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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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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?

 

 

The Completist – Authors I’ve Read Virtually Everything By

September 25, 2013 2 comments

Ah, lists. I love ’em and periodically I feel the urge to produce another one. Here’s a list of the authors I’ve read (and probably own) nearly everything by, with some brief thoughts on each of them.

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Megan Abbott 

She’s written six novels – I own and have read all six. My favourites are Queenpin and The End of Everything, but I like them all. I first encountered this author less than two years ago when I picked up a copy of her The Song Is You on a discount pile. I love discount piles.

J. G. Ballard

He wrote an awful lot, novels and stories, and I own and have read virtually all of it. Ballard had a profound impact on me at a crucial age (19-20), probably second only to Philip K. Dick in this regard. Ballard has definitely seeped his way into my writing subconscious. His essays are also extremely interesting – the man was nearly a genius. I recently read Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J. G. Ballard 1967-2008 and was duly blown away.

William S. Burroughs

Burroughs published a number of little chapbooks and other ephemera, so I can’t claim to have read everything he wrote, but I have at least 20-25 of his books and I’ve read numerous biographies and both volumes of his letters. I’ve even read Here to Go, his collaboration with Brion Gysin. I must have read Naked Lunch 5-6 times by now.

Pat Barker

I’m fairly new to Barker, only having discovered her in the past 3-4 years. I very much enjoyed her Regeneration Trilogy and was especially enamoured with the recent Toby’s Room. She’s an outstanding writer and there are 2-3 of her books that I’m still yet to read. I tend not to like her contemporary stuff as much as those books set in WWI.

Raymond Carver

In fact I hadn’t read a word of him until earlier this year, so it didn’t take me long to read all his short story collections (except for some posthumous stuff) and a biography to boot. Terrible person, amazing writer.

Raymond Chandler

Without Chandler I might still shy away from crime fiction. I was enraptured by novels like The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely and The Long Goodbye, and I’ve read some of his novels multiple times. I never really got into his short stories. I’ve also read numerous biographies and a book of his letters.

J. M. Coetzee

Coetzee only barely makes this list, simply because there are 5-6 of his books that I haven’t read as yet. But I’ve read at least 10 of them and enjoyed them for the most part. I especially liked Disgrace and his trilogy of memoirs. Coetzee can be dry at times, but at his best he has no peer and he is the spiritual successor to Samuel Beckett.

Harry Crews

Most of the writers on this list are pretty famous, but Crews decidedly isn’t, not anymore. Dead and more or less out of print, Crews is nevertheless on a par with the likes of Cormac McCarthy and William Gay, in my humble opinion. I’ve never read a fiercer book than his dark masterpiece A Feast of Snakes.

Philip K. Dick

What can I say about him that I haven’t said already? I’ve published a 40,000 word long article on his work in Bruce Gillespie’s SF Commentary 83 and I dedicated years to reading everything he wrote and everything wrote about him. That adds up to a hell of a lot and takes up about two shelves in my study. PKD is my number one influence as a writer, by far.

Graham Greene

The best prose stylist of the twentieth century, bar none. There, I’ve said it.

Barry N. Malzberg

Another mostly out-of-print writer, Malzberg was one of my favourite SF writers a decade or so ago. I had a fairly extensive email correspondence with the man a decade ago as well. His best novels include Underlay and Galaxies.

Maureen McHugh

I very much liked her novel Half the Day is Night many years back, and now I’ve managed to assemble her complete ouevre, even if there are a couple of things I haven’t read.

James Tiptree Jr.

In actual fact a woman by the name of Alice Sheldon, Tiptree is famous for some amazing short stories written mostly in the 1970s. I’ve read virtually all of them. “Her Some Rose Up Forever” is among the best.

Jeff Vandermeer

Vandermeer is among beautiful stylist and author of numerous works, none better than his collection thingy City of Saints and Madmen. I’ve been following his career with interest.

Daniel Woodrell

Another writer I’ve only recently discovered, I discovered Woodrell on another discount pile in the form of his novel Winter’s Bone. I liked that plenty so I ordered everything else he’d written. Right now I’m very much enjoying his most recent novel, The Maid’s Version.

That’s fifteen writers I’m very fond of. Eleven of them are men. Eleven of them are Americans, three British and one South African. All of them are contemporary or near-contemporary. Chandler was born earliest, but Greene published earliest. There were a few others who didn’t quite make the list for one reason or another, such as Iain Banks, John Crowley, William Gay (haven’t read his stories), M. John Harrison, Jonathan Lethem (plenty more of his to read), Kim Stanley Robinson, Kurt Vonnegut, Irvine Welsh and Ma Jian (he’s only written about three books). And then there are Australian writers I like but haven’t read everything by, such as Garry Disher, Andrez Bergen, Simon Haynes, Paul Haines (I have read all of his), Bruce Russell, Kaaron Warren, and plenty of others.

So, which writers would make a similar list if you were to construct one?

On Reading Literary Biographies

March 16, 2013 2 comments

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I have a thing about fiction: I hate reading books over a certain length (about 300 pages). My optimum novel is probably 220 pages in length (Exhibit A: Toby’s Room by Pat Barker) and it’s no coincidence that I try to write novels of a similar length too. But there is a type of book where bigger is better, for me at least, and that is the literary biography. I only read biographies of writers and only if I respect them for their work, and I generally read bios as part of a ‘general immersion’ in writers I especially like. Put bluntly, I binge on great writers and their biographies are often a heavy though satisfying side dish. There’s nothing I enjoy more than curling up in bed with an overweight biography – like the 500+ page tome on Raymond Carver I’m currently reading. Why?

I guess literary biographies are a way of communing with (mostly) dead writers, of exploring their zeitgeist, of absorbing the lessons of their life. Writers’ lives are often chaotic, the morality of their actions very frequently questionable, their behaviour often loathsome. But a literary biography is almost always a tale of redemption, in that the Great Work eventually gets written and published, often in spite of the author’s lurchings through life. These biographies are a form of nourishment for the acolyte writer such as myself, but writers rarely offer good role models in terms of their behaviour. Perhaps it’s the type of writers I enjoy reading, but it seems to me that literary biographies often allow writers a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card for their bad behaviour in exchange for the Great Work they have produced along the way.

Here’s a list of some literary biographies I own and have read. The better ones are bolded.

The Inner Man: The Life of J G Ballard – John Baxter

Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S Burroughs – Ted Morgan

The Lost Years of William S Burroughs: Beats in South Texas – Rob Johnson

Cursed From Birth: William S Burroughs Jr – edited by David Ohle

Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life – Carol Sklenicka

Raymond Chandler: A Life – Tom Williams

The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved – Judith Freeman

Raymond Chandler – Tom Hiney

Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K Dick – Lawrence Sutin

Search for Philip K Dick: 1928 – 1982 – Anne R. Dick

Graham Greene: The Man Within – Michael Shelden

Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin – John Geiger

James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B Shelden – Julie Phillips

In addition to the above, there are a number of writers whom I would love to read full length biographies on. English novellist Pat Barker is in her seventies now so she should be prime for this treatment. American writer Harry Crews died recently and I would love to read a book on him, although I’m not sure he’s popular enough these days to warrant one. There is rumoured to be a follow-up volume to his amazing memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, so that would be almost as good, should it ever appear. I’d like to read a biography of William Gay too. But for now, it’s back to the boozing and philandering of Raymond ‘Running Dog’ Carver.

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.