The hardnosed, hard-living Southern writer once dubbed himself ‘Freak City’ and, despite a lifestyle (booze, drugs, fistfights, etc.) that would have floored most other people, kept a teaching gig at the University of Florida for nearly 40 years while also writing novels, memoirs and essays. Gary Lippman befriended the crusty writer—who was also a favorite of Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, Sean Penn and Madonna—over the years and offers a rare glimpse at the heart and soul of the author of the legendary A Childhood: The Biography of a Place.
“Have you ever slapped a man in the face and knocked him down?” my friend Harry Crews–the legendary American author–asked from his ratty brown recliner in the sunken living room of his home in Gainesville, Florida.
I shifted in my seat across from him. “Not,” I said, “er, lately.”
Harry’s eyes in their deep-set sockets went wide and bright. “Well, champ,” he said, “it’s a damn pleasurable experience. Very satisfying.”
Back then, in the early ‘90s, I found such hard-man talk disarming, since it reminded me as it did of what a wimp I was compared to Crews. Yet this talk came as no surprise: I knew that in any “My Favorite Writer Can Beat Up Your Favorite Writer” steel-cage death-match, Harry would almost certainly come out on top. Not only did this big and burly ex-Marine believe in violence (claiming once that “Nose-to-nose combat is better than a psychiatrist, is never as humiliating, and is not nearly so expensive”), but he knew his way around a boxing ring, held a black belt in karate, and trained female bodybuilders for fun. Then there was Harry’s mental state for enemies to consider. In spite of his having published book after book for decades while working as a tenured English professor at the University of Florida, he struck most “straight” people as “Freak City,” as he’d once dubbed himself. Not even Hemingway, I suspect, would have dared to put up his dukes against “Crazy Crews” in his prime.
Harry Crews on a memory from childhood:
Since Harry’s death in 2012, much of his work has fallen out of print. The best still-available one-stop-shop volume is Classic Crews, which contains some of his finest essays, two fine novels–Car and The Gypsy’s Curse–plus his legendary memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place. Also terrific and findable is Erik Bledsoe’s collection of interviews, Getting Naked With Harry Crews. I had hoped that Blood, Bone and Marrow, Ted Geltner’s comprehensive biography of Harry, would reignite interest in Crews when it was published in 2016. Alas, the man remains insufficiently remembered or read. Here’s hoping that will change, soon. In the meanwhile, these personal memories from twenty years of friendship.
“I never wanted to be well-rounded, and I do not admire well-rounded people nor their work. So far as I can see, nothing good in the world has ever been done by well-rounded people. The good work is done by people with jagged, broken edges, because those edges cut things and leave an imprint, a design.”
By the time I met Harry, at a Coral Gables bookstore in 1992, he hadn’t seen that prime of his for a few years. He was writing just as obsessively as ever; as he declared to one journalist, “I’m a writer or I’m nothing…I can be hungry, homeless, wet, in debt, fucked up; but if I’m writing, that’s enough.” Still, aging had somewhat mellowed this rough customer, as had his mostly successful ongoing struggle with sobriety. A slight erosion in his literary status had a humbling effect, too. But the worst thing–particularly distressing for such a physical guy–was that Harry’s body was breaking down. All the barfights and jail stints and motorcycle crashes and hard workouts, not to mention the turbulent love affairs, had taken their inevitable toll.
“I’m a crip,” he groused to me once. “Got a bad wheel, you dig?”
This “bad wheel” was very bad indeed. When he walked, it looked as if his knee was bending forward rather than backward; even a simple stroll was an obvious trial for him, especially once the resulting sedentariness caused him to put on weight.
As down as Harry got physically, and sometimes emotionally, I had learned never to count him out. “I’m like a goddamned hurt animal,” he said. “Like a dog. Just get back in a dark place, lick your wounds, heat up, cool out. And when I come out, I’ll come out biting.” Even toward the end of his life, he’d supposedly just gotten into a vicious knife fight with a longtime rival at a fishing camp. I remember feeling astonished when Harry reported this to me after he got back from the hospital, where doctors had sewed up a nasty stomach wound. But I wasn’t astonished that he recovered–his epitaph, he used to claim, should be “He Got Well A Lot.” He was a complainer, but not a quitter.
