Industrial Worker Book Reveiw: 8 Hours to Work, 8 Hours to Sleep, 8 Hours to Read

Our Blue Eyed Boy—A Memory of Harry Crews

Ron Cooper

Like most people, I do not answer the telephone when it rings at suppertime, but I sometimes check the caller ID so that I know the name of whomever I am cussing out. About a year ago when the phone rang around 7 PM, I had already launched into a stream of foul epithets when I saw the name that shut me up: Harry Crews.

I had heard much about Crews since moving to Florida in 1988, but I did not read any of his work until about eight years ago, the same time that I started writing my first novel. I was well steeped in the Southern literary tradition of Faulkner, O'Connor, Warren, Welty, McCullers, et al, which often centers upon poor, rural people, many of whom suffer from grotesque physical conditions and who are no strangers to violence. I knew that these themes were important to Crews as well and that he was sometimes dismissed by genteel readers for producing fiction of extravagant violence and perversion. I did not know, however, how well Crews used these themes to levy a powerful critique of a once robust society of great promise that is now in decay from rampant consumerism that preys upon working people, driving them to desperate acts of brutality.

Harry Crews was born to destitute Georgia tenant farmers in 1935, but moved to Jacksonville, Florida as a boy when his mother found work there in a cigar factory. Aside from time in the Marine Corps and travels as a journalist, he spent the rest of his life in Florida, mostly in Gainesville where he taught at the University of Florida. Of all Florida novelists, he is certainly the most direct inheritor of the classic Southern tradition, but instead of pining for the Mythic South of an imagined past, a theme that still haunts many of the best Southern writers, Crews was more concerned with the dim future that he feared would drive us all to barbaric and maybe futile attempts to endure with dignity. Perhaps something in the north Florida experience, the same region that gave us the bare-knuckled music of Lynyrd Skynyrd and JJ Grey, and the fearless battles for civil rights of A. Phillip Randolph and Stetson Kennedy, produced a raw sensibility in Crews with which he so well described the hard life of working Americans.

Crews' fictive world has succumbed to the corporate greed feared by the Southern Agrarian writers of the 1930s, such as Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. In The Mulching of America the vicious corporate head has no qualms killing his employees who even come to think that their executions are the just punishments for bad sales. "This is the U.S. of A," says a character. "Money is what keeps a man alive" (Mulching 134).

Poet and critic Allen Tate saw a cultural breakdown that had left aimless moderns flitting among distractions and sinking into a sort of social solipsism. While Tate had in mind primarily the cultural elite who lost ties to the land through industrialization, Crews saw the fulfillment of that warning in the retirees of the Forever and Forever trailer park in his novel Celebration. They had given up on any enjoyment in life, are only somewhat amused when a neighbor dies, and must be threatened at gun-point by the young newcomer even to venture outdoors. They resent any reminder of a world outside and especially of the life force of nature, as illustrated by one character's fear of the adjoining swamp:

 

Johnson… shot it once a day with a .22-caliber target pistol, because he was convinced that the swamp had a vulnerable place in it somewhere, and if he ever found that spot and shot it, the swamp would dry up and die and not spread to consume and ultimately destroy Forever and Forever. He had a pathological fear of having to leave the trailer park when the encroaching swamp devoured and destroyed it. (Celebration 54)

 

The muscle-bound weightlifters of The Gypsy's Curse and Bodysink into their own form of solipsism, spending their days pumping iron, starving themselves, and competing in exploitative tournaments. In each of those books, the characters, like Flannery O'Connor's, long for redemption, but Crews did not think it possible. Instead, those novels, like most of Crews' novels in fact, end in horrifying violence, perverse blood sacrifices that may or may not cleanse those involved in the ritual.

Crews shared earlier Southern writers' distrust of progress and showed how it has turned Florida into either an industrial wasteland or a cheap recreational park. The main character of All We Need of Hell lives in a "modern apartment house of neo-Aztec design that passed for elegance here in Gainesville, Florida, all angles and rough edges of poured cement" (All 7). In Car, in which a man tries to eat a car one tiny bit at a time while hundreds gawk, Crews writes of "the roiling excremental flow of the Saint John's River. Ten feet of gasoline on top of fifty feet of shit" (Classic Crews 332). In Karate is a Thing of the Spirit, an abandoned, decrepit motel is a dojo for a karate commune that spars in its drained, sun-bleached swimming pool. Beer cans, soda bottles, and car parts line the beach, and the main character complains that no martial arts concentration can drown out the incessant noise of cars on Highway 1. He says, "I distrust any place where every tree's got a light on it and a stick propping it up" (Karate 194).

