GAINESVILLE — Author Harry Crews, a hell-raiser and cult favorite whose hard and crazy times inspired his extreme, but comic tales of the rural South, died Wednesday in Gainesville. He was 76 and had suffered from neuropathy, said his ex-wife, Sally Ellis Crews.
"He had been very ill," she told The Associated Press on Thursday. "In a way it was kind of a blessing. He was in a lot of pain." Thanks in part to motorcycle accidents and nerve damage in his feet, he had walked with a cane in recent years. But his career remained active. An excerpt from a forthcoming memoir had been published in the Georgia Review and there was talk of reissuing his books, many of them out of print, in digital editions.
He wasn't widely known, but those who knew him— whether personally or through his books — pledged eternal; devotion. A wild man and drunken sage in the tradition of Charles Bukowski and Hunter Thompson, he wrote bloodied, freakish stories drawn directly from his own experiences, including boxing and karate. Crews sported a tattoo with a line from an E.E. Cummings poem, "How do you like your blue-eyed boy Mister Death," on his right bicep under the tattoo of a skull.
"My nose has been broken I think six times," he said in an undated interview with the online magazine VICE.
"For a long time I never knew which side of my face it was gonna be on from year to year. But I liked boxing for a long, long time and I like karate and I like blood sports. I like a lot of things that are really not fashionable and really not very nice and which finally, if you've got any sense at all, you know, are totally indefensible. Anybody who is going to defend much of the way I've spent my life is mad."
Crews wrote 17 novels, including "Feast of Snakes" and "The Knockout Artist"; numerous short stories and novellas and the memoir "A Childhood." He also taught graduate and undergraduate fiction writing workshops at the University of Florida from 1968 until his retirement in 1997.
He liked to say that once he had written 500 words, he considered it a good day's work. In a 1992 interview with Tammy Lytal and Richard D. Russell at Memphis State University in Memphis, Tennessee, Crews said about writing, "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 was born June 7, 1935, in Bacon County, Georgia, the son of a sharecropper. His father died in his sleep before Harry was 2, a tragedy that would haunt him long after. In "A Childhood," published in 1995, Crews wrote about growing up in poverty and without books, except for the Bible. He remembered the shame of having to move around.
"Ever since I reached manhood, I have looked back upon that time when I was a boy and thought how marvelous beyond saying it must be to spend the first 10 or 15 years of your life in the same house — the home place — moving among the same furniture, seeing on the familiar walls the same pictures of blood kin," he wrote. "But because we were driven from pillar to post when I was a child, there is nowhere I can think of as the home place."
His childhood alone tested the imagination. His mother married his father's brother, a violent drunk. Crews suffered from infantile paralysis and once fell into a vat of boiling water, confining him to his bed for months. Still, he managed to become the first member of his family to graduate from high school, after which he joined the Marine Corps. In the book "Getting Naked with Harry Crews," he explained to interviewer Hank Nuwer that his military service was crucial.
"If I hadn't gone in the Marine Corps, I wouldn't be a professor in the university. I'd be in the state prison because I was a bad actor and a bad boy."
Crews also freely acknowledged his problems with alcohol.
"Alcohol whipped me. Alcohol and I had many marvelous times together. We laughed, we talked, we danced at the party; then one day I woke up and the band had gone home and I was lying in the broken glass with a shirt full of puke and I said, `Hey, man, the ball game's up,"' Crews once said in a profile written by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary T. Schmich.
He had dreamed of being a writer since childhood, when he would read through the Sears catalog. Thanks to the GI Bill, he attended the University of Florida and graduated in 1960. Crews wrote fiction throughout the decade and had four novels rejected before his first work of fiction, "The Gospel Singer," came out in 1968. Several more novels followed, including "Car" and "The Hawk is Dying," adapted into a 2006 film of the same name starring Paul Giamatti and Michelle Williams. From the start, he hauled Southern Gothic down back roads even Flannery O'Connor never traveled, like in "Karate is a Thing of the Spirit," which features female impersonators, gays making out on a Florida beach and a pregnant woman karate kicked in the belly as she's perched over a swimming pool.
"His stock in trade is the unexpected," John Deck wrote in The New York Times in 1971. "His humor produces something between a laugh and a gasp."
He found new admirers on thanks to his columns and essays for Playboy and Esquire in the 1970s and after. He wrote profiles on everyone from Charles Bronson to white supremacist David Duke and traveled to Alaska for Playboy, completing a 7,500 story about the impact of the energy pipeline on the city of Valdez. "Going Down in Valdez" concluded with a young prostitute receiving a butterfly-shaped tattoo, a scene he likened to Alaska itself.
"If Alaska is not our young whore, what is she?" he wrote. "If we scar her, leave her with pestilence and corrupted with infection, irrefutably marked with our own private design, who can blame us?"
Crews did not look or act like your typical college professor, shaving his head or wearing a Mohawk and making every literature lecture a performance. Other writers described him as "riveting," especially when he was talking about writing.
"A writer's job is to get naked, to hide nothing, to look away from nothing, to look at it," he wrote. "To not blink, to not be embarrassed by it or ashamed of it. Strip it down and let's get to where the blood is, where the bone is."
Erik Bledsoe, an English professor at the University of Tennessee and editor of "Getting Naked with Harry Crews," said, "His typical subject matter is a rough and violent world with characters, usually male, on some kind of self-imposed quest to make sense out of the world that does not make sense anymore."
"He is very much a cult figure," Bledsoe added. "There is no doubt in my mind that certain of his books will continue to be read."
Crews was married to Sally Ellis Crews twice; she has his power of attorney and said they remained "great friends" since their second divorce in 1972. The couple had two children: Patrick, who drowned as a child in 1964 and Byron, who lives in Ohio.
He did not want a funeral service or a viewing, said his ex-wife, who added that Crews wanted to be cremated.
The author thought often about death and how he would be remembered. In his memoir, he recalled hearing relatives in Bacon County tell stories about his father.
"Listening to them talk, I wondered what would give credibility to my own story, if, when my young son grows to manhood, he has to go looking for me in the mouths and memories of other people," he wrote. "Who would tell the stories? A few motorcycle riders, bartenders, editors, half-mad karateka, drunks, and writers.
"Even though I was gladdened listening to the stories of my daddy, an almost nauseous sadness settled in me, knowing I would leave no such life intact. Among the men with whom I spent my working life, university professors, there is not one friend of the sort I was listening to speak of my daddy there that day in the back of the store in Bacon County."