The afternoon when Harry rhapsodized about the pleasures of slapping men, our talk got interrupted by the ringing of his portable landline telephone, which at that moment was in the kitchen. Struggling to climb out of his recliner, Harry began grumbling from the pain of it, when not swearing prodigiously.
“Hey,” I said, jumping up from my own seat, “let me get that.”
“No, goddamit!” Harry was on his feet at last, but wobbling precariously there, and shouting at me didn’t help to steady him. He shouted at me anyway. “This is my house and I’ll get my own damn phone!”
Witnessing the agony he was in, I couldn’t help but try again. “Listen,” I said, “I can just run over there and–”
“No, I said! Sit down and chill, man…”
“All right,” I muttered, reluctantly obeying him. “Suit yourself.”
Still, I couldn’t help but suffer with him–suffer, at least, vicariously–as I watched Harry make his slow, stumbling, “bad wheel” way toward the kitchen, where the phone kept ringing past the point where most phones stop.
Whoever’s calling, I thought, must really want to reach this guy.
Meanwhile, every step along Harry’s journey brought more moans and groans and cries of “Ouch” from him, along with “Shit!,” “Fuck!, “Motherfucker” and “Damn, that smarts!”
Once he neared the kitchen he disappeared from my view, so the rest of what happened, I could only hear, not see. Harry picked up the receiver on what the twelfth or thirteenth ring and launched into his standard telephonic greeting: “Harry Crews.” (Depending on his mood, he sometimes expanded this to “Good afternoon, Harry Crews” or shortened it to simply “Crews.”)
There was silence as Harry listened to the opening spiel of his ultra-persistent caller.
Then I heard Harry say, “What?”
And a moment later, much louder: “What?”
And finally, right before I heard him slam the phone down savagely, he bellowed, “Oh, you son-of-a-bitch!”
“Who was it, Harry?” I said, still not able to see him, as he began his long, tormented trip back to his recliner.
“Who was it?” he repeated, indignant. “Wrong number!”
“It is in a crisis, conflicts, in what I think of as ‘blood moments,’ that you find out who the hell you are, what you really are, what you really believe, what you’re really capable of–that’s where you find it out. You won’t find it out otherwise…”
We spoke by phone every month or so, and I visited him at his home about once a year, crashing in his guest room. On occasion we’d go out to a local cafeteria, where he was careful about what he ate and boasted of having read widely about nutrition. Mostly, however, we hung out at Harry’s house, where he stayed planted in his recliner, clad in loose sweatshirt and sweatpants, and he would spin story after story while I soaked it all in. (I never took notes, thinking that would be uncool, but now I wish I had. Then again, as the man himself liked to say, “The good shit sticks.”)
A few of Harry’s anecdotes were about famous writers he’d palled around with, but the majority were about himself, and usually self-deprecating. In conversation the man was unfailingly polite, though he tended to be a better talker than he was a listener except for when we were discussing those “blood moments,” serious stuff such as my passage to middle age, his passage to old age, my troubles finishing my first novel, his troubles starting his next novel, the travails of a certain writer whom we both knew, and the wreckage of our very different fucked-up childhoods. (I bristled when Harry laughed out loud at one of my lacerating early memories, but he redeemed himself when he quickly added, “That’s a great bit–that’s a novel, right there.”)
It was a particular blood moment that deepened our friendship. In 1999, when my infant son was diagnosed with hydrocephalus and needed brain surgery, I turned to Harry for solace, and he helped me get through that crisis with great sensitivity. He also gave me a book to give to my son when he’d be old enough to read it, a book that Harry inscribed to him with these words: “My man, keep your head clear, your body strong, and your eyes on the goal. I’ll catch you on the turnaround.”
As I discovered in the midst of my son’s crisis, Harry had lived through his own much worse parental tragedy: His first-born son had accidentally drowned at age four. As he put it in a published interview, “I thought I would never get over it. I wished I could’ve died at that moment…I wish he could’ve stayed around and taken his licks like the rest of us are taking ours…” But, continued Harry, one should not lose oneself in “unrelieved suffering,” because life in turn does offer “awful good things, sweet things, wonderful things, moving things, uplifting things, things that make you whistle, sing, dance, hug your neighbor.”
Harry prided himself on being a survivor, which his classic memoir A Childhood: The Biography Of A Place amply documents. By the age of five, Harry had endured more baroque hardships in his swampland home of Depression-era southern Georgia than most tough guys are forced to experience in five decades. The offbeat protagonists of his novels were survivors, too, though few of them are what society would perceive as “winners.”
