Harry Crews is a novelist whose finest invention is called Harry Crews, or “I” for short. The novelist teaches at a university, revises his fiction tirelessly, knows his Goethe: a common or garden intellectual, member of the Florida subspecies. His creation, I, travels with sordid carnivals, adores motorbikes and lives on vodka, avoiding tranquillity like a plague of milk. I thrives on danger, I seeks out pain, and Harry Crews translates the feeling into words.
His last book, A Childhood, was sustained and unabashed autobiography. Blood and Grits, a collection of 17 articles written mostly for Esquire and Playboy, continues the portrait of a battered survivor, adding scars to a face already torn, adding feathers to a motley cap. Does he awaken trembling at the thought that some new, strange violence has escaped him, has left him innocent and clean? Tattooed in Alaska, mugged in California, imprisoned in Texas, injured and threatened throughout the South, Harry Crews rejoices that he has been through it all. If you haven’t been through some of it yourself, he’s liable to mock you.
“I suppose,” he happily confesses, “I have never been able to forgive myself the grotesqueries and aberrations I am able to hide with such impunity.” His writing is an act of laceration. Like so many American thinkers, Harry Crews is uneasy with comfort, appalled by suburbia, exhausted with ease. Blood, like liquor, is thicker than water and Crews
is drawn to blood. At moments of violence his prose becomes lyrical. He loves hawks because they don’t love him back; he admires good friends who “out of a great respect and mutual admiration often locked up toe to toe and beat each other severely.” It’s a dangerous game he’s playing; he would hate to die in his sleep.
Blood and Grits coheres far better than do most collections of journalism. Not that Crews deserves pure credit for this; his profiles of Charles Bronson and Robert Blake blend neatly with his description of an Alaskan boomtown only because all three pieces centre on the character of Harry Crews. Profane and sentimental, hard-living and softhearted, this character is in the best Hemingway tradition—talking loudly and pretending to carry a big stick. But real despair is never glamorous. When the myth of Hemingway finally caught up with a tired, white-bearded Ernest, he shot himself. Harry Crews’s beard is flecked with grey and a perilous myth is
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