I knew Harry Crews about as slightly as you could get away with claiming to know someone. I did two interviews with him, the last one on the phone, pretty cursory in hindsight. The in-person talk went on for a few hours and involved some alcohol — the disabling drink of choice for Crews for much of his life — along with occasional posturing and some alternately frightening and revealing glimpses of Harry Crews. It was, to say the least, a memorable conversation. For me. It’s doubtful Crews remembered it thirty minutes after I left, and I wouldn’t blame him.
My memory about the occasion is pretty good even though it was a king time ago. He was in what turned out to be a good mood (in the way that “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” passes for family entertainment). It wasn’t too long after his finest book, the autobiographical memoir “A Childhood” had been published, a searing look back at growing up in tough, poor, rural South Georgia. It was a place where everyone young Harry knew was maimed either emotionally or physically, missing eyes, fingers or limbs or good sense, and where the models in the Sears catalog offered the only picture of human perfection.
Crews sat and drank while I ran some things by him to get a reaction. Did he once walk from Georgia to New England to get to a writers conference in spite of bad legs, showing up smelling and behaving about as you might guess? Yep, that’s sort of right. Once when he leaned in to respond to a question, he seemed to sneer at me, almost as if he wanted to chew my nose off, and I recoiled, honestly just a bit scared. Then he backed off, laughed, took a drink, and our conversation continued.
I wasn’t the only one who could get scared by him. AS lot of students, even friends, reported the same from time to time. But they — and I, in the lesser way of a mere acquaintance — knew that whatever he was, he was real. And what he wrote about in his books, his characters, were real. They were the people he knew who had been broken by life, a lot of them freaks, a lot of them losers. He could empathize with them and mean it. His books weren’t pretty. He wrote a lot of pieces including 15 novels, most of them dammed good ones. He was always a careful, thoughtful and precise writer. And if critics liked to call him an over-the-top Southern gothic writer, I suspect he didn’t mind. Or care. Remember Flannery O’Connor? She and Crews had a heck of a lot more in common than some people were comfortable accepting.
So, did I get some gems of insight from my small interview? No, I’m afraid not much. I didn’t know him well enough then, I had too little time with him, and I wasn’t fully up to the occasion. I wish I’d had the opportunity more recently, but life interferes with our best plans. He taught writing at the University of Florida until he retired in 1998 — not long after our phone chat — and suffered worsening health for the rest of his life. He died just a few days ago. His papers are at the University of Georgia, and here’s a biography of him in the works. I’ll be eager to read it. He’s not for everyone, to be sure. But I doubt you can read one of his books — and try “A Childhood” before the novels — and come away without a sense of the transformative power and hurt and compassion in his work.