Harry Crews: Freak Show Writer

A boyhood year spent paralyzed and getting scalded in a kettle of boiling water must do strange things to the mind. Harry must have considered himself a freak. In fact, he would devote his career to writing about freaks. Maybe you’ve heard of Harry Eugene Crews. He came into this world June 7, 1935 in Alma, Georgia and he left it March 28, 2012 in Gainesville, Florida. This son of an indigent sharecropper in Bacon County ascended to writer in residence at the University of Florida. That’s more than remarkable. Were Crews alive, he’d be approaching his 81st year.

I first heard of Crews when he was a mere 44 years old. I worked in film at South Carolina Wildlife back in the 1980s. A biologist and graduate of the University of Georgia was telling me about Car, Crews’s 1972 novel where the main character, Herman Mack, commences to eat an entire Ford Maverick, while sitting in a window for all to see. Mack did this for a year, a little bit of the Maverick each day. Yeah, Crews created freaks. In The Knockout Artist Eugene Biggs takes advantage of his vulnerable jaw to knock himself out for pay. How can you forget characters like these?

Crews’s memoir, Childhood: Biography Of A Place got to me bad, and I often read excerpts to my writing students. They marveled at his language and experiences. See what I mean. About being scalded, he wrote, “I reached over and touched my right hand with my left, and the whole thing came off like a wet glove. I mean the skin on the top of the wrist and the back of my hand, along with the fingernails, all just turned loose and slid down to the ground. I could see my fingernails lying in the little puddle my flesh made on the ground in front of me.”

Some people find beauty in strange places. Crews was such a person. “There is something beautiful about scars of whatever nature,” he wrote in his novel Scar Lover. “A scar means the hurt is over, the wound is closed and healed, done with.”

Like many an afflicted soul, he longed to become a writer from an early age. Life stocked him with great material. He and childhood playmate, Willalee Bookatee, made up stories about the photographs in the Sears, Roebuck catalogue. Crews remembers the catalogue and in a way the catalogue made him who he is. “In the minds of most people, the Sears, Roebuck catalogue is a kind of low joke associated with outhouses. God knows the catalogue sometimes ended up in the outhouse, but more often it did not. All the farmers, black and white, kept dried corncobs beside their double-seated thrones, and the cobs served the purpose for which they were put there with all possible efficiency and comfort.

The Sears, Roebuck catalogue was much better used as a Wish Book, which it was called by the people out in the country, who would never be able to order anything out of it, but could at their leisure spend hours dreaming over.”

Crews heaps praise on the catalog. “The federal government ought to strike a medal for the Sears, Roebuck Company for sending all those catalogues to farming families, for bringing all that color and all that mystery and all that beauty into the lives of country people.”

The models in the catalogue were nothing like the people he knew though. Crews said he first became fascinated with the Sears catalogue because all the people in its pages were perfect.

“Nearly everybody I knew had something missing, a finger cut off, a toe split, an ear half-chewed away, an eye clouded with blindness from a glancing fence staple. And if they didn’t have something missing, they were carrying scars from barbed wire, or knives, or fishhooks. But the people in the catalogue had no such hurts. They were not only whole, they had all their arms and legs and eyes on their unscarred bodies, but they were also beautiful. Their legs were straight and their heads were never bald and on their faces were looks of happiness, even joy, looks that I never saw much in the faces of people around me.”

“Young as I was, though” wrote Crews, “I had known for a long time that it was all a lie. I knew that under those fancy clothes there had to be scars, there had to be swellings and boils of one kind or another because there was no other way to live in the world … And it was out of this knowledge that I first began to make up stories about the people I found in the catalogue.”

He joined the US Marines during the Korean War when he was just seventeen. Afterwards he took advantage of the GI Bill to educate himself. He biked across America on a Triumph motorcycle, worked as a bartender, short order cook, and a carnival barker where life among the freaks left a lasting impression upon him. I can’t speak for you but I find the following passage from Harry Crews to be as full of humanity as anything I have read.

“I was especially fond of the Fat Lady and her friends there under the tent. I think I know why, and I know when I started loving freaks. I had been able to rent a place to sleep from a freak man and his freak wife and I woke up one morning looking at both of them where they stood at the other end of their trailer in the kitchen. They stood perfectly still in the dim, yellow light, their backs to each other. I could not see their faces but I was close enough to hear them clearly when they spoke.

‘What’s for supper, darling?’ he said.

‘Franks and beans with a nice little salad,’ she said.

“I have never stopped remembering that as wondrous and special as those two people were, they were only talking about and looking forward to and needing precisely what all the rest of us talk about and look forward to and need.”

Harry Crews … one of a kind. Every now and then someone will ask me “Would you like to sit down and talk with who’s has gone over to the other side?” Aside from the obvious people, I’d like to have coffee or a drink with Harry Crews. He was a person for whom the mold worked just once before it cracked, suffering irreparable damage. With his leer and menacing aura he was the real intimidator. Add to that foreboding the haunting tattoo he was famous for, a tattoo of a skull beneath which was a line from E.E. Cummings’ “Buffalo Bill.”

“How do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mr. Death?”

Surely Harry Eugene Crews had blue eyes, this writer who came from nowhere and went somewhere. Now he’s gone to that freak show in the sky, and I suspect Mr. Death is having a hard time handling this unforgettable Georgian.

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