“I don’t know if you know what Dilaudid suppositories are, but if anybody ever offers you one, don’t turn it down. Take it and run. (As for mainlining Dilaudid), when you just touch that syringe–I mean, an enormous “yellow pumpkin explodes behind your eyes. You look bigger and better than God.”
Harry is the only person I’ve ever met who actually lived out that hoary cliche of waking up from an alcoholic blackout and finding a new tattoo on your body which you have no memory of receiving. (He wrote about this experience in his essay “Going Down In Valdez,” a highlight of his nonfiction collection Blood And Grits.) When Harry showed me this tattoo–it was the image of a hinge in the crook of his elbow–I asked him why certain parts of it looked dulled.
“Those are track marks,” he said.
Harry began using heroin the way many folks acquire their bad habits: through peer pressure. According to what he told me, a beautiful young woman who was visiting Harry at his house began to fix herself and offered him a shot. When he balked at this, maligning all junkies, she grinned and said, “Okay, well, I’m going to heaven now while you stay back here to mind the farm.”
“I ain’t no farmer,” Harry growled back at her. “Don’t call me that.”
“Sure you are, Farmer John. See you later.”
At which point Harry snapped. He grabbed the syringe from her, shouted, “I’ll show you who’s a farmer,” and slammed the smack into his arm.
I loved to hear Harry talk about his longtime drug dealers, a pair of elderly German lesbians who drove around the States in a BMW. The police never stopped them–“Who’d wanna stop two old ladies?” Harry said. “But in their car trunk, Jack, they’ve got heroin here, Ecstasy there, you name it. They didn’t dip into their merchandise, either, except for pills…Well, they might have done some blow, too.”
One of the most hair-raising drug anecdotes Harry recounted to me came from a time when he was living in a remote shack trying to finish a book. He was so far gone wasted from booze and drugs that he eventually fell to the shack’s floor and didn’t have the strength, or equilibrium, to get up. There he lay for days, unable to even feed himself, nearing death, when another one of those beautiful young women in Harry’s life appeared in the shack to check up on him. Moreover, she’d brought nourishment for Harry: a box of Chicken McNuggets from McDonalds.
Given the terrible shape Harry was in, one would assume that he would be grateful for any sustenance at all. Instead, he scowled at his lovely savoir once he caught sight of (and caught a sniff of) the McNuggets, and he rasped, “Woman, you know I never eat fried food!”
During one of my overnight stays with Harry, I had my own interesting drug experience. Harry was bedridden that weekend, and I was in bad shape myself. Not only had I forgotten to bring along my CPAP machine, which corrects my severe sleep apnea, but my lower back was in spasm. Wincing from the pain, I took a bottle of prescribed Vicodin from my pocket, twisted it open, and shook a pill out. Before I popped it into my mouth, though, Harry had noticed it and said, “What is that?”
“Vicodin for my back.”
“Well, give it here,” he demanded.
Assuming that he wanted to enjoy the pill himself, I handed it over. I had more where it came from, after all. But Harry, unpredictable as ever, did not swallow anything. Rather, he flung the pill across his bedroom, then turned to me, his eyes gleaming.
“I got BETTER shit,” he said.
And so he did. It was an enormous jug of Oxycontin that he rattled at me seductively. As I well knew, the strength of Oxy made its little-cousin opiate Vicodin seem like a placebo by comparison.
“Hillbilly heroin,” Harry announced. “My doctor gives me plenty. C’mere, hold out your hand.”
I did as I was told, eager to try the stuff. Harry poured five or six of the large white pills into my waiting palm, saying, “Take all those.”
Taking five or six Oxycontin pills at once, I suspected, would be too ambitious for a beginner. (In fact, it most likely would have killed me.) So I decided to start with just one, and an hour later, I was flying, absolutely flying, with my back pain as gone, gone, gone as the rest of me was. Getting ready to sleep, I lay on the bed of Harry’s guest room reading a memoir by the actress Carrie Fisher. Or trying to read it: Because of how high I was, I found it difficult to concentrate on Fisher’s words, which I kept scanning over and over. Still, something got through to me at last, and it made me sit up in terror. One of Fisher’s friends, she wrote–a healthy young man–had died in his sleep from a catastrophic combination of Oxycontin and untreated sleep apnea. Like me, in other words, he was Oxy’ed up and didn’t have a CPAP machine to help him breathe while he slept.
