Harry Crews 1935–
American novelist and essayist.
Crews writes about the nature of human faith; his changing attitudes toward religion can be traced through each of his novels. Although he is a Southern writer, Crews's themes are universal and he sets his stories in the South because he knows it best. Like many Southern writers, Crews uses scenes of violence and characters who are imperfect and grotesque to illuminate the spiritual deficiencies of most individuals.
Crews is best known for his first novel, The Gospel Singer, although A Childhood, his stirring account of growing up in the South, is gaining him wider recognition as a talented writer.
(See also CLC, Vol. 6; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6.)
["The Gospel Singer"] cultivates God's Little Acre once again, and reaps a predictably rich harvest of Southern sinfulness. The protagonist in this visit to the Erskine Caldwell country is a silver-larynxed evangelist who is symbolically shadowed by an itinerant sideshow which exhibits geeks in action before the selfsame audiences…. A superstitious man but not a godly one, the Gospel Singer keeps his franchise on the "right to sin" by corrupting a girl from his hometown of Enigma, Georgia, to which he returns once too often for his transfusion of evil. Metaphysics aside, Mr. Crews's novel has a nice wild flavor and a dash of Grand Guignol strong enough to meet the severe standards of Southern decadence. (pp. 46-7)
Martin Levin, "Reader's Report: 'The Gospel Singer'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 18, 1968, pp. 46-7.
The Gospel Singer, by Harry Crews, and Do, Lord, Remember Me, by George Garrett, develop the same general material, if not the same theme: both are concerned with modern manifestations of the old-time religion, with the crassness and grotesqueness of man's nature, and with sex. Crews's book has all the hallmarks of a first novel: it is energetic but uneven, competent but clumsy, not finally satisfactory but memorable nonetheless. The narrative is framed by the Gospel Singer's return to his home town of Enigma, Georgia, whence he departed not very long ago on his way to great fame and greater fortune. (p. 159)
First novelists are the Quixotes of the writing trade. Young and as yet unbloodied by the struggle with the word, they will try anything, and the result is often admirable fiction deeply flawed. Crews is a little too bold for my taste. He takes the old convention of employing a physical defect to indicate spiritual debility—Lawrence's Clifford Chatterley, Hemingway's Jake Barnes, Warren's Sugarboy—and asks it to carry more symbolic weight than it can comfortably hold. A master freak, known only as Foot, scavenges in the wake of the Gospel Singer, catching the overflow from the Singer's crowds, sharing in the profits. Foot and the inmates of his show are meant to signify not only the depravity of man, but the larger spectrum of human nature; and as symbols their physical distortions are at once too limited and too blunt. The death of the Gospel Singer partakes of the same kind of operatic oversimplification. The people of Enigma kill the god whom they have created because he is frail and because his frailty is token of their own. Here again the big image has no subtlety and no underpinning, no thickness of world or variety of smaller figures to sustain it, and so the book finally fails. But the failure is on a grand scale and the risks Crews takes are big ones—which in the case of a writer with...
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his talent, is the way it ought to be. For in its lesser aspectsThe Gospel Singer is almost entirely successful: Crews has a good eye, an excellent ear for voices, and a fine dramatic sense. He will be sharper his next time out and he ought to do admirably. (pp. 159-60)
Walter Sullivan, "Fiction in a Dry Season: Some Signs of Hope," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1969 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXVII, No. 1, Winter, 1969, pp. 154-64.∗
"Naked in Garden Hills" is a novel about absolutes and inequities—Webster says this word is rare; so is the book. One of the fattest men in fiction or in the world, Mayhugh Aaron (but known simply and pictorially as Fat Man) has as his gentleman's gentleman one of the smallest, neatest, most exquisitely wrought Negroes that ever was, John Henry Williams, called Jester. They admire and cherish their contrast. (p. 4)
These two and a handful of other souls, who are no slouches themselves when it comes to the bizarre, live in the rank yellow shadows of a played-out phosphate mine in Florida; the hills of Garden Hills are the creation of a real estate developer and the garden, mass-produced in Peoria, has been brought in on a 50-truck caravan. The whole place belongs to Fat Man….
With the mine shut down, Garden Hills is in a slump but a certain enterprising Miss Dolly … resolves to put her town on the map; she knows a thing or two about show biz and she knows a thing or two about the gullibility of the general public. With drive and ingenuity, she transforms Garden Hill into what promises to be a lucrative side show with Fat Man as the star attraction.
The simon-pure freaks … are wondrously and dreadfully played off against one another amid their ersatz props—the diet Metrecal, the bogus topography, Jester's sorry old plug, old imitation horse. Fat Man has an enormous library of books bought by the pound, which he has no intention of reading; even the phosphate, when it was being mined, was not 100 per cent pure, for Fat Man's father, stark staring mad, walked naked into the grinders and was sold in a bag.
Macabre and slapstick, howlingly funny and as sad as a zoo, ribald, admonitory, wry and deeply fond, "Naked in Garden Hills" lives up to and beyond the shining promise of Mr. Crews's first novel, "The Gospel Singer." It is southern Gothic at its best, a Hieronymos Bosch landscape in Dixie inhabited by monstrous, darling pets. (p. 5)
Jean Stafford, "'Naked in Garden Hills'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 13, 1969, pp. 4-5.
"This Thing Don't Lead to Heaven" covers a day at the old folks home in Cumseh, Ga., "just a regular old Sunday in the Senior Club," as one character remarks….
It's a preposterous novel, but there is something more seriously wrong. The offensive element is an all too common one—the irresponsible establishment of distance between the narrator and his subject, a willed distance, that allows the cheapest kind of god-playing, the setting up of these quaint, oddly named characters, who frenziedly work out the destiny invented for them by a none-too-clever puppeteer.
