Harry Crews
My books are ugly, nasty, black.
“The End” The Doors (1967)
((( writing in the dark )))

kevin kolczynski

january 16, 1981
vol 74 no 60

By David Futch
Alligator Staff Writer

Empty quart bottles of Busch and Budweiser beer lie on the hardwood floor in the second-story apartment. Its tenant snores peacefully on the only piece of sitting furniture, a sofa covered with old blankets.

Two dressers, a double bed and a desk with an ancient Royal manual typewriter as its centerpiece are the only other visible items. There are no plants or paintings on the walls, that might brighten the room overlooking East University Avenue.

It is home and workplace for Harry Crews — one of America’s finest fiction writers.

The room is a reflection of the world Crews has painted in the 10 novels he has authored in the last dozen years. It is a stark world. One in which Crews makes no claims about the nature of the human condition.

“Most people go through this world thinking it normal or good whatever you want to call it” he said. “I walk through it glancing nervously over my shoulder.”

The UF English professor prefers the streets to a warm fire because the streets keep you honest.

“Not much room for mistakes there.”

Crews likes living on the edge; always has, always will.

That lifestyle is reflected in the articles he has written for Playboy and Esquire magazine. There is a true story about a cockfight in South Florida, and a raucous crowd of sweaty men miffed at something Crews said. He woke up in a hospital with a fractured skull.

“Going Down in Valdez” is about his experience with pipeline workers in Alaska. That one ended with him waking up to find a tatoo of a door hinge on the inside of his elbow.

Another story got him beaten up in an alley in Pasadena, Calif. In December, Crews flew to Lynchburg. Va. on assignment for Playgirl to interview Rev. Jerry Falwell about his Moral Majority.

But his writing is no more than a reflection of his life.

The son of a sharecropper was born on June 6, 1935. Serving Uncle Sam was the only alternative to staying on the farm, and besides, “there were too many mouths to feed.”

At 17, the farmboy left Bacon County, Ga., to join the Marine Corps. It wasn’t long after that he saw his first city.

“We were taught to kill a gook for democracy.” Crews said. “Shit no, I didn’t question it because I didn’t know anything at 17.”

Three years aboard a ship in the Caribbean and some unsuccessful writing convinced Crews he needed to learn something about the craft and technique of putting stories on paper.

Gainesville was the next stop, and the site where Crews found his way into the classroom of fiction writing professors Andrew Lytle and Smith Kirkpatrick, two people who had an enormous influence on his work. Except for a period teaching fiction writing at Broward Community College, and a long motorcycle trip to cleanse the soul, Crews has remained in the North Florida town.

Unless something happens that he cannot control, Crews plans to die here.

In the University City, he has written the majority of his novels, although he attempted to write one in Tennessee before giving up in despair.

Crews tried to write on the farm back home, but found himself too close to make anything out of it. So he headed back to Gainesville where “I’m just close enough that I can see it (Bacon County), and smell it, and just far enough away not to smother in it.

Kirkpatrick remembers the young, virile man who came to the freshman fiction writing class he taught with Lytle.

“Harry Crews stood out from the rest.” Kirkpatrick said. “He wanted to learn and he worked harder at writing than anyone I’ve ever known, He wrote, and he wrote, and he wrote.”

Harry worked hard at writing, and it became an obsession with him.

Crews holds Lytle partly to blame for this obsession a desire to jump into the skins of imaginary people and bring them to life.

*Professor Lytle once said to me, ‘You’re not haggard enough. You’re not pale enough. You’re not. working hard enough. You need to be frailer and you dont tremble enough. You need to stay up working through the night,” Crews said.

“If you check out those from Mallarme to whoever, they all trembled.”

But it was the patience and guidance of Kirkpatrick that honed Crews’ writing razor sharp and cutting.

“I don’t know if I would have written anything I wrote if it wasn’t for his patience, his kindness,” Crews said.

Crews is a strong critic of written work, colleague Joy Anderson said, and a student has to be able to stand the flame if he’s going to hang with Harry.

“He’s never afraid to reveal himself and that’s why he gets himself into scrapes, she said.

But for whatever it’s worth, Crews said you can discount about 80 percent of the stories concerning his hell-raising activities and week-long drunks.

“I used to try and correct people, but no more.” he said. “If I do all the things people say I do, when would I have found the time to write 10 books in 12 years?”