“Oh, God,” I cried, leaping off the bed, “I’m a dead man if I doze off!”
Next stop: Harry’s kitchen, where I brewed myself a full pot of coffee to keep me awake until the safety of dawn.-
“Women’s vision of the world is so much harder, closer to the way things really are, than men’s. Man set against a woman is a pretty weak stick…A woman will tell you the truth…look you in the eye and tell you how it is….”
Handsome in a Neaderthalic mode, Harry claimed to never feel guilty, much less professionally anxious, about sleeping with his students–not even when he was intimately involved with four separate co-eds in the same writing class.
“Did they know about each other?” I asked.
“They did eventually,” Harry said with a shrug of his shoulder.
Unfortunately, a few of the sexual exploits Harry recalled for me would not pass muster with the MeToo movement, and shouldn’t. Although he was never less than a gentleman with women when I was in his presence, I’ve heard some lurid stories about Harry when he was drunk or high–and I read some in Geltner’s biography, too. Harry preferred his girlfriends young, yet “some of the best damn sex” he said he ever had was with a much older female author he’d encountered at a literary conference. He wasn’t the sort of man who let his familiar taste constrain him. As he said to me, “Anybody who turns down a new experience ain’t no real artist. You gotta have a hunger for every kind of experience. And when you get old, not a lot comes around for me, but my sexual desire is as strong as ever, so I’ll fuck anything I can get. You’ve just gotta ask these basic questions: Will my dick fit? Will my nuts blow?”
Despite such talk, and despite his occasional impolite behavior, Harry was no misogynist. He spoke warmly of past lovers and obviously stayed friendly with many of them. He was especially close with his ex-wife Sally, who was the mother of his two children–the one they’d lost and a grown son named Byron. Sally often dropped by Harry’s house to see how he was and to help out if she could.
Perhaps the most important woman in Harry’s life was his mother. He spoke admiringly of her all the time, and she is by far the most vivid figure in his memoir, its beating heart. “My mother taught me that it’s no disgrace to get dirty,” he remarked in one interview. “The only disgrace is in staying dirty.” Because his father had died when Harry was a baby and Harry was estranged from his only sibling, an older brother, Mrs. Crews may have been more than just a loving parent: Perhaps she was a living connection for Harry to the South Georgia where he came up. He used to say that it took as long for his mother to read his books as it did for him to write them, but read them she did, and after she died, Harry had all the books that he’d autographed to her arranged together beside a framed photograph of her.
“All courage is, is fear controlled. Everybody’s scared when the heat starts coming down. You’re terrified…Sure, you’d be a fool not to be scared. It’s the control of the fear.”
One night about ten years ago Harry and I tried “writing together.” I sat at one table with my laptop, he sat at his desk with his typewriter, but we didn’t get much work done, because he seemed too distracted to get into the process. I suppose that his having someone else nearby “tapping away under the light,” as he put it, was too different from his usual solitary work process. So instead of writing, he decided to read me some passages from his current work-in-progress, a sequel to his memoir which he ultimately chose not to publish in his lifetime for fear of offending certain relatives.
At one juncture, we got talking about Gainesville–specifically, the serial killer who’d terrorized the town in 1990. Harry’s memories of that time gave me chills, and he said that even in the worst of it he refused to lock his front door when he went to sleep: “If someone wants to take his chances walking in here uninvited, he’ll have himself a fight, son.” Just recently, he said, he’d glimpsed a stranger who was standing on his property and peeking in the windows.
“Well,” I replied, grinning but in earnest, “I hope you’re going to lock the place up when we turn in to sleep tonight.”
“Hell, no!” was Harry’s response. “I told you, I’m not scared of being in my own house, and no one’s gonna make me scared!”
In Harry’s guest room later on, having bid him good night, I considered locking the front door to his house myself. What if that trespasser Harry had mentioned came back and broke into the place, hellbent on attacking us?
Then again, I told myself, if there’s no break-in and Harry wakes up earlier than I do in the morning and finds his front door locked, he’ll realize I did it and know me for the coward I am.