The characters are all as devastatingly trapped as they are boorish. The author tries to provide them with a past, with a self, but the past is unconvincing, the self little more than a form required by the conventions of the novel. Better writers, and one in particular that Harry Crews's work might bring to mind, are sometimes accused of this unwholesome manipulation. Flannery O'Connor's folks, for example, inevitably get their comeupance, and many of them are grotesque. But their grotesque character and their doom are part of a world larger and more mysterious than they, or their literary creator.
The ironic mode is surely the most easily earned approach to character; it's also the easiest to corrupt, to fail with. Improperly used, as in Crews's novel, it allows him to dispense with wholeness, humor, vision—and the humility proper to one faced with the puzzle of human personality.
James Boatwright, "'This Thing Don't Lead to Heaven'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 26, 1970, p. 45.
Harry Crews is … a comic novelist of magnificent gifts. His first novel, The Gospel Singer, was a frenetic sideshow of Georgia poor white trash and their Hochkultur—the faith-healer, the electronic guitar, the lavender, tail-finned Buick with all its windows busted out, a theology that makes a hippie out of St. Thomas Aquinas, an addiction to patent medicines, catatonic sermons and knife fights.
His second novel, Naked in Garden Hills, amplified the matter of the first, searching out stranger perversions and darker roots in the heart. The impact of these two studies of the monstrosity of things has either dulled our response, or Mr. Crews is writing too fast. Were This Thing Don't Lead to Heaven not in the neon glare of its predecessors, it would stand out as an extraordinary novel. Alas, it begins to be repetitious, and gluts the imagination. Still, it has some fine touches, and one's time is certainly not wasted by giving oneself up to Harry Crews to be told what happens when a voodoo refugee from Cuba lands in an old folks home in Georgia, falls for the dwarf masseur, and becomes otherwise entangled in the daily life of Georgia Baptists.
Guy Davenport, "Radiant Contempt," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1970; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016), Vol. 22, No. 15, April 21, 1970, p. 421.
[In A Feast of Snakes] Mr. Crews takes us down to the backwoods hamlet of Mystic, Georgia, for the annual nightmare festival that begins with the crowning of the high-school Rattlesnake Queen, continues with a pit-bull championship fight, and ends with a Rattlesnake Roundup…. Mr. Crews is a writer of extraordinary power. Joe Lon is a monster, but we are forced to accept him as human, and even as sympathetic. Mr. Crews' story makes us gag, but he holds us, in awe and admiration, to the sickening end.
"Briefly Noted: 'A Feast of Snakes'," in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LII, No. 23, July 26, 1976, p. 83.
A Feast of Snakes is all the things it was meant to be—fast, horrifying, funny. The snake round-up is rich swampland. And the vim and style of the telling are not much impaired by an uneasy shifting of narrative stance. Joe Lon's reflections on his life seem too portentiously elegiac for a dumb football star. Rentafreak have supplied one or two characters: the one-legged sheriff, the crazy sister in the back room. Readers will also note that phantasmagoric condoms and chopper-chopping are rather fashionable this year…. Nevertheless, Mr. Crews can more than hold his own in the blacker-than-thou arts.
What pulls the book down is the weight of its morality. The wickedness of the competitive ethic is made evident by the material, but the material is never allowed to escape from it. The author's desire to demonstrate how America sets man against man and turns neighbours into strangers is so overpowering that it squeezes the life out of the character. This is not so much control as repression—even in the blackest satire, people need to breathe a little.
Ferdinand Mount, "Rattling Good Yarn," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3906, January 21, 1977, p. 49.
Harry Crews's novels … are fast, mean, dangerous, extraordinarily violent, and often horrifyingly funny…. In terms of fictional techniques, Crews is what he says he is, "a very traditional story teller," yet the essence of his art and vision is experiential and aesthetic risk-taking; excess is his mean.
Bizarre and grotesque as his conceptions often are, they are usually surprisingly plausible and consistent: given these people in this situation (large givens), it all follows logically. He possesses his misshapen imaginative world in complete self-confidence, apparently undeterred by pity or compassion. In the skewed intensity of his fiction, much of the known world is excluded, but his obsessive depth of penetration compensates for conventional breadth and variety. His characters' slim hopes of escape from life's entrapment heightens their desperate and often fatal struggles. (p. 53)
One must note at the outset that Crews, who has averaged almost a novel a year, is an uneven writer—possibly the result of his sustained, Trollope-like work habits. If Car  is a remarkable, gruesomely funny tour de force and The Hawk Is Dying  a beautifully lucid, tightly controlled tragicomedy, neither novel prepares one for the rather disconnected and gratuitous horrors of This Thing Don't Lead to Heaven (1970) or the circling redundancies of Naked in Garden Hills (1969). Nor can the reader take consistent comfort in chronology, as witnessed by The Gypsy's Curse (1974), in which a freaky sensationalism is preeminent. Crews in 1976 was back in good form again: A Feast of Snakes displays much of his extraordinary power…. (p. 54)
Crews usually writes about present-day, small-town, blue-collar Georgians and Floridians, some of whom have escaped from home, more of whom die trying. The rural life has few charms; an anti-Disney savagery usually obtains. In his fiction the obliquities of personal rather than Southern history count, as evidenced in the virtual omnipresence of dwarfs, giants, no- and one-legged people, and other assorted physically or mentally abnormal types. Almost in Hawthorne's fashion, they are "true"; they "show freely to the world," if not their "worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred." Crews's dwarfs and others are not uniformly villainous—the traveling Freak Fair of The Gospel Singer (1968) is representative—but rather Crews creates them as characters with limited options for self-concealment. They are true by and to Nature.
