What The Hell Ever Happened To... Harry Crews?


Harry Crews is, was, and always will be a complete and utter badass.

I mean, just look at his face. Would you fuck with that guy? If you're even remotely considering the idea, I'd advise you continue reading.

Born in Bacon County, Georgia in 1935, this poor country boy lived through more shit by the age of seven than most of us experience in a lifetime. He was only twenty one months old when his father died of a heart attack, leaving his mother to raise the children and work the family farm. It was a burden she couldn't handle by herself, so she married her brother in-law out of necessity. In his essay, "Mama Pulled The Load Alone," Crews describes his stepfather as "...a man who might have been a good husband had he not been a brutal drunk." [1]

But that was the least of his worries. He had a hard enough time doing a little something called "staying alive." In the 2007 documentary, Survival Is Triumph Enough, Crews tells the story of how baby Harry popped lye like candy and had to be rushed to the doctor. On a horse-drawn cart. If he had swallowed the stuff, it would have killed him from the inside.

At the age of five he contracted polio, which caused the muscles in his legs to tighten, drawing his heels all the way back against his buttocks. He was bedridden for six weeks, and it took almost a year of dragging himself across the ground before he could walk again.* Shortly after regaining the use of his legs, Crews fell into a pot of scalding water used for hog butchering. From his autobiography, A Childhood (which is a MUST read): [1]

I reached over and touched my right hand with my left, 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. I could see my fingernails lying in the little puddle my flesh made on the ground in front of me.

He was once again confined to his bed. The pain was so great, he couldn't even cover himself with a sheet. The doctor said if his head had gone under, he would have been killed.

You'd think a person with his luck wouldn't be long for this world, but somehow Crews has managed to live an additional seventy years, all of them hard. He survived the Marines, the Korean War, a broken neck, two divorces (from the same woman), the drowning death of his four year old son, a lifetime of drug and alcohol addiction, a suicide attempt, and a knife fight that put him in the hospital for sixteen days and left him with a scar from stomach to sternum. (He was in his seventies at the time. I refer you to my opening sentence.)

And if you thought Crews was tough as nails in life, you'll find him harder than a railroad spike on the page. His unique brand of white-trash southern gothic focuses on the violent and grotesque, mining his own life for inspiration. He writes unflinchingly about religion and race, love and obsession, fucking and fighting. Many of his novels end in a grand guignol of blood and insanity. He was writing about "deviant" practices like ATM and amputee sex long before the internet made them available to every thirteen year old with a computer. He has written over twenty books, as well as countless essays and magazine articles, each one a cocktail of piss and vinegar and machismo that I like to call Vinepisschismo.

After all the livin' he's done (that's right, livin' with an apostrophe), Crews is certainly entitled to a break. But we're not going to let him have one. We the rabid fans want to know- what the hell has he been up to lately?

Well, for a man who at one point was publishing a novel a year, his output has definitely slowed. The last release we got from Crews was the novella, American Family: The Baby With The Curious Markings, in 2006. Before that was Celebration, way back in 1998. Aside from a handful of interviews he's given in the last few years, things in the Crews camp have been pretty quiet.

But those interviews contain some telling details. What we can take away from the unfiltered honesty of these exchanges is that Crews' slowdown can be attributed to his failing health and an increased dependence on prescription medication. From Survival Is Triumph Enough:

...back before I ran into that god damn drug, which I still take... took it this morning... man, my god damn feet, if they weren't on fire, they were frozen...

He gets more specific in an interview with Vice from around the same time period:

Morphine will fuck up whatever memory you may have left. I take it every four hours around the goddamned clock... I’m really ill. But I don’t want to talk about it much.

Unfortunately, it seems not much has changed since then. A person who has access to Crews, but wished to remain anonymous, recently corroborated this by email. I was told Crews' physical problems have not improved and that he is still taking the pain meds.

This doesn't come as much of a surprise. Crews has always been very open about his drug and alcohol use, and has gone on record as saying he was drunk every day for nearly thirty years of his life. In Survival Is Triumph Enough, he talks about yet another addiction he struggles with- orange soda:

...buy yourself one of these Mountain Dew things, orange things, called Live Wire? ...it's like blowing crystal meth up your nose, man, sends you to the fucking moon...

But it's not all bad news. In Survival Is Triumph Enough, Crews reads an excerpt from a novel in progress. In the Vice interview, we learn a bit more:

It’s called The Wrong Affair. I’m fairly confident that I’ll be able to finish this before I die. And that’ll be just wonderful. It will cap off the work I’ve done nicely. 

That was over three years ago, so I put out a call for new information. The aforementioned anonymous source had this to say:

He's written at least a few novels in the last 5 years or so that have been unpublished. Including the sequel to A Childhood which he's said he won't publish until he's dead.

