guest post by Henry L. Carrigan Jr.
It is somehow fitting that Harry Crews and Earl Scruggs died on the same day, March 28, 2012. While the pugnacious and audacious Southern novelist and the lightning-fast and inventive banjo player lived worlds apart, each had a deep affinity for looking at the world with all its blemishes, seeing through the masks behind which most people hide, and using humor, however sarcastic, to reveal the truth beneath the lies we tell ourselves. We’ll miss each of these great artists, but Harry Crews’ death brings almost to a standstill the Southern Gothic tradition that started gathering steam when the Dixie Limited, William Faulkner, started rolling down the tracks, picking up Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Larry Brown, James Dickey, Barry Hannah and Cormac McCarthy along the way. Crews was one of the last of a tradition. Thankfully, there has been some talk of reprinting his novels and publishing the memoir on which he was working before he died.
Flannery O’Connor once wrote that when you have to assume your audience does not know what you’re talking about, “then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind, you draw large and startling figures.” Crews, the pugilist whose many novels feature characters trying to make their way in a South much changed from O’Connor’s, follows O’Connor’s dictum. He depicts freakishly grotesque men and women caught in a world where old values have been replaced by new ones, country replaced by city, and where the struggle to know and to hold onto the truth is a violent one. Midgets, deformed individuals and scarred men and women stand at the center of Crews’ novels not only because Crews himself bore the scars of an early bout with polio, burns over two-thirds of his body after being scalded from falling into a vat of boiling water at age six, and broken bones from his many bouts in the boxing ring, but also because, as he wrote in his novel Scar Lover, “a scar means the hurt is over, the wound is closed and healed, done with.”
Pick up any of Crews’ novels, from his first, the widely acclaimed The Gospel Singer, to his later novels, such as his less widely praised Celebration, and you’ll find a writer baring his soul and trying to get readers to search their own hearts. He once said that if he had done his job right when he was writing, he would “really get you turned back on yourself, and on your own code of ethics or morality or vision of the world or sense of self or whatever. If I get you turned back on yourself, then I done my job. I’ve done what I set out to do.”
Crews always declared that no matter how hard writing was for him—writing 500 words a day was a successful day for him, he once wrote—it was a way of understanding himself. In his most famous piece of advice to writers, Crews delivered advice borne out of his own practice and declared, “If you’re gonna write, for God in heaven’s sake, try to get naked. Try to write the truth. Try to get underneath all the sham, all the excuses, all the lies that you’ve been told.”
Crews wrote to understand himself and the world, and he had little patience for the business of publishing. In a remark that all book publishers should have framed on their doorposts, he once announced, “If the shoe business were handled like the publishing business, we’d all be barefoot.”
Harry Crews’ novels might sometimes be hard to read because they’re filled with violence, blood sport and grotesque characters, but they shout out, “Pick me up and read me,” for they drive us to confront our often grotesque sense of self, the lies we tell ourselves to protect ourselves from harsh truths and the destruction of our society and the world around us under the banner of illusory values. And, man, do we need Harry Crews and his novels more now than ever.
Henry L. Carrigan Jr. is a regular reviewer for BookPage.