- - Tuesday, July 12, 2016


By Ted Geltner

University of Georgia Press, $32.95, 448 pages

Reading the novels of Harry Crews is akin to walking into the freak show at a third-tier Southern carnival. The author (who died at the age of 76 in 2012) had the knack of taking human sub-normality to unbelievable lows, making one wonder whether such persons actually exist outside the tortured bounds of his mind.

Savage dog fights. Swarms of snakes. A geek who eats an automobile, in bite-sized chunks. A former prizefighter who knocks himself unconscious with a right hook to his own jaw. A business mogul who uses the bodies of failed salesmen as mulch for the corporate greenery. Let me be candid: Harry Crews is truly an acquired taste, and for even a reader who loves Southern-fried fiction, his works can be disconcerting.

Nonetheless, his 30 novels have made Mr. Crews somewhat of a cult figure in a segment of the literary establishment — “grit lit” was a favored term. A New York Times critic recently called him “one of the most original American voices of the second half of the 20th century.” I would emphasize the word “original,” for Mr. Crews was truly sui generis.

Why Mr. Crews was such a tortured, offbeat character is related by Ted Geltner in a biography that is both gripping and sad. Born on a dirt-poor Georgia farm, Mr. Crews suffered in childhood from a variety of polio that made his feet contort until they touched his lower back. Near recovery, he fell into a vat of boiling water during a “hog dressing” and suffered burns over much of his body.

But he also suffered from a childhood psychic wound from which he never really recovered. His supposed father died when he was two years old, and his mother soon remarried to the dead man’s brother, a violent alcoholic. From his early years Mr. Crews suspected the brother was his actual father, and his quest for an answer preyed on his life.

Mr. Crews overcame his physical problems (save for a weakened leg) to qualify for the Marine Corps. With a two-year motorcycle interlude, a la Jack Kerouac, Mr. Crews was graduated from the University of Florida and began writing, drawing upon his rural Southern heritage, both in vernacular and frame of mind. His milieu quickly became the outlaw fringes of society. And his early novels attracted enough attention for him to be invited to return to teach writing.

Word quickly spread among undergraduates that the burly (6-2, 210 pounds) unkempt Mr. Crews was “the best show on campus.” The question on every young mind was, How do you become a writer? No one who writes for a living would dispute his advice: “Put your ass in a chair!”

But even as he wrote and taught, Mr. Crews’ wild persona was at the forefront. Although married, he was a chronic philanderer. And, as Mr. Geltner writes, “working at a university with thousands of young women, there was always opportunity.”

Mr. Crews had no concern for “professor-student boundaries.” His “conquests,” if such is the proper word, were uncountable. Mr. Geltner recounts one experience in detail: that of a 17-year-old girl who was charmed into bed, and found herself the center of wild group bacchanals with the professor and friends. Several females ended up in therapy. As this woman related, “He destroyed the lives, psychologically, of a lot of people.” (She survived to become a professor of English.)

Alcohol was another demon that dominated Mr. Crews’ life. In the words of a friend, “I’ve never seen any other human being drink alcohol as quickly. He could drain a fifth of vodka, half of it, in thirty seconds.” Mr. Crews would drink himself into unconsciousness, sleep for a few hours, “then awake long enough to grab the nearest bottle, gulp continuously for a few minutes, then pass out again for several more hours.”

Mr. Crews was candid about his weakness: “I did not become a drunkard and stay drunk for X amount of years because I’m a writer. I became a drunkard like every other drunk does. I drank too much.”

When drinking, Mr. Crews sought out fights, in bars. Unfortunately, he was inept at fisticuffs. He would insult strangers, and stagger away with a bruised face. He told friends “wild stories” about being beaten by drug gangs. Repeated stays in dry-out clinics were useless.

But somehow Mr. Crews published 30 novels, plus numerous essays for Esquire and elsewhere. I found that many of his books “read better” 40 years ago than now. One recent work I sought out, “Celebration” (1998), can be dismissed as smut.

Perhaps one should heed the advice of critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, who wrote when reading Mr. Crews, “One never forgets that one is being seduced . Or that Mr. Crews is a carnival barker of a slick and profitable freak show.”

Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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