This wasn't the guess-who's-got-a-new-book-coming-out-this-year news I was hoping for, so I decided to shelve this piece and wait for a more substantial update. Turns out, I didn't have to wait long. This past January, the Gainsville Sun reported that the winter edition of the Georgia Review would publish the first new writing from Crews since 2006- an excerpt of his unpublished memoir, Take 38, entitled "We Are All Of Us Passing Through." (I assume this is the long promised follow-up to A Childhood.)

In addition to that, an unknown film producer has purchased the rights to Crews' 1972 novel, Car, which is about a man who attempts to eat a Cadillac. There was talk of an adaptation back in the 70's, and Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda were considered for the lead, but the project never got off the ground. [2]

The only Crews novel to successfully make the transition from page to screen was The Hawk Is Dying, starring the lovely Paul Giamatti and the talented Michelle Williams.** And while Hawk wasn't a bad film, I feel Car has much more potential to bring souls to the altar of Crews. And if that film is a success, maybe Hollywood will grow a pair and let some fearless filmmaker tackle A Feast of Snakes.

But the most exciting thing about the Sun article is the announcement that the entirety of Crews' catalog may soon be available digitally, courtesy of the Devault-Graves Agency:

'Crews is the perfect candidate. Most of his books are out of print, and for his older titles, used copies can start at $50 and go up quickly on Amazon. Making them available to users of iPads, Kindles and other e-readers could introduce Crews to a new generation,' Graves said.

'Basically, we want to revive every single one of his works,' he said. 'Once these books are available as e-books, they are there forever.'

Though the deal must be finalized, Graves hopes to have all of Crews books available digitally by the end of 2012.[2]

For me, this is almost better than getting a new novel. There are still a handful of Crews' early books that I haven't been able to get my hands on, so this would be like getting that Baby Ruth for Christmas. For those of you who've already tracked down and read everything else, don't worry- he's still plugging away at that new book:

'The best book I got is half finished,' Crews said recently. 'It's called The Wrong Affair, and, it's a kick-a-- book.' [2]

And while it's been years and the book is still only half done, I'm confident we'll see it eventually. Crews has promised he won't stop writing until the day he dies, and I don't see that stubborn son of a bitch clocking out before his work is done.

In the meantime, you can check out this University of Georgia podcast, which contains audio selections from the Harry Crews Archive, and features Crews talking about his life, teaching creative writing, and interviewing fellow badass Charles Bronson.

[1] The Harry Crews Online Bibliography, Damon Sauve

[2] "The Wait For Harry Crews Is Over," Ted Geltner

* This most likely inspired the legless character in The Gypsy's Curse

**I'm still super pissed they didn't reprint the novel when the movie came out. That shit's impossible to find!

Joshua Chaplinsky

Column by Joshua Chaplinsky

Joshua Chaplinsky is the Managing Editor of LitReactor. He is the author of The Paradox Twins (CLASH Books), the story collection Whispers in the Ear of A Dreaming Ape, and the parody Kanye West—Reanimator. His short fiction has been published by Vice, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Thuglit, Severed Press, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, Broken River Books, and more. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @jaceycockrobin. More info at joshuachaplinsky.com and unravelingtheparadox.com.

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Daniel Basil's picture
Daniel Basil from Romania February 28, 2012 - 12:23pm

This is an impressive story. 

Ben666's picture
Ben666 from Montreal, Canada is reading Scar Tissue, by Marcus Sakey February 28, 2012 - 1:09pm

I have learned about Harry Crews last week, thanks to Frank Bill. Takes one badass to recognize another.

taralara's picture
taralara from Minneapolis is reading We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo February 28, 2012 - 1:47pm

I think I'm pretty unfamiliar with his work, so I'm really happy I came across this article. Anyone have any recommendations of where to start with him?

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine February 28, 2012 - 2:08pm

Feast of Snakes, definitely, and Classic Crews, which has his autobiography, A Childhood (handy link above).

PauletteLivers's picture
PauletteLivers February 28, 2012 - 3:44pm

For an interesting novel by one of Crews' proteges at U of Florida, read Sterling Watson's "The Calling." I had the privilege of being involved in that book's publication back at the old Peachtree Publishers in Atlanta.

Thanks for a great little update on Harry.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts February 28, 2012 - 7:29pm

If there's one literary hero I've had since high school, it's Harry Crews.

The news about Car, possibly my favorite, is amazing. The e-book thing, I've been praying for that since the moment I got an e-reader and was crushed to find none of his books were available. This made my day. This morning I had found that one of my copies of Classic Crews had water damage (along with Frank Bill's book I had on top of it,) so I went outside and broke a stack of dinner plates on the ground. I didn't feel any better, until now.

Daniel Brophy's picture
Daniel Brophy from Taunton, MA is reading The Power of One February 29, 2012 - 10:51am

Don't be mad, Mr Chaplinsky, but I just got Car from the library; it is awesome. A great column, sir. Thank you for reminding me about this criminally underrated author.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine February 29, 2012 - 11:29am

Haha, nice. I actually have Car- it's included in Classic Crews- but wish I had a cool old school copy.