Perhaps the best example of America's lost promise in Crews' work is Naked in Garden Hills. A region that has been radically misshapen and left barren by the phosphate industry becomes accidental hills and unnatural valleys for the residents of this waste land:

 

There was a time when Garden Hills had no hills. It was a ten-mile square of barren soil lying in the middle of the Florida peninsula sustaining a few families without jobs or hope.… Then the land boom came. Men saw heaven in a pound of Florida soil.…

Garden Hills got its hills. The sign proclaiming the name was run down and buried.… Ten square miles of earth were sifted through the plant and separated from the phosphate and then poured out again in piles and mounds and finally even mountains. A yellow cloud rose from the mining process and hung in the bright air above Garden Hills. Ground water seeped into the scraped valleys and became stagnant ponds. (Naked 9-10, 14)

 

Many find Crews' books savage and obscene, but I fell in love with his work and read all his books in rapid succession. My publisher sent him an advance reader's copy of my first novel in hopes that he would supply a blurb. He did not. I lived 40 miles away from him, so I wrote two letters asking if I could visit. I had read an interview in which he said that his door is always open to writers. He did not respond, even though I had provided SASEs. My publisher sent him an advance reader's copy of my second book (the one that novelist Ron Rash said "deserves a place on the bookshelf between O'Connor's Wise Blood and Crews' The Gospel Singer"), but again nothing. When the second novel was published, I sent him a copy that I signed to "the maestro" or something as fawning and asked again if I could visit. Not a word.

Then came the telephone call. I yelled, "It's Harry Crews," and my wife ushered the kids away from the kitchen so that they wouldn't see their father faint. I picked up the phone and said "hello."

"Yeah, ah, this is Harry Crews calling for Ron Cooper."

For an instant I thought that perhaps he had finally gotten around to calling me to tell me to leave him the hell alone. "Hello, Mr. Crews. How are you, sir?"

"Aw, cut out that goddamn shit…" and his voiced trailed off as he coughed. I thought I'd been right about his wanting me to cease and desist, but then his voice came back more clearly. "I'm just Harry. I ain't anybody's boss." He simply objected to "Mr.," and I tried to refrain from calling him that again.

He said he'd gotten my letter and stuff (I guess "stuff" meant my books) and that it'd be OK for me to come by and shoot the shit. I knew that he was confined to home most of the time and was on an enervating regimen of pain treatment for neuropathy. I asked for a good time for me to drop in, and he said, "Anytime. I got nowhere to go."

"Is there anything I can bring, Mr., I mean, Harry?"

"Well, I drink a little." That surprised me, because I'd read that he'd given up drinking, a sport at which he was quite accomplished. We settled on early afternoon the next day, and I headed out to the liquor store for the best bottle of bourbon they had.

You have to look for a small wooden plank with the street number to find Crews's house, which is near the university but hidden by pines from the road. I missed it once but spotted the sign on the second pass, something that seemed analogous to many readers' experiences with Crews. By the time I knocked on the door, I realized that I had spent no time thinking about what I'd ask him.

"That you, Ron?" came from inside the front door.

"Yes, Harry." I almost said "sir."

"Give me a minute." I heard some sort of movement on the other side. The door swung open, and there he was in a wheelchair, smiling as if his best friend had surprised him. We shook hands, he backed the wheelchair out of my way, and I entered. I gave him the bourbon. He admired the handsome wood and glass box with the bed of straw nestling the bottle. "Let's set this in the kitchen," he said, "and take a look at it later. Right now I got to get some more coffee."

He had to have his coffee boiling hot, he said, because his medicine made him feel cold. He was dressed in sweatpants and a long-sleeved sweatshirt, which disappointed me, because I could not see the famous tattoos, the one e e cummings's "How do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mr. Death?" that he sported on his right arm.

He invited me into the sunken den, a few stair steps below the entryway and kitchen. "I'm going to have to ask you turn around while I get down these damn stairs," Harry said. "Why don't you take a look at them pictures on that wall over there. You'll love them. They're all of me."

Harry once cut a powerful and menacing figure. He lifted weights, studied karate, and had decked many a challenger in testosterone driven barroom scraps. The man himself had been as muscular as his writing and sometimes as ferocious as his plots. Now his ashen complexion and short gray hair gave him a startling resemblance to my mother-in-law's chilling countenance, enough to give me the creeps for the entire afternoon. I thought I was, though, prepared for his physical deterioration, having seen him several years earlier in the film Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus in which he hobbles down a dirt road recounting an episode from his A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, considered by many his best work. I was wrong. Although I didn't cheat and turn around to peek, I heard him grunt as he lifted himself from the wheelchair, pant as he labored against the railing, and emit a great sigh when he plopped into the recliner at the foot of the stairs. This was a man who'd never cared about how others saw him, who had a hinge tattooed on the inside of his elbow, who'd shaved his hair into a Mohawk just to piss off the UF administration, yet he was embarrassed to be seen by me, a complete stranger, as he labored to get to his favorite chair.