The high incidence of funerals in Crews's fiction, violent deaths often preceding, suggests two of his principal thematic concerns, love and its destructive power. Five violent deaths form the climax of A Feast of Snakes; though that figure is unusually high, it points up the centrality of love and death intertwined. The recurrence throughout Crews's novels of lovingly described cars and trucks, though most immediately reflecting the culture of which he writes, will also stand for Crews's attraction to several kinds of subject matter and related themes. First, his consistent attention to and intimate grasp of how things are done, the mechanics of life and death, whether putting a new top on a convertible or training a chicken hawk to hunt rabbits or rounding up rattlesnakes or preparing a corpse for display. Second, his fascination with mechanical process and its superhuman (and dehumanizing) power, opposed to the need to dominate the machine and to face down the world physically without mechanical advantage—as intimated in the title of his fourth novel, Karate Is A Thing of the Spirit (1971).
Crews writes tragicomedies, represents the world as violent, painful, mysterious, full of puzzling gaps and discrepancies, largely populated by two kinds of people: those who know whatever it is they need to know and are usually wrong, and those who discover they do not know and who, as a consequence, have at least some marginal chance of finding out, though not necessarily of living long. No one survives unscathed in this world; some yield to relentless abuse, some go beserk, some die of nightmarish violence, others wither under biting satire.
One might argue that, as Southern Gothic parable, Car is pure Crews, but pure at the cost of a certain circumstantiality, clear at the cost of some thinness. It is a fully achieved piece of fiction, well planned and not unambitious, in which nothing is wasted. For these reasons it is somewhat atypical of Crews's novels. Yet The Hawk Is Dying differs from and is superior to Car in several particulars: as a bigger book it enables Crews to develop three or four full-sized human beings rather than a cast of parable people, and to explore in some depth in those few characters complexities of motive, meaning, and understanding impossible within the limitations of Car. Though all of Crews's novels begin well, engagingly, a notable difference can be seen between the endings of Car and The Hawk Is Dying. In the former, toughness of vision fades into triteness unredeemed by—apparently—a last death; in the latter we are left where we should be, uncertain whether the hawk (trained or "manned" though she has been) will return after her first "free" kill. We are uncertain whether we want her to, whether she ought to.
Metaphysical variations on "you are what you eat" constitute the essence of Car, in which Herman Mack, car-loving idealist of the junkyard-owning Mack family, undertakes to eat a red 1971 Ford Maverick (half a pound a day for ten years) in the ballroom of the Sherman Hotel in downtown Jacksonville, Florida. Thus the consummation of our national love affair with the machine…. (pp. 54-5)
Despite its dubious quasi-happy ending—Herman and Margo finding peace in a "grand ancient ruined enormous touring car" deep in the mountain of auto bodies at Auto Town …, Car is a fearful and bizarre story, precisely because it is continuously in contact with and grows out of a vision of life we know well and instantly recognize and is yet, simultaneously, a closed system. Although it is sometimes argued that the grotesque, of which Car is a fine example, offers us a glimpse of the sublime or that, alternatively, after affronting our sense of the established order, it partially satisfies our desire for a more flexible reordering, Car finally does neither. Ending the novel the way he does, Crews affects an escape from an apparently closed system; as a consequence, we can believe wholly in neither the system nor the escape. (pp. 56-7)
The issue in The Hawk Is Dying, as might be said of Car, is the nature of man's nature: what is and is not natural for a man to want and do. The issue is worked out through George's engagement with the hawk…. With his recurring fear of madness breaking through, only the hawk and her naturalness make sense to George…. (p. 57)
The hawk is the way: "Find what was real in the world and touch it, that was what a man ought to do."… Possessing, breaking, being the hawk does not mean flying away from it all, it means disciplined killing, the essence of the art of falconry. (p. 58)
The protagonist of A Feast of Snakes is Joe Lon Mackey, lifelong resident of Mystic, Georgia, yearly scene of a grand rattlesnake roundup, which—to put it mildly—brings out the worst in just about everyone. Since unrelenting, competitive brutality to man and beast is the local norm, life in or out of the snake pit differs very little. Choking rage is the prevailing sentiment in Mystic, from babyhood on. (p. 59)
[Despite] its horrifying vividness, A Feast of Snakes is very nearly thesis-bound; events which conclusively demonstrate the American ethic setting men, women, children, dogs, and snakes against each other serve also very nearly to crush the life out of the characters.
For all of Crews's efforts, the lives and deaths of the human characters are generally less interesting and vivid than those of the pit bulldogs and diamondback rattlers with which some of the characters seem to identify. The "dry constant rattle" of the diamondbacks and the "solid, slightly bowlegged dignity" of the bulldogs exceed the novel's human potential and carry us into a dreamworld of primitive shapes, anxieties, and fatal determination….
Crews's vision is powerful and idiosyncratic, not in service of any conventional moral message, social insight, or economic imperative. All of his novels are of necessity tragicomedies; all of them, even the least successful, are illuminated by flashes of brilliance, and all of them, even the most successful, are marred by stylistic lapses and self-indulgent grotesqueries. All evidence to date identifies Crews as a writer of short novels; he appears to have no interest in the multi-generational epic favored by some of his Southern contemporaries.
Reading Crews is not something one wants to do too much of at a single sitting; the intensity of his fiction is unsettling. However his fiction is categorized—as gothic or grotesque or black humor, it is not burdened with any of those common debilities. Very seldom does Crews employ the super-cool manner which often short-circuits reader response. Even in what is arguably his best novel, The Hawk Is Dying, Crews may not get exactly the response he wants—we may not be able to see his characters and their trials as both funny and moving—but neither are we left with a nightmarish neutrality or grotesque deadpan. Perhaps the strangest result of an encounter with other representatives of the gothic-grotesque school of contemporary fiction is that the final effect of all their savage gesture and cool comedy is transparently mild, harmlessly literary. Not so with Crews. (pp. 60-1)
At this best, as he is in Car, The Hawk Is Dying, and A Feast of Snakes, Crews writes only like Crews, displaying in these strangely powerful, outlandish, excessive, grotesquely alive novels a gift at once formidable and frightening. (p. 61)
Allen Shepherd, "Matters of Life and Death: The Novels of Harry Crews," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1978), Vol. XX, No. 1, 1978, pp. 53-62.
