A Large & Startling Figure
The Harry Crews Online Bibliography
Stories Told in Blood
Listening to Harry Crews
By Jim Knipfel
All I knew about Harry Crews, before I picked up the phone and dialed his number was what I had read in his booksand I'd read all of them. I'd never read any other interviews with him. I'd never seen any of his talk show appearances. I'd never seen either of the documentaries which were made about him. I gleaned scraps of his biography from his essays and a 1978 memoir, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place.
Other people I know who have talked to him in the past offered up warnings. "It's always dangerous to talk to a writer you admire," they told me. "They'll always let you down."
But Harry Crews didn't let me down. Not in the slightest. Harry Crews is, as my dad would say, really something.
Crews is one of those rare typesyou can tell everything about him, and nothing about him, by looking at the author photos on his book jackets. Over the past 30 years since his first novel, The Gospel Singer, was published, he'sor at least his author photos havebeen all over the board. Greaser, mowhawk, buzzcut, tattoos, shades, scowl, mustache, squint. Over the past 30 years or so, that face of his has changed considerably. So has he.
His latest novel, Celebration (his 20th book by my count), tells the ugly and convoluted tale of Stump, a malformed drunkard who runs Forever and Forever, a trailer park retirement communityand how everything goes all catywhompus on him when Too Much, an 18 year-old trollop, wanders onto the scene.
Celebration contains all the hallmarks of a Crews novela dark sense of humor, a deformed main character, bizarre plot twists, a Florida setting, a panorama of strange characters, twisted sex and an unexpected ending which . . . well, an unexpected ending, we'll leave it at that.
I'd been trying to get in touch with him for over a month before things finally worked out.
Schedules, Telephones and Autographs
"Good afternoon, Harry Crews." he half-barked, half-happily growled when he picked up the phone after the fifth ring. He sounded exactly like Harry Crews should soundthe gruff drawl of a man who's seem quite a bit in his day, and who's spent the past three decades telling stories about what he's seen.
"How're you doin' today, sir?"
"Wellll . . . I hurt.."
"Oh. I'm sorry. What's wrong?'
"Oh, nothin', nothin' . . . I was up at four, and wrote till eight and then it was off to the gym. The calendar says I'm 62, but my mind tells me I'm 20, and we gotta work that out one of these days, or I'm gonna kill myself."
"Sounds like you're working it out already."
"Yeah . . . yeah . . . "
"I'm amazed that you're still in the phone book."
"Well, my number is, but my address is not. It looks like I may have to take that out, soon, too. It's annoyingbut people that wanna do business with me out in California, sometimes I know 'em, sometimes I don't. If I know 'em they got my number and if I don't, they don't have it and maybe they can't get it, so anyway . . . I don't know how in the world people get my address, but the biggest aggravation I've had in the past year, year and a half, is that people send me things. Boxes of books, or maybe just one book, and all they want is for me to sign it and send it back to 'em, and, y'know, I understand that. I've never done that myself. I've had writers I would've liked to've done it to, but there's just somethin' about me, I wouldn't do it. Anyway, if those people only knew that if one person in 50 cities decided to do that on the same damn day, I'd be swamped. Takes a lot of time, too."
"I can imaginegetting those things back in the mail, and all. So I was wonderingand you sort of answered this alreadywhat's your daily work schedule like? I was told you wouldn't talk to anybody before two."
"Yeah, well . . . I decided a long time agovery long time agothat getting up at four o'clock to start work works best for me. I like that. Some people don't like to get up in the morning. I like to get up in the morning. And there's no place to go at four o'clock in the morning, and nobody's gonna call you, and you can't call anybody. Back when I was a drunk, at least in this little town, there's no place to go buy anything to drink. So it was just me and the writing board.
"So, I write until eight or eight-thirty, then I go over to the gym and work out on the weights for a couple hours, then I go to the karate dojo and, as a rule, spar with a guy who consistently whups my ass. It's point karatewe're not going full force, we don't wear pads on out feet and hands, buteven thenwhen you're just touching a guy, and you think a guy's gonna move one way and you kick, and he doesn't move that way, he moves the other way, he moves right into your kick, you can get hurt. Well, not hurt bad, as a rule. Maybe bloody a nose or something like that. But you can end up pretty sore.
"Then I come home, eat a light lunch, then just go straight back to the thing. I might work till three o'clock . . . there comes a time of diminishing returns. You're just jerking yourself off thinking you're doing some good work, then you go back to it the next day and you think, 'Oh, my God,' and you have to throw away two or three pages. But the way I do itI don't believe I've ever heard of anyone doin' it quite this way.
"I write on a great big square board. sit in a big overstuffed chair with this board on my lap, put a legal pad on top of that and write long hand. After that's done, at some point I run it through a typewriter that's older than I ambut it's a beautiful machine, great action, huge keys, I love itand then when I get through with that, I put it through the computer to revise, which is the only thing . . . I dunno . . . the only thing a computer is good for is to revise. Because, as you very well know, none of us need to go faster, we all need to go slower. I first among them.
"But the computer is a godsend for revisions. I don't quite understand how we did it before we had the computer. I seem to remember a lot of tape and scissors."
I told him a quick story about the newspaper I used to work at, where we did, indeed, use, if not scissors and tape, at least knives and glue. We talked a bit about newspaper production before I finally got around to asking him my first real question.
Explosions, Obscenities and Agendas
"There was something which, for a long time, to me at least, almost became almost a Harry Crews motifthat is, at the end of the book, you blew everybody up."
"Body was the last novel in which that's happened. What was going on with that? Were you just bored with everybody at that point?"