The afternoon was less a conversation than a discursive monologue as Harry talked about whatever topic surfaced in his restless mind. This was the younger Harry I'd heard of, who mixed wild anecdotes of his travels with contemplative but humbly offered advice on writing and growling condemnations of authority with dirty jokes. This was the Harry of the formidable and restless mind who could leave entire classrooms or whole bars wanting to hear more. The only difference is that with me he would stop every few minutes to grimace and grab his side or rub his arm, only to recover, wink a bright blue eye, and make a joke about his frailties.

One topic that held his attention for some time was boxing. I think I had asked him about his novel The Knockout Artist after noticing a framed cover of it. How should I understand the metaphor of a guy who gets hired to knock himself out? I don't think he got around to an answer, but we covered training techniques, diets, poorly supplied gyms, Joe Frazier, actors and other rich people who pay thousands of dollars for ringside seats but have never even made a fist their whole lives much less swung a punch, and how so many fine athletes have been exploited by managers ("But hell," he said, "that's true of all of us, ain't it?"). I mentioned that many writers have been fascinated by the sweet science and had written some good books about it.

"I got one right here," he said as he reached into a stack of books beside his chair. "This one's pretty good. You can have it." He handed me a copy of Thomas Hauser's Black Lights.

I was happy with the gift, and I saw this as an opportunity to ask him if he'd read my new novel Purple Jesus.

He nodded. "In there." He wagged his thumb to point behind himself through the wall at what I supposed was his bedroom. Did this mean he'd read it, or simply that it was in there with others in big plastic trash bags alongside the knives, pistols, snake rattles, and liquor bottles sent by other beggars like me?

A woman, either his housekeeper or nurse, was tending him that day mostly by refilling his coffee cup. Each time Harry told her to microwave it to make it extra hot, she would look back with an expression that said he always made the same request as if she could forget. He winked a blue eye at me indicating that he delighted in their little annoyance game. Goat-getting seemed as second-nature to him as meeting his 500-word-per-diem goal. In the meantime we (mostly he, of course) talked about training hawks, his ex-wife ("a great woman, but she about killed both of us trying to put up with me"), and a near-fatal fight in which he was cut "from my chest to my pubes." One of the highlights of the day was his lifting his shirt to bare the scar on his paunch. "Gutted me like a fish."

In addition to the bourbon, I had brought along a copy of his last book, the novella An American Family: The Baby with the Curious Markings, which was published in 2006 and as gruesome as any of his other works. This rare book—only a small run by a very small press—is expensive; my copy had been given to me by a friend who'd been Harry's student many years ago and was embarrassed by the book's depravity. When I handed it to him, his face went blank. He studied the covers and turned a few pages before saying anything.

"I've never seen this." He's gone, I thought, total dementia. Then he continued. "Got Craig Graham out in California to publish this for me. See here?" He grinned and pointed to the title page. "Blood and Guts press. Sounds like a pretty good operation, doesn't it? But, yeah, I've never held a copy in my hands."

This seemed to me the most bizarre thing he'd said all day. "You should keep it, Harry."

"What the hell do I want with it? I wrote the damn thing, it got published. I got other things to write now."

I asked him to sign it, and he wrote, laughing as he did so, "For Ron Cooper—Thanks for an afternoon of bullshit!"

That seemed a fitting time for me to leave, and I said that I'd like to return soon and bring my sons to meet him.

"That'd be damn nice," he said. "Anytime. And one more thing. Don't let them get your balls down there at that college. I fought for 30 years at this university to save mine. You do your own thing. Hear?"

We didn't get around to opening that bourbon bottle, and I didn't get back to see Harry again before he died in March. I don't know about Mr. Death, but all people who have ever managed to wobble back to their feet and walk again after being beaten down time after time, has to love that blue-eyed boy.

Works by Crews Cited:

  • All We Need of Hell. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
  • Celebration. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
  • Classic Crews. New York: Touchstone, 1993.
  • Karate is a Thing of the Spirit. New York: Quill, 1983.
  • The Mulching of America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
  • Naked in Garden Hills. New York: William Morrow, 1969.

* * *

Current Reviews

Current Exclusives

Industrial Strength

Eric Miles WilliamsonA Night of the Longknives

By Eric Miles Williamson

What I've been hearing from literary types is a lot of whining. Literary authors published by small presses piss and moan about being underpublished (and we know who they are), victims of some vast…

Read More »