Editor's picksThe Arts

The need for pain

blood-bone-and-marrow-book-coverA Review of “Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews”, by Ted Geltner (University of Georgia Press. 2016).

The writer Harry Crews is a legend—just not a very well known one. Which is a surprising turn for a novelist whose books were reviewed regularly in the New York Times, and whose nonfiction appeared with much fanfare in Esquire, Playboy and other major literary publications of the 1970s and 80s. At one point, he became Sean Penn and Madonna’s favorite writer, and musicians Kim Gordon and Lydia Lunch named their new band “Harry Crews.”

Today, four years after his death, most of his 15 novels are out of print, and—especially outside of the south—he’s been forgotten by much of the literary world. I don’t know if Ted Geltner’s new biography, “Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews”, is going to reignite interest in Crews, but for the dedicated cultists it is necessary reading.

Crews’s writing took Southern Gothic and turned it into darkly comic grotesque that seemed, despite its excesses, like documentation of a world existing just beyond the reaches of straight society. Typically based in rural Georgia or Florida, his novels exposed a mean underbelly that never allowed the reader (or the writer) to feel superior or above these often destitute and vicious characters. This was humanity and that included me and you.

Geltner’s biography begins in Bacon County, Georgia, where Harry grows up in extreme poverty and misery in the 1930s. Polio paralyzes him for awhile and his recovery is followed by an event so terrible I pause to give you time to prepare: at age 5, Crews was thrown, unintentionally, into a vat of boiling water and cooking pig. He’s pulled from the vat and the crowd stands in horror as flesh and fingernails fall from his body. The fact that he somehow lived–and somehow lived through the pain of recovery—let’s you know that Harry Crews was a bad-ass. It’s also not the worst thing that ever happened to him.

The scars of his youth are not merely physical; the abuses, often inflicted by his older brother, are many and the poverty is its own form of abuse, and Geltner documents all of it. His work is aided by one of the most extraordinary autobiographies in literature. Crews wrote “A Childhood: The Biography of a Place in 1978”, and the memoir is an account of his life up to the age of six. It’s a remarkable work of memory and self-exploration that provides detail and visceral fact to Flannery O’Connor’s oft-quoted line, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

Crews is certainly haunted by his childhood, which includes lifelong uncertainty about who his actual father might have been. His life is a constant bubbling of the bottle that often left him unable to write (he has a nine-year period without a new novel), but the more remarkable achievement is that he was able to pretty much keep on working through days that might include “three quarts of vodka, a case and a half of beer, and a few bottles of wine.” Crews’s drunken nights often ended in violence. Geltner finds that Harry liked to fight, or needed to fight, but he never, in all accounts of his actions, actually won a fight. Crews was regularly a walking bruise—a limping, bleeding vision of a hard-lived life, and Geltner tries to understand a man who seemed to need physical pain to match the turmoil of his emotional inner life.

And somehow 15 novels are created. Crews also spent 25 years as a teacher of creative writing at the University of Florida. The classes are legendary, and Geltner interviews the many writers and students who found Crews a generous and intense reader of their work. Of course, Crews crossed all the boundaries of proper student-teacher relationship, for which many aspiring writers were quite grateful.
And many were not. For much of the book, Geltner avoids talking about the effects of Crews’ behavior on the women around him. Geltner also avoids directly addressing the racism of Crews’ early mentor, Fugitive Poet and Agrarian Andrew Lytle. But eventually Geltner does take time to interview some female students who were damaged by Crews, and we all have to wonder why the University never stepped in to protect students. To be sure, Crews was no racist, and he has no real explanation for why the “virus” of racism so prevalent in his upbringing never infected him. His journalistic expose of KKK leader David Duke would be good reading for our current candidate for the highest office.

“Blood, Bone and Marrow” also provides an excellent overview of each novel and the details of how each was created despite the swirling squalor is informative for any writer. Undoubtedly, writing, the absolute need to write, kept Harry Crews alive. I recommend “A Feast of Snakes” as a starting point for anyone interested in checking out the fiction of Harry Crews, but “A Childhood” is the most remarkable achievement of his life. One critic has said of it: “you can’t understand Southern literature without reading A Childhood.”