Harry Crews is dead.
The gritty writer passed away last week at the age of 76. He was most well known for his novel Feast of Snakes, though the book I know him for is Classic Crews, which contains a few amazing essays in addition to two novels. Crews was a renegade writer and teacher, and he battled his demons through writing, as well as through heavy drinking and violence. He taught for years at University of Florida, where’s he alleged to have once told a student, “Son, what this story needs is a midget.”
When I first read Classic Crews, I was blown away by his dark but truthful essays. Crews wrote about men. He wrote for men. In his essay called “Fathers, Sons, Blood,” Crews recounts waking to hear screams and finding his young son had drowned in a neighbor’s pool. A harrowing and heartbreaking scene. But then he tells about how he treated another son horribly one night, and how they came to closure about the incident years later. He ends the essay realizing the son has to be left to pursue his own dreams in life.
In “Climbing The Tower,” Crews tells about his visit to the University of Texas, and seeing the Texas Tower where Charles Whitman had shot and killed twelve people and injured scores of others. Late at night, after giving his presentation and having a few drinks, Crews returns to the campus and ponders the temptations Whitman must have faced, and the temptations Crews himself faces in life each day. It’s a haunting piece.
But out of everything in this collection, what startled me the most was the introduction. Crews writes about how he traveled the country on a Triumph motorcycle and eventually came to work for a short time at a carnival. “I think I know why, and I know I know when, I started loving freaks.” He explains how he started renting a room from a “freak man and his freak wife,” and how one morning he woke to see them in the kitchen at the other end of the trailer.
“What’s for supper, darling?” he said.
“Frank and beans, with a nice little salad,” she said.
And then they turned to each other under the yellow light. The lady had a beard not quite as thick as my own but about three inches long and very black. The man’s face had a harelip. His face was divided so that the top of his nose forked. His eyes were positioned almost on the sides of his head and in the middle was a third eye that was not really an eye at all but a kind of false lid over a round indentation that saw nothing. It was enough, though, to make me taste bile in my throat and cause a cold frar to start in in my heat.
They kissed. Their lips brushed briefly and I heard them murmur to each other and he was gone through the door. And I, lying at the back of the trailer, was never the same again.
This tenderness between the couple leads Crews to a feeling of understanding and hope. It’s a moment that vividly reinforces the idea that we all, no matter how scarred physically or mentally, have the need and the capacity for love. Crews wrote it was a “a painful and wondrous moment of self-knowledge,” and that’s how it felt when I read the passage.
Here’s Harry Crews discussing the craft of writing, starting off with his famous quote, “The writer’s job it to get naked. To hide nothing.”