Harry Crews experienced cruelty, violence, pain, terror, love, wonder and mercy—all before he was 10 years old. His book, A Childhood, recreates those experiences, which for a time had found no words except in his fiction….
He needed to go back to the one place of which, not just in which, he had lived. His subtitle, The Biography of a Place, refers not to the geography but to the community of human beings from which he became I, the community of Bacon County, Ga., of the late 1930's and early 1940's.
From this community, he learned how cruel humans, including himself, can be to each other. At the same time, he learned codes of ethics and mercy….
With violent deaths, pain and hardships were mixed the wonders, such as the Sears, Roebuck catalogue that brought color, mystery and beauty into his life. And there were stories told by the black woman, Auntie, and the words of Hollis Toomey, who could talk the fire out of Harry Crews's burned flesh. (p. 483)
Harry Crews seldom emotes. As he surveys approximately four years of his early life, he describes events—even the most horror-filled—in a matter-of-fact tone….
Bacon County taught its inhabitants, including Harry Crews, what they can now share with the readers of A Childhood: courage, love, humor, the wonder of language and, above all, the resilience of humanity. (p. 484)
Dawson Gaillard, "'A Childhood: The Biography of a Place'," in America (reprinted with permission of America Press, Inc.; © 1978; all rights reserved), Vol. 139, No. 21, December 23, 1978, pp. 483-84.
[Crew's] works, seen together, testify to his leaping imagination, his mission to make us see.
We must see first that his books are imps of the perverse. The Gospel Singer [features a Freak Fair]…. In a way these tent shows are like Harry Crews's novels, each more freakish than the last. Yet his escalation of perversion is balanced by a deepening of compassionate wonder at all that can be contained in the human. As he said in a recent Times interview, "I can say more about what the world out there calls normal by writing about what it calls abnormal." Crews writes about the abnormal without relief, though finally with hope. One of his characters tells her depressed lover: "Whatever's normal is a loss. Normal is for shit." Her words set him free from depression. Similarly, Crews's novels exorcise the shame any person might feel over his perversity; twisted as they are, his novels perform a healing function….
Crews's perverse tales tend to elicit … ambivalent responses. To the extent that freaks are other they are comic, but if you see yourself in the freak they are tragic. Crews catches you in between….
Harry Crews's stress upon the lurid and the perverse is no more than an accurate recounting of the scabrous life and hard times in south Georgia, where maimed, three-legged dogs and sun-cracked people watch the fancy cars rip past on their ways to God-only-knows-where while they are left behind with the lame and the halt and the short end of the stick and the fat in the fire. Any grace they can elicit from this place is truly amazing. Crews calls his memoir "A Childhood: The Biography of a Place" and he evokes place as well as any recent writer, that place that was Bacon County—"all its people and its customs and all its loveliness and all its ugliness."
Crews is one of the last regional writers in a land of fast-disappearing regions…. Because Crews was so shaped by the land and those who walked upon it, for him "the biography of a childhood … is the biography of a place, a way of life gone forever out of the world."
In "Place in Fiction" Eudora Welty says the term "regional" is careless, condescending, an outsider's judgment. For her all worthy fiction grows from a strong sense of place, what she calls "the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting, and therefore credible, gathering spot of all that has been felt, is about to be experienced, in the novel's progress." That is just what one sees in Crews's novels. At a moment of metafictional displacement, when writers like Pynchon move us through abstract places like San Narcisco, "less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts," it is good to feel the hard sense of festering earth beneath our feet in a Crews novel…. In a sense … all his fiction is transmuted autobiography, a recreation of lost times and remote place.
Still, Harry Crews is a child of his displaced times as well as a son of Bacon County. These are times when most of us have more elliptical relations to particular places, times when San Narcisco seems real, times when apologists for metafiction try to pry the novel loose from that sense of certain place Welty insisted upon. In his introduction to an anthology, Superfiction, for example, Joe David Bellamy says the "new fiction" subverts "the implicit attitude of much conventional fiction that reality is a thing, essence, landscape we can all agree upon and wish fervently for art to imitate." The landscapes we can no longer agree are there are called "fields of force" in Robert Scholes's Structural Fabulation. Crews's own move from south Georgia to northern Florida suggests a larger translation from Erskine Caldwell comic naturalism to Nathanael West surrealism.
Despite his sense of particular place, then, Crews's novels occur in a landscape of allegory. His first novel is set in Enigma, Georgia, and his latest in Mystic, Georgia. (p. 6)
Crews's novels, then, beautifully combine a sense of specific place as Welty urged and a translation of place into idea as Bellamy wished. In Scholes's terms they are novels of "fabulation," fiction which "offers us a world clearly and radically discontinuous from the one we know, yet returns to confront that known world in some cognitive way."
That determination to return, that promise of a round-trip ticket back from where the wild things are, distinguishes Crews from other metafictionists. Crews, for example, would not fit comfortably with those praised by William Gass in The World Within the Word. For one thing, for all his personal interest in the development of a useful literary technique, Crews does not contrive his novels as self-reflective metaphoric inquiries into the nature of the form; he does not write of the kind of "life" which never escapes the mirror's surface, as Gass prefers. Nor are Crews's novels what Gass would find to praise in Nabokov's: "fragrant petals of pure relation." Rather, Crews's books tend to stink of life. The heritage of the Southern literary renaissance abides in his work, that sensuousness that Flannery O'Connor praises in "The Nature and Aim of Fiction." Crews's novels meet her standard that "fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust."
Yet Crews too builds out of dust worlds within words and other things which his characters perceive as graven images…. Again and again in Crews's novels characters place their faith in substitute gods or gurus, those who can promise to lift them out of the slough of their own despondent beings. (pp. 6-7)
When a Crews character finally accepts the hard fact that there is no way out but feet first he does what Joe Lon Mackey did when he "accepted for the first time that things would not be different tomorrow. Or ever. Things got different for some people. But for some they did not." As they might say in Bacon County, the thing of it is, you can't get there from here—this thing don't lead to heaven. Joe Lon Mackey blew himself away with a twelve-gauge shotgun.
In earlier works "love" was sometimes held out as an anodyne, a compensation for the loss one feels when trained by hymns like "The World Is Not My Home." Yet no other world offers itself…. However, in Snakes Crews's faith in redemptive love seems diminished, for there Joe Lon decided "he did not know what love was. And he did not know what good it was. But he knew he carried it around with him, a scabrous spot of rot, of contagion, for which there was no cure." When Joe Lon blows his head off, he scatters all thought of transcendent love, eliminates its disease.
Yet a kind of faith remains in Crews's black humor, as is clear from A Childhood where he goes home again "to write about Bacon County and how life was there before the people who can remember all die." Crews celebrates a capacity to survive in the face of every kind of hard time…. It is a principal part of Harry Crews's mission as a writer to record the life that was lived there, to set down the stories, to give coherent shape to the terrors associated with life as he has seen it. But most of what he has experienced has been at once brutal naturalism and extravagant metafiction. Like all good works, his novels reteach us to see the world, better allow for its freakishness, another term for its "magic."
Harry Crews, then, might be seen as a neo-Gothic novelist, one who combines elements of terror and wonder as Mario Praz once wrote successful Gothic fiction should, yet one who incorporates into his fiction much of the "real," his sense of place….
Crews notes in A Childhood that back in Bacon County when he was a boy he and his friends used to recoil from the facts of their existence and make up stories about the magical and beautiful characters in the Sears, Roebuck Catalogue. They called this publication, their only contact with a wider world of print culture, their Dream Book. Thus from the first of his works to his latest Harry Crews has been writing a series of Dream Books, works which simultaneously incorporate and transcend his personal history. So in the end the Word is, after all, the only way out, just as it is the best way in.
In many works of compelling fiction Harry Crews has concocted elaborate metaphors, images more sustainingly inventive than most metafictionists, tropes which subsume his past, conceits which widen our sense of the possible as they make the magical and the freakish more plausible. (p. 7)
Shaun O'Connell, "Dream Books," in New Boston Review (copyright 1979 by Boston Critic, Inc.), Vol. IV, No. IV, February-March, 1979, pp. 6-7.
Mr. Crews, already known as a novelist of flamboyantly Gothic imagination, began to appear in Playboy and had a column in Esquire, where he wrote pieces that were Southern in tone but not always in subject: on the L. L. Bean store in Maine, the Texas tower and the Shenandoah national park, among others.
I read most of his stuff when it first came out, and I thought it was wonderful. Mr. Crews got away from the formula writing of most magazine pieces and managed to turn every assignment into a picaresque adventure….
Reading him, I thought, was sheer delight, even if every article did turn out to be a fragment of his autobiography. On reading him over between hard covers [in "Blood and Grits,"] however, my enthusiasm dimmed. Editors do writers a disservice by reprinting material that was meant to be perishable. Magazines, with their colorful layouts and ads, conspire to keep one's critical faculties dormant. The same article, unillustrated, caught between the austere covers of a book, looks different. Mannerisms and methods that one was willing to overlook in a monthly column become glaring.
Ted Morgan, "Occasional Pieces: 'Blood and Grits'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 25, 1979, p. 30.
Harry Crews is a novelist whose finest invention is called Harry Crews, or "I" for short…. His creation, I, travels with sordid carnivals, adores motorbikes and lives on vodka, avoiding tranquillity like a plague of milk. I thrives on danger, I seeks out pain, and Harry Crews translates the feeling into words.
His last book, A Childhood, was sustained and unabashed autobiography. Blood and Grits … continues the portrait of a battered survivor, adding scars to a face already torn, adding feathers to a motley cap….
His writing is an act of laceration. Like so many American thinkers, Harry Crews is uneasy with comfort, appalled by suburbia, exhausted with ease. Blood, like liquor, is thicker than water and Crews is drawn to blood. At moments of violence his prose becomes lyrical. He loves hawks because they don't love him back; he admires good friends who "out of a great respect and mutual admiration often locked up toe to toe and beat each other severely." It's a dangerous game he's playing; he would hate to die in his sleep.
Blood and Grits coheres far better than do most collections of journalism. Not that Crews deserves pure credit for this; his profiles of Charles Bronson and Robert Blake blend neatly with his description of an Alaskan boomtown only because all three pieces centre on the character of Harry Crews. Profane and sentimental, hard-living and soft-hearted, this character is in the best Hemingway tradition—talking loudly and pretending to carry a big stick. But real despair is never glamorous. When the myth of Hemingway finally caught up with a tired, white-bearded Ernest, he shot himself.
Mark Abley, "The Great God Blood," in Maclean's Magazine (© 1979 by Maclean's Magazine; reprinted by permission), Vol. 92, No. 13, March 26, 1979, p. 55.
[The] essential Harry Crews is contained in his two latest books. One is a lovely and loving memoir about his early life. The other is a collection of 17 essays in which he reveals a great deal about himself while treating such topics as carnival hands, hustlers, and the city folks who deck themselves out in flannel and corduroy from L. L. Bean and drive about the countryside in $70,000 recreational vehicles complete with television sets and indoor plumbing.