Crews joined UF’s English department in 1968 and teamed up with Lytle, Kirkpatrick, Anderson and James Haskins. That elite group of professors has made the fiction writing program at UF one of the finest in the country

“In his imagination, Harry has been all his characters because that is the nature of fiction writing,” Kirkpatrick said.

Flaubert once said, “I am Madam Bovarie. As a fiction writer, you must crawl into the skins of other people and act out their lives.”

If that is so, then Crews has a particularly macabre view of the world that can make you feel ashamed, embarrassed, but leave you laughing out loud.

His central characters often are freaks suffocating from man’s inhumanity to the bizarre, the settings a sad zoo filled with desperate human beings trapped behind physical or mental handicaps.

Marvin Molar is the lip-reading deaf-mute in “The Gypsy’s Curse.” Molar walks on his hands because his legs are so undeveloped that he cinches them to his buttocks with a nylon strap.

But Marvin, it seems is one of the world’s greatest balancers, able to stand on his middle finger and spin like a top.

In “A Feast of Snakes,” published in 1976, Joe Lon Mackev is the dethroned Boss Snake of the Mystic High Rattlers of Mystic, Ga.

“It was said that Joe Lon, on any given day of his senior year of high school, could have run through the best college defensive line in the country, but Joe Lon had not. Old Joe Lon could not pass a college entrance exam. There was some argument whether Joe Lon could even read. A broken romance with his high school sweetheart, a marriage turned sour, complicated by two screaming babies, and Joe Lon had had his fill.

Touching the dark spots of the human soul is the reason Crews believes many readers reject his fiction.

“My books are ugly, nasty, black.” he said. “Thev stink of the putrefaction of death, and it’s because that’s the world I see. That’s why I’ll never sell.”

Because of the characteristic oddity, terror, and outrageousness inherent in each of his books, Crews, to his dislike, has been categorized by critics as a “Southern Gothic writer.” His esteemed company includes Flannery O’Connor (Milledgeville. Ga.), Eudora Welty (Jackson,

Miss.), William Faulkner (Oxford. Miss.), Truman Capote (New Orleans), and Carson McCullers (Columbus. Ga.).

Just why critics prefer to call these writers, most with universal appeal, “Southern Gothic” stymies Kirkpatrick.

“Maybe it’s because southern writers write of the places they know.” he said. “The problem with writers today is they ain’t from nowhere. Southern writers seem to have a great sense of place.”

But Crews’ greatest asset, say his friends, is his ability to work with a student he cares about.

UF student Steve Journey, finishing his English degree at the Sorbonne in Paris, would agree.

Harry spent two-and-a-half years working with me, teaching me evervthing he knows.” Journey said. “Another person wouldn’t have sacrificed that much time. Not only has he been very generous to me, but he’s also a good friend.”

The investment could pay off soon for the 21-year-old writer. Journey is waiting for approval or rejection of his first novel a fictional account of a young American reporter living in Brazil, who comes to terms with the alienation he grew up with and the alienation of his fellow Americans.

Journey’s first exposure to Crews, however, was not what he expected.

“I was terrified the first time I went to see him about critiquing a story,” he said. “He gives you one of his squint eyed looks and it sends shivers up your spine.”

The squint-eyed stare is a vehicle Crews employs to intimidate and extract the truth from most new students or first-time acquaintances.

Obsession and desire are the characteristics Crews expects from a student pushing to learn the craft of fiction writing.

Nothing else matters.

“I avoid any student who sits jackin’ around with his left hand,” he said. “The fact that you pay your money doesn’t mean a damn thing to me when vou’re jackin’ around with something I’ve spent my life learning.

Crews is just as unconcerned about what people think of his books. “If readers are so pure and fine that they find something reprehensible in me and they want to delve on it, then so be it.

“My view of things isn’t necessarily the right one, but that’s the way I see it and hopefully I will do no one an in-justice. Writing is the thing I’ve worked at the hardest, and the thing I work at most consistently.

“Writing is not like tap dancin’ where you can just tap out something when somebody goes ta-da-da-da-da. I’m a freelance writer, and free-lance writing is about as high risk work as vou can get. No guarantees. That’s one of the reasons I like it so much. It’s all yours. If it’s praise, it comes to vou. If it’s blame, it comes to vou.

And that’s all Harry Crews ever asked out of life.





kevin kolczynski

A Florida Journalist, Photographer, and Art Director with an eclectic client list of individuals and organizations with musical, visual, educational, and editorial interests.

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