Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Harry Crews: R.I.P.

Author Harry Crews, a cult favorite of brutal tales of the rural South, died last week in Gainesville, FL. He was 76.

From USA Today:

He had been very ill," his wife, Sally Ellis Crews, told the Associated Press last Thursday. "In a way it was kind of a blessing. He was in a lot of pain." Thanks in part to motorcycle accidents and nerve damage in his feet, he had walked with a cane in recent years. But his career remained active. An excerpt from a forthcoming memoir had been published in the Georgia Review and there was talk of reissuing his books, many of them out of print, in digital editions.

He wasn't widely known, but those who knew him— whether personally or through his books — became devoted. A wild man and truth teller in the tradition of Charles Bukowski and Hunter Thompson, he wrote bloodied stories drawn directly from his own experiences, including boxing and karate. Crews sported a tattoo with a line from an E.E. Cummings poem, "How do you like your blue-eyed boy Mister Death," on his right bicep under the tattoo of a skull.

Crews wrote 17 novels, including Feast of Snakes and The Knockout Artist; numerous short stories and novellas and the memoir A Childhood. He also taught graduate and undergraduate fiction writing workshops at the University of Florida from 1968 until his retirement in 1997.

Harry Crews is one of those literary figures whom people either know very well or not at all. If you have read Harry Crews, it is likely that you have devoured most everything he put to paper. Some of it was not so great, but some of it is some of the most visceral, terrifying, and hilarious writing that has ever come out of the South.

I count his memoir,
Childhood: The Biography of a Place, among one of the best pieces of Southern writing, period. It is here that we learn where Crews developed his empathy for the scarred, the grotesque, and the physically challenged. Harry Crews, for part of his childhood, was all of those things.

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