In A Childhood: the Biography of a Place, Crews measures the distance between his present life as a successful writer and that dirt-poor time and place where he was born—the middle of the Great Depression, in rural Bacon County, Ga. The result is a book of great emotional power, fashioned out of often savage stuff by a superb craftsman who possesses both a comic eye and a tragic sense of life.
There's no doubt about it: Bacon County in the 1930's was for man and beast alike a harsh, crude, and bitter spot. Its inhabitants, mostly small farmers and sharecroppers who worked from sunup to sundown in blistering heat, knew little peace and less comfort.
Almost every page of A Childhood radiates a sense of natural danger. (p. 7)
When he was 5, Harry Crews came down with polio, leaving him paralyzed for months…. The next year, barely recovered, he fell into a caldron of scalding water his stepfather had prepared at hog-killing time. It is little wonder that all of Crews's writings show so much admiration for the skills of survival practiced by those Georgia people who are his kin and by the strangers he meets in his journalistic travels.
But even amid poverty and crisis, Crews knew joy and delight during childhood, taking these things where he could find them. He gives a marvelous account, for example, of the long rainy afternoons he and his friends Willalee and Lottie Mae spent with the "wish book"—the Sears, Roebuck catalogue….
The Sears catalogue nourished the gifts of storytelling that are everywhere present in Crews's books. He and his friends endowed their wish-book people with personal histories….
A Childhood abounds with wonderful tales about the colorful folk who peopled his first six years—conjure women, Gypsy peddlers, itinerant Jewish scissor-sharpeners who bartered a yard or two of cotton cloth for a few eggs and a bale of hay for their mules. And its language sings with the rhythms and idioms of country speech….
But Harry Crews didn't stay in Bacon County. [He left with his mother and brother when his stepfather got violent.]…
The flight to Jacksonville was the first step in Harry Crews's escape from his home place. When he joined the Marines at 17, the break was complete: He never went back there to live, except in his imagination. Like Thomas Wolfe he learned the truth: You can't go home again, except by writing about it for other people with other home places—or perhaps no home place at all.
In A Childhood, Crews speaks often of his sense of isolation from his roots, his regret that he now moves among people who hardly know him, much less his kin. Blood and Grits fills in the blanks: If his memoir of Bacon County gives us a picture of a time long gone and a place now touched by change, his collected essays provide us with a good picture of an America in which much of the regional flavor has vanished, swept away by the flood of homogeneity brought by television, interstate highways, personal mobility, and the universal ticky-tack of fast food chains.
Blood and Grits ranges fairly widely over contemporary American culture….
The concluding essay, "Climbing the Tower," an account of Crews's visit to the University of Texas, is unusually fine and chilling for its meditation on Charles Whitman, a former altar boy who one day climbed a campus tower with an arsenal of weapons and proceeded to shoot 47 people, 12 of them quite dead.
"All of us have our towers to climb," Crews writes. That is, there is no human soul without its murderous tendencies, to be acknowledged—and to be resisted with all our might.
But Blood and Grits is ultimately about Harry Crews. After reading it, I feel that I have met the man, that I know the scars he carries under his own bright and fancy clothes. (p. 8)
Allen Lacy, "Tales from Bacon County and Beyond," in The Chronicle Review (copyright © 1979 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.), April 16, 1979, pp. 7-8.
Crews is a very powerful, at times even outlandish, and uneven novelist. In the tradition of Erskine Caldwell and Flannery O'Connor in his use of the grotesque, Crews has faced directly the problem of encroachment of modernism on the traditional Southern ways of life. He shows in compelling, and often bizarre and violent detail the consequences for modern Southerners of living lives stripped of sustaining tradition and meaning. Crews is ambivalent toward his Southernness…. Crews, interesting as a novelist himself, is also a suggestive instance of a Southerner writing at a time when regional distinctiveness is on the wane, making use of certain traditional Southern concepts, especially the idea of ritual, but dealing with them in the context of a South which is inevitably the modern world. Experiencing the violence and chaos of that world in his very bones, he sensitively and vividly registers the shocks of modern existence, making his work worthy of serious analysis…. [The] basic tension underlying all of Crews's fiction [is] man's yearning for perfection [contrasted with] the inevitable imperfection of the world and life in it. (pp. 97-8)
His works are very stark and elemental, dealing with what man must do to survive in the world. Survival implies the search for something to believe in, some larger entity or set of beliefs through which the individual can approach that perfection he yearns for. In Crews's novels society and Southern tradition provide no stability at all. His settings are either the primitively brutal rural South, where merely living the day is the uppermost consideration, or the commercialized, vulgarized South of modern Florida, where tradition is non-existent. Consequently man is forced back upon himself to find or create his own sense of meaning and belonging.
The form of the novels suggests the desperate human plight. Grotesqueries of plot, situation and character abound…. In essence he distorts the real world to discover the truth beneath the surface of what we all accept as real. This helps explain why he focuses on grotesques and frequently on literal freaks. Certainly following an honorable Southern tradition, he uses grotesque characters to suggest man's incompleteness and alienation, his estrangement from the world, and a sense of the existential absurdity of human existence. Yet his purpose for the grotesque differs in a significant way from that of Flannery O'Connor or Carson McCullers, I think. For those writers, grotesque characters represent deviations from some at least implicit norm. Even though grotesqueness may be the necessary human condition, a standard does exist by which to measure such deviations. Crews is much less sure of such standards. Although he resents critics emphasizing his use of freaks, he has explained why they appeal to him. Freaks are people with obvious and evident afflictions with whom we should feel a kinship because we too have our own aberrations…. In such a view normality becomes a meaningless term, a concept clung to in order to avoid facing the truth. Reading Crews's novels, one does not remain nearly so detached as when reading other novelists of the grotesque, for one does not feel superior to the characters…. Normality is an illusion; all people must face the terror and mystery of existence; the fact that we can hide our aberrations is no consolation and may ultimately lead to their eruption in violent and unpredictable ways.
