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In which Netty tells you why you don’t know about Harry Crews (the author, not the band) and why you should …

July 17, 2013
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Meet your new favourite author …

Not to brag or anything, but I like to think that I know stuff. Cool stuff. Hip stuff. Awesome stuff. Stuff that other people don’t know. If they do know it, then I still knew it before them. In an alternative universe I might make a helluva futurist; in the present I will continue to tread that very fine line between buff and blowhard.

So it inevitably floors me when I discover that something has somehow, inexplicably, fallen through the cracks. And so it was one afternoon, sometime last year, when I was having a conversation with an obviously-far-hipper-than-myself colleague who was singing the praises of an American author by the name of Harry Crews. As I was drawing blanks, left, right and centre.

“Oh, c’mon,” he cajoled. “Kim Gordon was in a band named after him.”

It was at about that point that my head exploded. How could Kim Gordon – MY Kim Gordon, from MY all-time favourite band in the whole universe, Sonic Youth – be in a side band that had somehow escaped my attention???

Obviously-far-hipper-than-myself colleague 1, Netty -1,000,000 …

I scampered off shame-faced, tail between my legs, and did my homework. Kim Gordon was – albeit very, very briefly – in a band called Harry Crews, along with fellow post-punk luminary Lydia Lunch and some other chick called Sadie Mae. They released one album, Naked In Garden Hills – named, of course, after one of Crews’ novels – in 1989, then promptly disbanded. There’s a few songs on YouTube set against stills; no live footage of which to speak. If I was being kind, I would describe it as rudimentary; if I wasn’t, as fairly forgettable. And maybe that’s why it passed me by … yeah, I know – I’m clutching at straws here …

Fortunately, while the band named after him is far from essential, the author himself is most certainly not. Crews, who died last year at the age of 76, has 16 novels and a memoir to his name – his books aren’t that easy to source here, so once we (or, rather, I) ruled out A Feast Of Snakes (apparently one of his best-known books), we ended up settling on Classic Crews: A Harry Crews Reader. It contains the aforementioned memoir, A Childhood: The Biography Of A Place, plus two novels, The Gypsy’s Curse and Car, and three autobiographical essays.

After a bit of a misunderstanding (ahem, mine), when Andy and I had our regular pre-posting get-together, we ended up discussing only the memoir. As my blogging partner has done such a sterling job (and no, I am not sucking up to you, Andrew) dissecting that, I thought I would expound more on the other two novels and the essays. Or at least one of the novels and the essays (sadly, I am still yet to tackle The Gypsy’s Curse. But any day now …  *pumps fists in the air*).

A couple of months ago I wildly gushed over Ian McEwen, proclaiming him to be my new favourite author. Crews has since given him a stiff run for his money. In fact, if I read anything/anyone better this year, I’ll be a very happy girl indeedy. Crews is roughly in the same ballpark as writers such as Charles Bukowski, but without the name recognition and the notoriety. Born in Georgia, U.S. of A. In the mid-1930s, he mines the same territory as fellow southern authors William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner and Carson McCullers (see our ANRC archives for more details on all three). I dusted off a book I’ve got called Cult Fiction; sure enough, Crews is in there. Interestingly, its authors (Andrew Calcutt and Richard Shephard) sum up Crews thus: “At times Crews’s first-hand depictions of the south … bears an uncanny resemblance to the second-hand caricatures that are so often applied to those living below the Mason-Dixon line”. I’m still not sure if this is a cheap shot or a back-handed compliment.

It’s fortunate that Crews ended up writing anything at all. Born into a dirt-poor family of sharecroppers, his biological father dying when he was only a few months old and his alcoholic stepfather eventually being given the boot by his mother, Crews escaped the land as a teenager to join the Marines. After serving in the Korean War, he returned home and enrolled in university under the GI Bill, which provides benefits for ex-servicemen. Crews married young and had two sons (the death of his eldest boy Patrick, who drowned just shy of the age of four, is the subject of his very moving essay Fathers, Sons, Blood, included in Classic Crews). He balanced his life’s writing output with working as an educator, initially teaching English at junior high level, latterly at the University of Florida, where he was a creative writing faculty member.

Of course, his family background and the rich pickings of the deep south provided Crews with all the material he would ever need. Regardless of the true meaning behind Calcutt’s/Shephard’s assertion, Crews writes warmly and lovingly of the south and its people; he embues his characters – the freaks, the weirdos, the backwards folk – with real heart and soul. There’s grit and grunt aplenty, but there’s also real feeling. His writing is as measured and metronomic as a drummer’s backbeat; you get the sense that every word is carefully weighed and considered before being committed to print. Quite frankly, I was – and am – blown away by not only his words but his construction. I haven’t come across a writer who deserves a much, much wider audience in I don’t even remember how long.

Take Car – first published in 1972 and the final novel in Classic Crews – for example. Easton (Easy) Mack runs a successful carwrecker called Auto Town, for which his three children, daughter Junell and twin sons Mister and Herman also work. Herman, the “dreamer” of the family, decides one day he is going to eat a car “from bumper to bumper”. Yes, you read that correctly. A story like this could be simply played for schmucks in someone else’s hands. But Crews weaves a tale that’s astounding, jaw-dropping, as funny as fuck and also compassionate – he really gives a shit about these crazy, misfit characters of his. After all, they are his people. They are him.

Harry Crews the writer is absolutely awesome. Harry Crews the band, much, much, much less so (sorry Kim).

Go out and read everything he’s ever written, stat. I certainly am. And to the obviously-far-hipper-than-myself colleague, a very, very big thank you. I owe you big time!

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