Harry Crews, novelist of hard lives and dark corners of the South, dies at 76

March 31, 2012

Harry Crews, a writer whose unflinching novels about life, death and hope in the dark corners of the South made him a revered figure among a devoted band of readers, died March 28 at his home in Gainesville, Fla. He was 76.

His former wife, Sally Crews, told the Associated Press that he had neuropathy and post-polio syndrome.

Mr. Crews wrote 17 novels and a memoir, “A Childhood: The Biography of a Place,” that has been praised as a modern classic. He was a popular professor at the University of Florida, but he was also seen as something of an outsider with a tough-guy persona that exuded danger.

He had a face that could stop a fight — or start one — and led a life that was as thorny and rugged as those of his star-crossed characters. He grew up in dire poverty in rural Georgia and was a heavy drinker, a student of karate, a trainer of hawks, a survivor of motorcycle crashes and a raconteur who came to see writing as the saving grace in a world filled with misfortune.

In his finest novels, such as “Karate Is a Thing of the Spirit” (1971), “A Feast of Snakes” (1976) and “The Knockout Artist” (1988), Mr. Crews showed that he was a master of a style known as “grit lit” — or, more generally, Southern gothic fiction in the tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Erskine Caldwell.


Harry Crews was a tough-guy writer, a drinker and a brawler whose 17 novels reflected the poverty of his childhood and his bare-knuckle existence. He died Mach 28 at age 76. (Photo by Linda Mathias)

In 1993, Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley praised Mr. Crews for a “sense of humor that is totally off the wall and a deep, abiding sympathy for his characters.”

His books were set in swamps, trailer parks and dismal towns populated by snakes, packs of dogs, backwoods preachers, bloodthirsty mobs and people with grotesque appearances and appetites.

In one of Mr. Crews’s best-known novels, “Car” (1972), a man becomes a nationwide sensation by systematically eating a Ford Maverick, a few ounces at a time.

Humor bleeds into horror in Mr. Crews’s fictional world. Violence threatens to break out at any moment as troubled, angry men seek a kind of rough redemption in their hard-edged lives.

“For 30 years Crews’ fiction has been telling us of the invisible, the poor, the outcast: people who try to survive in the face of deprivation,” novelist Diane Roberts wrote in the St. Petersburg Times in 2007. “He’s the poet of the low-down, the back roads, the broken heart of old Florida.”

Harry Eugene Crews was born June 7, 1935, in Alma, Ga. He was 2 when his father died. Not long afterward, Mr. Crews’s mother married his father’s alcoholic brother.

Much of Mr. Crews’s youth was spent between Bacon County, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla., where his mother fled to escape the alcohol-fueled tirades of her husband, who sometimes fired a shotgun in the house.

As a child, Mr. Crews was stricken with paralysis and once, when his family was butchering hogs, fell into a caldron of boiling water.

“I reached over and touched my right hand with the left,” he wrote in his memoir, “and the whole thing came off like a wet glove. I mean the skin on the top of the wrist and the back of my hand, along with the fingernails, all just turned loose and slid down to the ground.”

Mr. Crews sometimes described himself as one of the last writers in America who, as a child, rode to school on a mule. The only books in his home were the Bible and the Sears Roebuck catalogue. He would make up stories about the models in the catalogue, marveling at the perfection of lives he could only imagine.

“Nearly everybody I knew had something missing, a finger cut off, a toe split, an ear half-chewed away, an eye clouded with blindness from a glancing fence staple,” he wrote in “A Childhood.” “And if they didn’t have something missing, they were carrying scars from barbed wire, or knives, or fishhooks.”

When he was 17, Mr. Crews enlisted in the Marine Corps, where he became a skilled boxer and a devoted reader. Using the GI Bill, he enrolled at the University of Florida in Gainesville in 1956. He took off several months to travel the country on a motorcycle, working along the way as a bartender, cook and carnival hand.

At Florida, he studied with Andrew Lytle, a novelist who had been one of O’Connor’s teachers. Mr. Crews graduated in 1960 and received a master’s degree in education in 1962.

He taught at a community college in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., before returning to the University of Florida in 1968. Students lined up to be in his seminars, and several of them, most notably crime novelist Michael Connelly, became respected writers themselves.

Beginning with his first novel, “The Gospel Singer” in 1968, Mr. Crews published nine books in 10 years. One of his novels, “The Hawk Is Dying” (1973), was made into a film in 2006 starring Paul Giamatti and Michelle Williams.

After his much-praised memoir, “A Childhood,” came out in 1978, Mr. Crews drifted more deeply into alcoholism and did not publish another book for nine years. He wrote columns for Esquire and Playboy during that time, and during one expense-account trip to Alaska he woke up to find the tattoo of a hinge on the inside of his elbow.

He spent many nights in jail and by the late 1980s was growing tired, he said, of waking up in broken glass with vomit on his shirt. He stopped drinking in his 50s.

“I was drunk every day for 30 years,” he said in 2008. “I drank with both hands. But I wrote every day.”

Mr. Crews and Sally Ellis were married and divorced two times. Their son Patrick drowned as a child in 1964. Another son, Byron Crews, teaches English at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. Other survivors include a brother and a grandson.

After retiring from teaching in 1997, Mr. Crews stayed in Gainesville and continued to write, despite increasingly fragile health. He was at work on a new volume of memoirs when he died.

Even though many of his books have fallen out of print, Mr. Crews became something of a sage of the red-clay South, sought out for documentaries and for his spellbinding stories. He had a deep drawl and blue eyes that glared out from an unforgettably creased and craggy face.

He understood from an early age that his imaginative life was driven by two contradictory impulses: the desire to escape the punishing world of his past and the need to return to it, if only through writing.

After three years in the Marine Corps, he recalled in his memoir, he went home to his native Georgia.

“I stood there feeling how much I had left this place and these people,” he wrote, “and at the same time knowing that it would be forever impossible to leave them completely.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Entertainment