Crews's use of freaks with imperfect bodies strongly enforces his theme of the human desire for perfection. Man's inherent imperfection, manifested in the body, conflicts with his yearning for spiritual perfection. Crews evokes the traditional duality of body and spirit, the body representing the biological trap man finds himself in, which intensifies his yearning for spiritual sustenance. Thus man is, paradoxically, very primitive, acting on instinct and obsession, and yet also at least attempting to nourish the spiritual side as well, for his aim is always to unite the self through ritual with some higher order of being, association with which will redeem his inherent incompleteness. Such aspiration is almost always doomed to failure, but the effort is itself meaningful.
A significant development in Crews's handling of this theme can be traced in his eight novels. In the first three, The Gospel Singer, Naked in Garden Hills and This Thing Don't Lead to Heaven, one finds a direct treatment of religion as a possible source of meaning. Since religion is always inadequate, in the next four novels, Karate Is a Thing of the Spirit, Car, The Hawk Is Dying and The Gypsy's Curse, Crews turns to alternate kinds of physical rituals in his treatment of man's search for value, including karate, hawk training and body building. In most of these novels are found a performer and an audience, the rituals of religion having been in effect replaced by the rituals of entertainment. Further these novels consider whether human love and companionship may provide a release from the trap man finds himself in. Such solutions to man's dilemma are finally unsatisfactory, and his latest novel, A Feast of Snakes, suggests that violence of the most horrible kind is the only available response to man's condition. Thus Crews's vision has grown progressively darker over the eleven years he has been publishing his fiction. (pp. 98-101)
His first novel, The Gospel Singer (1968), most explicitly deals with religion, as the epigraph indicates: "Men to whom God is dead worship one another." The setting, Enigma, Ga., which the first sentence says is "a dead end," suggests the human condition. Most residents of the town want to escape, but few are successful. The Gospel Singer has been able to leave, but only through the accidents of his good looks and his voice, and he is constantly drawn back to Enigma. While he purports to be religious, he is corrupt within and tortured by people's attitudes toward him…. [His] sin is his reality, and his sin is connected with Enigma. In the contest of flesh and spirit, he is determined that flesh triumph. So while he may have physically escaped Enigma, he has not escaped the human condition. (p. 101)
By the end of the novel the Gospel Singer realizes that he can hide the truth no longer…. He embraces his common humanity and common grotesqueness with the crowd—and they kill him for his efforts. Religion is thus shown to have no relationship with truth; people want only comfort and the illusion of meaning. At the end of the novel they have reaffirmed their belief in the purity of the Gospel Singer and Mary-Bell….
Naked in Garden Hills (1969), which Crews feels is his best novel, treats religion in an almost allegorical way. Its title evoking the Garden of Eden, the novel includes a God figure who never appears, Jack O'Boylan, an industrialist who looked at Garden Hills, "saw that it was real good," and built a phosphate mining plant. Yet he abruptly and mysteriously withdrew his operation, leaving the residents in an inferno-like landscape to wait and hope for his return, as if they are waiting for Godot. (p. 102)
Jack O'Boylan never returns, but a new savior appears to revive the waste land: Dolly Furgeson. A beauty queen raised in Garden Hills, she went to New York to search out O'Boylan and get a "sign." Stumbling into a job in a go-go establishment, she learns that the world runs on the conjunction of money, sex and power. Realizing that O'Boylan will never come back, she returns determined to open a nightclub to display "Dolly Doo and her Dimple Review" and attract tourists. This is the first instance in Crews's work of a motif which will reappear: the rituals of the beauty contest and show business as manifestations of the modern ideal. (p. 103)
By the conclusion of the novel everyone is consumed by Dolly's voracious appetite for success…. In the Darwinian godless world of the novel, man's desire to find meaning in his life leads to degradation, exploitation and the denial of love. Clearly there is no Garden of Eden to which to aspire….
This Thing Don't Lead to Heaven (1970) effectively disposes of institutional religion as a subject for Crews. The novel deals with old age and death, the ultimate signs of man's imperfection and limitation. Setting the novel in a "Seniors' Club," Crews treats the ways people cope with death by seeking redemption or escape. The central focus of the novel is Jeremy Tetley, an 80 year old man whose time to die has come….
Two characters do combat for Jeremy's soul on the day of his death. One is Junior Bledsoe, an award-winning grave plot salesman who "believed in death with a missionary zeal. He believed in the rightness and justness of death."… Hiram Peters, on the other hand, is a minister who hands out pamphlets with the title, "There Is No Death." Ironically, however, he is an atheist who relies on the pamphlets because of his fear that dying people will ask him to explain their lives—and he has no answers. Thus he has literally willed himself not to believe in death.
Arrayed around these characters are others who seek meaning to their lives. (p. 104)
Born and raised in the Seniors' Club, [Axel] feels she has lived all her life in a grave and wants only to be touched by another human being. She finally seduces—practically rapes—Junior, much against his will since he fears sex, love, and children, suggesting life as they do rather than death. Yet he seems finally won over by her. In this episode is the first suggestion in Crews's works that love offers an escape from man's trapped condition.
Religion, however, is finally rejected. The title refers to Axel, to the Seniors' Club and also by implication to earthly life itself….
Crews's next four novels explore various secular rituals as avenues to meaning, since conventional religion is no longer a force in his world, and he more explicitly considers the role of human love. In Karate Is a Thing of the Spirit (1971), karate is an almost religious ritual through which people attempt to link and fulfill body and spirit. A symbol of purity, order, peace and control, it depends on ritual physical training and self-discipline, elements which become increasingly important at this point in Crews's career. (p. 105)
Car (1972) continues the interest in technology so evident in Naked in Garden Hills. As in the earlier novel Crews explores how characters are defined by and cope with technology, in this case the automobile. The most interesting character for my purposes is Herman, an idealist and dreamer who determines to express his love for cars by literally consuming one. Although his actions are corrupted by exploitation and show business, he is actually attempting to perform a communion ritual with his god….
