Author Harry Crews dies in Florida at 76

GAINESVILLE, FLA. (AP) - Author Harry Crews, a hell-raiser and cult favorite whose hard and crazy times inspired his extreme, but comic tales of the rural South, died Wednesday in Gainesville, Fla. He was 76 and had suffered from neuropathy, said his ex-wife, Sally Ellis Crews.

“He had been very ill,” she told The Associated Press on Thursday. “In a way it was kind of a blessing. He was in a lot of pain.” Thanks in part to motorcycle accidents and nerve damage in his feet, he had walked with a cane in recent years. But his career remained active. An excerpt from a forthcoming memoir had been published in the Georgia Review and there was talk of reissuing his books, many of them out of print, in digital editions.

He wasn’t widely known, but those who knew him_ whether personally or through his books _ pledged eternal; devotion. A wild man and drunken sage in the tradition of Charles Bukowski and Hunter Thompson, he wrote bloodied, freakish stories drawn directly from his own experiences, including boxing and karate. Crews sported a tattoo with a line from an E.E. Cummings poem, “How do you like your blue-eyed boy Mister Death,” on his right bicep under the tattoo of a skull.

“My nose has been broken I think six times,” he said in an undated interview with the online magazine VICE.

“For a long time I never knew which side of my face it was gonna be on from year to year. But I liked boxing for a long, long time and I like karate and I like blood sports. I like a lot of things that are really not fashionable and really not very nice and which finally, if you’ve got any sense at all, you know, are totally indefensible. Anybody who is going to defend much of the way I’ve spent my life is mad.”

Crews wrote 17 novels, including “Feast of Snakes” and “The Knockout Artist”; numerous short stories and novellas and the memoir “A Childhood.” He also taught graduate and undergraduate fiction writing workshops at the University of Florida from 1968 until his retirement in 1997.

He liked to say that once he had written 500 words, he considered it a good day’s work. In a 1992 interview with Tammy Lytal and Richard D. Russell at Memphis State University in Memphis, Tenn., Crews said about writing, “If you’re gonna write, for God in heaven’s sake, try to get naked. Try to write the truth. Try to get underneath all the sham, all the excuses, all the lies that you’ve been told.”

Crews was born June 7, 1935, in Bacon County, Ga., the son of a sharecropper. His father died in his sleep before Harry was 2, a tragedy that would haunt him long after. In “A Childhood,” published in 1995, Crews wrote about growing up in poverty and without books, except for the Bible. He remembered the shame of having to move around.

“Ever since I reached manhood, I have looked back upon that time when I was a boy and thought how marvelous beyond saying it must be to spend the first 10 or 15 years of your life in the same house _ the home place _ moving among the same furniture, seeing on the familiar walls the same pictures of blood kin,” he wrote. “But because we were driven from pillar to post when I was a child, there is nowhere I can think of as the home place.”

His childhood alone tested the imagination. His mother married his father’s brother, a violent drunk. Crews suffered from infantile paralysis and once fell into a vat of boiling water, confining him to his bed for months. Still, he managed to become the first member of his family to graduate from high school, after which he joined the Marine Corps. In the book “Getting Naked with Harry Crews,” he explained to interviewer Hank Nuwer that his military service was crucial.

“If I hadn’t gone in the Marine Corps, I wouldn’t be a professor in the university. I’d be in the state prison because I was a bad actor and a bad boy.”

Crews also freely acknowledged his problems with alcohol.

“Alcohol whipped me. Alcohol and I had many marvelous times together. We laughed, we talked, we danced at the party; then one day I woke up and the band had gone home and I was lying in the broken glass with a shirt full of puke and I said, `Hey, man, the ball game’s up,’” Crews once said in a profile written by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary T. Schmich.

He had dreamed of being a writer since childhood, when he would read through the Sears catalog. Thanks to the GI Bill, he attended the University of Florida and graduated in 1960. Crews wrote fiction throughout the decade and had four novels rejected before his first work of fiction, “The Gospel Singer,” came out in 1968. Several more novels followed, including “Car” and “The Hawk is Dying,” adapted into a 2006 film of the same name starring Paul Giamatti and Michelle Williams. From the start, he hauled Southern Gothic down back roads even Flannery O’Connor never traveled, like in “Karate is a Thing of the Spirit,” which features female impersonators, gays making out on a Florida beach and a pregnant woman karate kicked in the belly as she’s perched over a swimming pool.

“His stock in trade is the unexpected,” John Deck wrote in The New York Times in 1971. “His humor produces something between a laugh and a gasp.”

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