The meat of an outlaw

A new biography gets inside Harry Crews.

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It’s hard to love the South when you aren’t a racist, monogamist teetotaler ... or at least that’s what Harry Crews thought.  He was none of those things. What he was –– a drunk, womanizing, almost-Faulknerian author –– defines the complicated push-and-pull with the place he called home.

Blood, Bone, and Marrow, a new biography of Crews by Valdosta State journalism professor Ted Geltner, gets right to the meat of the man. Hailing from Alma, Georgia, Crews grew up the child of poor tenant farmers whose fate often came down to forces of nature, limited access to medical care, and family dysfunction. He struggled to survive.
Writing became a way for Crews to attempt exorcising his demons and process a complicated history. Largely self-taught, Crews punched, clawed, and drank his way to literary and academic success. He studied under Andrew Lytle, mentor of Flannery O’Connor, and eventually found a home at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida publishing many books that read like the most macabre kind of fisticuffs.
Like O’Connor, Crews fixated on outsiders –– circus freaks and midgets galore –– and often extreme ways of attaining individual faith in the face of bleak despair. As Erskine Caldwell wrote in Tobacco Road, “The Lord sends me every misery He can think of just to try my soul. He must be aiming to do something powerful big for me, because He sure tests me hard. I reckon He figures if I can put up with my own people I can stand to fight back at the devil.”
Crews eventually found himself a reluctant gonzo journalist in the style of Hunter S. Thompson and Gay Talese. Magazines like Playboy and Esquire sent him to do drugs and hang with prostitutes in Alaska and to profile wild personalities like David Duke, back when he was the young and dangerously charismatic leader of the KKK, and Charles Bronson, immigrant coal miner turned tough guy star of films like The Dirty Dozen and The Great Escape. While Crews’ subjects were edgy and often controversial, Crews and his dark, violent take on the world set his work apart from that of other new journalists. He always brought the lessons he learned in Bacon Co. with him when he wrote.
Folks in Bacon County may not be fond of their most famous resident, but Crews wasn’t too fond of them either. He explored the grotesque and took on the role of an outlaw in his fiction and personal life, but felt he never found a way to go back home. As a child, he says, “I got to the bottom of what it meant to be lost.” And maybe that’s just what his home was.
Thinking of home can drive a man to drink. The Wrecking Bar Brewpub will host the book launch party for Blood, Bone, and Marrow May 18 with a namesake cocktail and “country noir” tunes by Burnin’ Truck. Bestselling crime fiction author Michael Connelly, who wrote the foreword to the book, will join Geltner, and both will sign books. Both men were writing students of Crews.
Ted Geltner, Michael Connelly, and special guests. Free. 6-8 p.m. Wed., May 18. The Marianna at Wrecking Bar Brewpub, 292 Moreland Ave. N.E.