[The] novel suggests, as does Karate, that the spiritual cannot be found through the material, indeed that the spiritual cannot be found at all. After eating the bumper and part of the fender, Herman is unable to continue. (p. 107)
After he recognizes his limitations and abandons his quest, however, he sees Margo as a woman, and the novel's ending implies again the possibility of human love as a vehicle for meaning.
The Hawk is Dying (1973) carries man's search one step further, and the level of desperation is much greater than in Car. George Gattling, owner of a successful car upholstery business, is filled with anxiety over the meaninglessness of his life. He has followed every precept he was taught as a child but finds success empty. The religious elements of his dilemma are suggested by his thoughts on the mystery of God: "How beautiful it all was, he thought, if you could believe it. How terrifying it all was if you could not." Since he cannot believe, the only thing that makes sense is trying to train a hawk. This action represents something "real" to him, a simplification of his life by reducing it to the basics—blood and conquest, and also tradition. For he trains the hawk in a very traditional manner…. Training the hawk also involves training himself: both hawk and man must go without food and sleep until the hawk is "manned." Thus the familiar Crews motifs of self-discipline and self-control reappear, for training the hawk means to George disciplining his own body and spirit as well. However, Crews modifies his vision of love, which was important in his last novels. George does not know what love is, and one of the appealing traits of hawks is that "they could not love. They didn't want to be your buddy. Ever."… On the other hand, George must have love for the hawk to train him properly. (p. 108)
Yet significantly his successful search for fulfillment involves the inhuman, in fact demands the exclusion of the human realm altogether, a change from the previous novels. Crews seems increasingly to despair at the ability of people to reach any real understanding of others. (p. 109)
The Gypsy's Curse (1974) continues Crews's consideration of the role of love as opposed to discipline and training. Marvin Molar is the first actual freak Crews has dealt with since This Thing Don't Lead to Heaven, and since Marvin tells the story in the first person, the reader cannot retain the detachment so characteristic of fiction ofthe grotesque. Crews forces us to see Marvin as a three dimensional human being…. Essentially he is an artist of admirable integrity and devotion, and it is significant that his act consists of balancing, for he is desperately attempting to maintain balance in his grotesqueseeming life.
Into the peaceable male kingdom where he lives and trains comes Hester, a "normal" who brings with her the gypsy's curse, which is translated: "Find a cunt that fits you and you'll never be the same. Never find any peace."… Marvin loves her and in his desire for the normality she supposedly possesses will do anything for her. Yet the irony underlying the novel is that in fact she is a far less complete person than he. Unlike Marvin, whose life does have some meaning, she lives the desperately empty, bored life of modern man. (pp. 109-10)
Marvin's love for her is his curse, his fate, and it upsets the balance which he has painfully brought to his life. In effect, she causes the death of Al, Marvin's father figure, and flaunts her power over Marvin by being unfaithful to him. Powerless, unable to escape his fate, Marvin finally kills her…. This novel continues the reaction against love shown in The Hawk is Dying. (p. 110)
In his latest novel, A Feast of Snakes (1976), Crews returns to rural Georgia, a town suggestively named Mystic, for his most desperate and hopeless work yet. The life of the characters is very primitive—in fact the animals in the book are described as having more beauty than the people—and life is unrelentingly brutal. The brutality is characteristic not simply of rural life, however. The occasion of the novel is the yearly rattlesnake roundup in Mystic which draws tourists from all over the country. They are attracted by the ritual of hunting and killing snakes, and as the novel progresses, the violence in their obsession with snakes comes closer and closer to the surface until it finally spills over in rioting and mayhem.
While in his previous novels some ritual form of self-control was available to channel potential violence and drain off the threat, here such outlets are non-existent. Joe Lon Mackey, the central character, is a former star high school football player who, because he is virtually illiterate, could not attend college…. Life is closing in on him, for he cannot reconcile his former aspirations and his extremely reduced present circumstances. (p. 111)
The novel ends apocalyptically with his murdering four people before he is himself killed by an enraged mob. But while he is killing, "he felt better than he had ever felt in his life. Christ, it was good to be in control again."… To this has the possibility of control been reduced in Crews's latest novel. No ritual, no equilibrium, no balance seem possible. Hope is nonexistent; the only redemption lies in accepting the truth. And the terrifying truth is that we are all potentially murderous grotesques…. Looking at his novels in sequence, one can see that the hope they offer has been gradually reduced, that the sustaining role ritual can play has diminished, and that the arena in which man can constructively act has become narrower and narrower until it virtually disappears.
The world of Harry Crews's novels is mysterious, violent and dangerous. His characters, by nature physically or spiritually grotesque, are often ruled by an obsession or instinct for something higher than simply physical life. Almost always their desires are frustrated because of man's radical imperfection. Individual will and discipline and adherence to ritual may perhaps enable one to attain some kind of control over life, but such control is always tenuous, given the facts of existence and human nature. His vision is a lonely and extremely sad one; the more recent novels strongly suggest that human love is inadequate. Trapped within his own nature, each individual must desperately attempt to find a solution for himself. Perhaps the essence of his vision is suggested by the epigraph to his recent autobiography: "Survival is triumph enough." For survival itself is never a certain prospect in Crews's world. (pp. 112-13)
Frank W. Shelton, "Harry Crews: Man's Search for Perfection," in The Southern Literary Journal (copyright 1980 by the Department of English, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Vol. XII, No. 2, Spring, 1980, pp. 97-113.