Harry Crews and 'getting naked'

One night in Atlanta, my telephone rang. It was the novelist Harry Crews. He'd gotten into an altercation with airport security. Could I come and fetch him?

Although Harry was a big, rugged ex-Marine who could hold his own with his fists, he was a mess when my friend Frazier and I collected him from the curb at Hartsfield International. His face was scratched, and his clothes were filthy. After he collapsed onto the back seat of my car, he said his problems had started a day or two earlier in New York, where he'd been researching a story for Esquire about homeless people living in the subway system. He'd been beaten up and robbed. He managed to get onto a flight out, but while awaiting his connection in Atlanta to his home in Gainesville, Fla., he'd run afoul of the authorities.

As battered as Harry was, a couple of tugs from the bottle of Jack Daniel's I'd brought along for medicinal purposes revived him, and as we drove through the concrete and glass canyons of downtown Atlanta, he grabbed Frazier and me by the scruffs of our necks and exclaimed in his gravelly, Southern drawl: "Men such as us should never die!"

When news came late last week that Harry was dead — he succumbed to neuropathy (damage to his peripheral nerves) at 76 — I thought back to that night. To say that Harry was prone to trouble is an understatement. He rarely backed down from a fight. He drank too much. He never met an attractive woman he didn't try to seduce. Strange and sometimes terrible things simply happened to him, but he would have had it no other way. Only by exposing himself to the entirety of life, Harry told me when I profiled him for the Atlanta Journal & Constitution Magazine in 1977, could he write honestly about the world. He called his philosophy "getting naked," and if it led him into some jams, it also helped him to produce works of fiction that could take your breath away.

That Harry lived as long as he did is a miracle. In fact, it is surprising he even made it to adulthood. As he related in his darkly beautiful memoir "A Childhood: The Biography of a Place," Harry grew up during the Depression in the most desperate and benighted circumstances. A son of Bacon County, Ga., hard by the Okefenokee Swamp, he was raised on a diet of biscuits made from lard and flour, and he ate clay to compensate for various mineral deficiencies. His father died when Harry was 2. At 5 he contracted polio. When he was 7, he fell into a vat of boiling water during a hog slaughtering and watched in horror as pieces of his skin sloughed onto the ground in wet, pink folds. From his earliest years he felt damaged and outcast.

Harry found salvation in storytelling starting in childhood. Later, thanks to the GI Bill, he went to the University of Florida, where he caught the attention of Andrew Lytle. Along with Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate, Lytle belonged to the Agrarians, Dixie's most influential politico-literary cabal, and he went on to teach a number of the region's great novelists, among them Flannery O'Connorand James Dickey. Lytle schooled Harry in the South's rich fiction-writing tradition, which while aesthetically bold was socially conservative. After initially embracing all of it, Harry rejected the underlying philosophy. When I interviewed Harry for the New York Times Book Review in 1978, he spoke of the Agrarians, telling me: "They all carried the vestiges of the Southern aristocracy, but I am the tenant farmer's son. I'm the one that they were running out to get the mule when they wanted to go somewhere."

In his 17 novels, Harry perfected a style at once primitive and surreal. Most of his books feature freaks. In "Naked in Garden Hills," the protagonist — known only as the Fat Man — gorges himself on gallons of the diet drink Metrecal. Foot, one of the main characters of "The Gospel Singer," is so named for his enormous right one. In "Car," there is Herman Mack, who eats and passes parts of an automobile each day in the lobby of a Jacksonville, Fla., hotel. The critic Jean Stafford termed Harry's fictional universe "a Hieronymus Bosch landscape in Dixie." By writing about people society called abnormal, Harry delivered a comic and devastating critique of what that same society called normal.

In his later work, Harry often seemed to be repeating himself, and after a while it grew tiresome. So, too, did the cult following he attracted. Some readers loved Harry as much for his antics as for the quality of his prose. Over the years, those antics became increasingly self-destructive. If you ran with Harry long enough, chances were good that you'd end up with broken bones and harrowing memories. After an evening that ended with the two of us sprawled in the lobby of an elegant Atlanta restaurant (I'm still not certain how we got out of there or avoided arrest), I gradually stopped seeing him. However, I never stopped admiring the best of his writing, both the fiction and the nonfiction. (Working chiefly for Esquire and Playboy, Harry produced several dozen superb magazine articles, many of which are anthologized in the collection "Blood and Grits.") I also admired Harry for something else. No matter how badly he abused himself, he always sobered up for the fiction-writing seminar he taught for three decades at the University of Florida. Many of the South's best contemporary novelists studied with him.

Several years ago, the Georgia Review published a lengthy excerpt from an unfinished second volume of Harry's memoirs that picks up where "The Biography of a Place" leaves off. At the time of his death, he was trying to complete this book. I dearly hope that he did. Harry was among the most original and challenging writers to come out of the South in the second half of the last century. Words such as his should never die.

Steve Oney is the author of "And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank."

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