir fiction: Harry Crews, Daniel Woodrell, Donald Ray Pollock, Larry Brown, Larry Watson and Cormac McCarthy all write it and write it well, but in my opinion none of them does it better than Gay does in this exquisite volume of short fiction. I’d go so far as to say this is my number one book for the year.

The Master of Petersburg by J. M. Coetzee

I like Coetzee: he’s an enormously skillful writer but at times I find him overly dry and that put me off him for a couple of years. The Master of Petersburg isn’t dry and I think it’s even better than his most famous novel, Disgrace. The Russian setting helps, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that Coetzee is the greatest living writer in the English language.

He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond

In general I’ve liked but not loved the Factory novels, but this one, the first, is very good indeed. I happened to read this after books 2, 3 and 4 and in a way I’m glad that I did, because it was all downhill (admittedly at a gentle slope) from here.

Nova Swing by M. John Harrison

Now this was a surprise. I loved Harrison in my younger years, especially his sumptuous Climbers, but he’s started writing SF again and in general I haven’t warmed to it. I despised Light when it first came out and thus this has sat unloved on my bookshelf for close to ten years, which is a pity as I enjoyed it immensely when I finally got around to it. The same couldn’t be said for the final volume in the Kefahuchi Tract series, Empty Space, which I found close to unreadable.