Harry Crews Essay - Crews, Harry (Vol. 6)

Crews, Harry (Vol. 6)

Crews, Harry 1935–

Crews, an American novelist, is best known for his first novel, The Gospel Singer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

Mr. Crews doesn't wait for character change to come about gracefully, with the passing of time and pages of rumination. [In "Karate Is a Thing of the Spirit," as] in his other books—"The Gospel Singer," "Naked in Garden Hills" and "This Thing Don't Lead to Heaven"—obsession and instinct run the show. (p. 6)

Readers familiar with Mr. Crews's work know that no reviewer can do him justice in a limited space. His stock in trade is the unexpected. His humor produces something between a laugh and a gasp, and he writes with a hand [that is] sure, tough and trained…. He is always on his own, absolutely sure of himself, and very good. (p. 24)

John Deck, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 25, 1971.

The career of Harry Crews has followed an odd progression. A writer of most impressive talents, he has banged out five novels in as many years. Each has been funnier, more compact and more inventive than the one before it. Yet his novels have also become more sentimental and less substantial. The more Crews writes, it seems, the more he appears content to fritter away good ideas in easy soap-opera resolutions.

His first two novels were very fine. "The Gospel Singer" was an incisive exploration of Bible Belt piety, and "Naked in Garden Hills" was a convincing grotesque of a rotting American landscape and its decadent inhabitants. "This Thing Don't Lead to Heaven" had some devastating comments on how we grow old and die in America, but it was weakened by a first suggestion of what is coming to be the Crews Conclusion: True love triumphs over the madness of society. The same happened, except even less plausibly, in last year's Crews novel, "Karate Is a Thing of the Spirit."

And now we have "Car." Its theme is not especially novel—the automobile in American life and love—but Crews's treatment of it is. The book is exceedingly funny, indeed painfully so, and it contains passages that are Crews at his best. Yet in the end it collapses; it leaves one frustrated and, alas, irritated. (p. 5)

Jonathan Yardley, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 27, 1972.

[The Hawk is Dying] is by far the best novel I've had for review since Isaac Bashevis Singer's Enemies, though Singer and Crews might seem at first to have little in common except their compulsive storytelling and their hapless, driven heroes. Nevertheless they both do practice a sort of open-ended realism whereby the everyday world is seen as we know it, yet transfigured: Events for which there is no rational explanation find their unquestioned place in an otherwise credible narrative…. As in Singer or Faulkner, beauty and pity and terror coexist with satire and grotesque humor. Reading Crews is a bit like undergoing major surgery with laughing gas. (p. 48)

Vivian Mercier, in World (copyright © 1973 by World Magazine, Inc.; reprinted with permission), April 24, 1973.

The novel of American extremity—for which there may be no British equivalent—generally adheres to one of two basic methods or structures. In the first of these the hero, naive or benumbed, is gradually introduced to the world of accumulative horror and madness which represents its author's conception of the breakdown of American life; The Day of the Locust and the novels of Thomas Pynchon follow this line. The second method, which The Hawk Is Dying adopts, is an inversion of the first: the hero himself is at a pitch of extremity or madness, and, because his eccentricity is founded in a right perception of things, must defend and strengthen that perception. Other characters are weak or confused: the protagonist, sticking to his guns, becomes an outsider, confirmed only by his vision. One thinks of recent novels by John Gardner and Joyce Carol Oates …, and, more forcibly in the present case, of James Dickey's Deliverance. Harry Crews's novel, about a man with an obsessive, isolating passion for training a wild hawk, shares with Mr Dickey's its Southern setting—nearly always a signal that a writer is going to begin bringing on the nut-cases—its devotion to savage country skills (for Mr Dickey, archery, for Mr Crews, falconry) in a world where the country has been overlain by expressways, its mysticism and bias against thought, and its assertion of the authenticity of violence. The mysticism and the violence are very close: Mr Crews has written an earlier novel entitled Karate Is A Thing Of the Spirit, a phrase which comes dangerously close to parody….

[The Hawk is Dying] recounts [George Gattling's] misadventures in trying to reconcile hawk training with ordinary life. In the terms of the novel, that life is sterile and grotesque, concealing a large portion of repression. The secondary characters offer a chorus of "It ain't natural"—not natural, that is, to anything beyond their customary patterns of work and amusement.

Gattling therefore becomes increasingly estranged from communal and family life; and the procedure of The Hawk Is Dying is to trace, in a series of comic-horrific scenes, his growing allegiance to an order of being new to him…. When the hawk has finally been "manned", and flies free to kill and return again to Gattling's hand, one moment of absolute value—and hence absolute beauty—has been attained.

It could have been the framework for a convincing novel asserting a harsh and masculine order, and the most successful sections of The Hawk Is Dying have to do with Gattling's belief in his punishing code; yet the episodic organization—Gattling versus sister, Gattling versus job, Gattling versus mistress, chapter by chapter—seems rather slackly, easily done: too easily to represent the ascetic impulses at the book's centre.

"A Bird on the Hand," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 11, 1974, p. 25.

A writer who has frustrated me for some time is Harry Crews; his novels tend to open brilliantly and then collapse into uncertainty. But in "The Gypsy's Curse" … he sustains his story with considerable control. His admirers will be pleased to know that he has lost none of his zany humor, and that he displays a compassion for his characters not evident in much of his earlier work. As usual his people are freaks, and what goes on is entirely too bizarre to describe in the space here allotted, but suffice it to say that Crews seems at last to be rounding his formidable talents into shape. (p. 5)

Jonathan Yardley, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 2, 1974.

The Gospel Singer, Harry Crews' first novel, appeared in 1968, and began ominously, "Enigma, Georgia was a dead end." It is a drumbeat which characterizes place, atmosphere, and character in each of his seven novels. But Crews does not write gothic melodramas and he is no puppeteer of magnolia trappings or drivelling sentiment. What he writes seems hopeless, seems vile, seems unrelentingly terrifying. It is important to keep "seems" in mind.

Southern fiction is not whole cloth; however, there are recognizably salient characteristics to its particular vision. Peopled by extremes of character, place, action, and dream, it frequently is a narrative quest set in a context of manners and defined social levels. There is a remembered past of blood connections and a universal scheme of order. But moral, social, political, and religious confusions caused or only heightened by the anxieties of contemporary America have eroded the sense of the normal and made the freakish an attractive subject for many young writers.

Harry Crews is a cornucopia of freaks who are the fictional progeny of the Snopes, Gants, and Motes. In Crews' novel, Karate Is A Thing Of the Spirit, John Kaimon calls Faulkner "perverted and degenerated" even though he, Kaimon, enters and leaves wearing a sweatshirt bearing Faulkner's totemic face. Flannery O'Connor … rightly saw the hollowness of the Agrarian myths, however attractive, to a society increasingly conscious of the squalid, hateful loneliness of life below the mansion. O'Connor felt the disintegrating and divisive forces of evil which define Southern fiction, but she saw those forces as part of a given theological structure. For her, the grotesque functioned to outline what was right and normal. Crews, like Matthews and O'Connor, seeks such a teleology, through no orthodox religious or philosophical perspective. (p. 52)

Dave Smith, in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Summer, 1974.

With his customary bizarre humor and bitter, sardonic sweep, Mr. Crews introduces us [in "The Gypsy's Curse"] to Marvin Molar, a deaf-and-dumb, legless nineteen-year-old, who walks on his (very well-developed) hands and pirouettes on his fingers for a living…. If only Mr. Crews hadn't wasted so much talent on such silly, penny-novel mawkishness. (pp. 86-7)

The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), July 15, 1974.