In the end, I decided to leave the front door unlocked–but I did lock the door to my guest room. And so, feeling cowardly yet somewhat safe, I climbed into bed and fell asleep fast. It was a deep sleep, as I recall, until I was awakened by a strange rattling sound. Was this the wind blowing on some part of the house outside my window? Or else–sweet Jesus!–was the doorknob to my room being turned?
My eyes popped open. There it was again, the rattling sound, coming from the direction of the door…
By God, it was the doorknob! Someone was turning it and finding it locked but still turning it. Someone was trying to get in!
I shot up like the proverbial bolt, shaking my head to clear out the last vestiges of sleep. So it’s really happened, I thought–some outsider got in the house! I knew I should have locked the front door…
The doorknob rattled again.
“Harry?” I called out. “Harry, is that you?”
Of course it wasn’t Harry. The intruder–a new Gainesville serial killer, no doubt–had already finished off Harry in his bed.
“Harry!” I called again, raising my voice to a shout.
Again, no answer.
With adrenalin rushing through me, I glanced around my room, squinting in the darkness to try to spot something I could use as a weapon. I didn’t want to fight–Harry was the fighter, not me. (Although I have since learned, from Ted Geltner’s biography of the man, that Harry lost far more physical tussles than he won. Which didn’t at all stop him at tussling.) I was beginning to tremble all over (obviously not a great boon in terms of combat skills) when the intruder rattled the doorknob yet again. Whoever he was, he didn’t give up easily. How long until he broke the whole damn door down?
“Harry!” I shouted, very loud now, right in the middle of a new round of doorknob-rattling.
And that did it. The doorknob stopped moving, went silent, and then I heard a voice–low, groggy, but unmistakably Harry’s voice–say, “Sorry, dude…I must’ve been sleepwalking…”
I didn’t fall back asleep for another hour. I couldn’t stop puzzling over what had just happened. “Sleepwalking?” Of all the preposterous excuses! But an excuse for what, exactly? Harry hadn’t been trying to rape me, had he? Impossible! Not Harry…But why else would he try to get into my room in the middle of the night? Hadn’t he said, “Not a lot comes around for me, but my sexual desire is as strong as ever, so I’ll fuck anything I can get”?
Over breakfast in the morning neither one of us mentioned the incident. I tried to discern in Harry any tell-tale signs of a guilty conscience, but found none. As we said goodbye, he loaned me a stack of videotapes, all of them filmed interviews with Harry. Then I drove out of Gainesville, made it to Miami in five hours, and watched the first of the videotapes a few nights later. Halfway through it, the interviewer brought up Harry’s childhood, and in the course of replying, Harry discussed at length his lifelong problem with sleepwalking.
“Sometimes it comes up seven and sometimes it comes up snake eyes, and sometimes it comes up and there’s nothing on it–it’s a blank face.”
The “blank face” came up for Harry on May 28, 2012. I was with him at his house a few days before the end. I was there not merely to visit Harry this time but on assignment to interview him for The Paris Review‘s website. As soon as I saw the state Harry was in, how ill and out-of-it from the meds, I knew the interview wouldn’t happen. I wasn’t even sure he was aware of my presence. But when his caregiver Darlene phoned me a day later to tell me that he died, she said that she’d reminded him that I’d been there, and “Goddamnit,” Harry had snapped back at her, “I know Gary was here!”
I enjoyed his company as much as that of anyone I’ve known and learned more lessons from him than this essay can contain. One of these lessons, a humble one, I actually taught myself a year or two after that day when Harry had hobbled in agony to reach his ringing telephone and found it was a wrong number.
For the lesson, we were back in our usual places, with Harry in his recliner telling me a story. Suddenly his landline began to ring. Once again the phone had been left in the kitchen. Once again Harry struggled to stand, cussing and complaining, intent on heading kitchenward. Once again I offered to get the phone for him and he scolded me, saying, “No, goddamit, this is my house and I’ll get my own damn phone!”
But this time I knew better. This time, not arguing with him any further, I simply got up from my chair and dashed to the kitchen and took that ringing phone and brought it to Harry, who hadn’t even made it out of his recliner yet. He gave me a sour look and grumbled at me some more, but he took what I was offering, all the same. Then he put the phone up to his ear and gave the caller (not ringing a wrong number this time) the trademark greeting that I’d heard so many times and can still hear in my mind whenever I wish to.
“Good afternoon,” he said. “Harry Crews.”
The first part of Just Harry, a film about Harry Crews: