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The Reading Life: The wisdom of Harry Crews

June 14, 2012 | 12:08 pm

HarrycrewsThis is part of the occasional series "The Reading Life" by book critic David L. Ulin.

In the latest issue of the literary quarterly New Letters, there's an interview from the early 1980s with Harry Crews.

Crews, who died in March at the age of 76, was a satirist, but, really, he was more than that: His novels emerge out of the dreamscape, offering bleakly funny, exaggerated portraits of America at the brink.

In his first, "The Gospel Singer," an itinerant preacher ends up in a Georgia town more grotesque than any in Flannery O'Connor's writing; "A Feast of Snakes" (1976) involves a rattlesnake roundup. My favorite is "Car," in which a man eats a full-size automobile, four ounces at a time.

The New Letters interview was conducted at a moment when Crews was on (or just coming off) the skids, at the tail end of a decades-long wrestling match with alcohol -- "I drank with two hands," he once said. "... I was drunk every day for 30 years" -- and unsure of what to do next. Nonetheless, he was feisty, not giving an inch.

Here he is on what it takes to be a writer:

One of the things that prevents people from becoming writers is the inability to look at their lives and look at what they believe. They can't look at themselves honestly and say, "Okay, that's how it is." Society makes it damn near necessary to disguise yourself. To appear "normal." To appear like everybody else. ... Whatever people think of me is fine. I made peace with that a long time ago, and realized that I'm not "gone" be like most people, not "gone" be what most people called decent. I'm not like most people, and I don't act like most people. I can live with that just fine and always have.

And here, on whether or not alcohol had finished him (clearly it hadn't, since he went on to publish five more books):

Wimps always think that things are destroyed. Wimps see a little blood and bone, and they think the game is over. They don't know you can go out and get taped up real good and shot up with a little dope and get back in and hit somebody. No ... I'm a long way from finished.

 Best of all are his thoughts on whether "all writers are congenital liars, as Faulkner said":

Oh, yes. I think the business of being a fabulist, that is to be involved with fabrication and making things up and living in the world of the imagination, all that spills over into lying even when you don't have to lie, just because you want to tell something that is memorable and compelling. In your own mind, this isn't what happened to me at Daytona Beach, but this is the way it should have happened. You tell it, and it's a great story. It's not true to the facts of the matter, but very true to the spirit of what happened -- truer in spirit than the facts are. When you give someone the spirit of the thing, that's better than the facts.

-- David L. Ulin

Photo: Harry Crews in 1998. Credit: The Gainesville (Fla.) Sun

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