"No, no, no . . . " he said, sounding both a little saddened and a little annoyed. "I hope I wasn't getting bored. I hope I did it with a . . . " He sighed heavily. "Some consideration and concern for the shape and the form of the book. Yeah, you take Body. Nails pulls the pin of that grenade and drops it down behind that guy's belt. That's a pretty bad way to go. And the girl's already cut her wrists, so . . . Reviewersthose kind enough to review metook notice of it rather strongly. I wrote a book called All We Need of Hell. At the end of the book, the guy says to his wifethey've been at odds with each otherhe says, 'Why don't we just go off somewhere and see if we can do something with this?' She says something to the effect of 'Do you think we can?' And he says, 'Well, I dunno, but we're gonna try.' And that's the end of that.
"Well, people said, 'My God, Crews has had a conversion here.' But it seemed to me that that was where that novel wanted to go, and wanted to be. It's always seemed to me that if you're writing a novelI say 'you,' but I always mean myself. I dunno what other writers do, and I don't know what they ought to do, and God knows I wouldn't tell 'em if I thought I didif you want to know what comes nextyou come half way down the page and the rest of it's blank, you got a fill that up, and you're stuck, you don't know quite what's comin' next, the thing to do is to go back four or five pages, two or three chapters, then read back up to that place. Where you have been will tell you where you need to go. That's pretty much true of the lives we live, for that matter."
I told him that reading Celebration was like thatit's a book full of peculiar twists and turns, with a very surreal ending. But once you reach the end, and think back on the book, each one of those peculiarities, each strange plot twist, makes absolutely perfect sense.
"You're very kind to say so. See . . . there have been books, and that's one of them, whichCar is another. If I disliked cars less, Car would've been a better book. I like Car, and I'm not ashamed to have it. but . . . I dislike cars immensely. I didn't learn how to drive till I was 21. I grew up on a tenant farm in south Georgia. We didn't have anything with a motor in it. When I was in the Marine Corps, I coulda gotten one of my buddies to teach me how to drive, but when you're in the Marine Corps, you don't turn to your buddy and say 'hey, teach me how to drive a car.' You're ashamed to. More mature men wouldn't be ashamed to, but a boy would.
"Cars make no sense to me. There's a line I wrote in an essay: "What kind of sense does it make for a 113 pound housewife to get in a 5,000 pound machine to drive three blocks for a 13-ounce loaf of bread?'"
"I just re-read that essay this morning, as a matter of fact," I interrupted. I had, tooit's in the introduction to the Classic Crews anthology.
"That kind of thing, where they changed the damnedestwell, you know all that, so I won't go into it. Now, back to Celebration. The three most obscene words in our culture are 'fat'you're not allowed to be fat. Most people don't make fun of fat people right to their faces, but still. Another one, obviously, is 'old.' Hell, when I grew up in south Georgia, all the old people were at home. I learned my dialect at the knee of my grandaddy, and the stories he told. An old guy, and old woman, it doesn't matter if they've been to school or not. If they live to be 65, 75, 90 years old, they have seen all the ways that they can do. They've been around so many blocks, and they tell you stories about things. Knowledge turns to wisdomto use some fancy kinda phrase that I don't too much care for, but anyway, I've said it and I'll stick with it. The other word's gotta be 'race.' If you are white and Protestanta WASPyou're cool. But if you happen to have a little Latin in you, and your skin's a little dark, you're in trouble. Hair's a little different or whatever. That stuff upsets me, and if something upsets me strongly enough, then I'm afraidI hate to say this about myself, but I will, because it's trueI'm afraid I have an agenda when I start to write a novel. And nothing kills a piece of fiction like an agenda. I mean, all fiction is about the same thingit's about people doing the best they can with what they got to do with. Sometimes with mercy, sometimes not. Sometimes with compassion, sometimes not. Honor, sometimes not. And so on.
"When you get into the areaweak wordbut you get into the area of ideas, well then you're just asking for trouble. You stay with people. Yeah, people have ideas, but they don't act on them much. If everybody acted on what they knew in their hearts, we wouldn't have the fucked-up world we got, or it wouldn't be as messed up as it is. I'm sounding like a preacher. I don't think of myself like a preacherI think of myself as a fiction writer, writing about folks. That's the way it is."
"There has been, since the beginning, since The Gospel Singer, in my work, an element I don't quite understand, and I don't know quite where it came from. First of allthis is not what I was talking about, but first of allthere are places in any number of my books that are actually funny. I myself, I don't read my books, but sometimes I'll take one down and read when I'm really doin' bad and I think, 'God, it's all over, you'll never write another book,' I'd go and get a book and turn to some place I know is pretty good and I read it, and I'll laugh my damn self. I'm not a funny person. If you knew me, you'd know, People don't laugh around me, and I laugh precious little myself. So there's the humor. But over and above that, it's much stronger.
"I mean, first the reviewers got on the freak business, then they got on the gothic business. Then they began to use the word 'satirist.' Now, I never thought of myself as a satirist, but I guess, damn, I guess that's as close to what I do as anything else, is satirize things. The reason I dislike it so much is, y'know, I just want to be a novelist. And I'll tell you something else. I'm old enough now . . . i thought, back 30 years ago when I startedwell, I didn't start 30 years ago, but that's when The Gospel Singer came out, 30 years ago this yearand I thought I was gonna be better than I am. I mean, I'm all right, and I'm not whining, but I thought I was going to be better than I am. I was thinking about thisthinking about it a lot, more than I shouldbut two or three days ago, I thought to myself, 'Well, y'know, I wouldn't be surprised if the very best novelists don't think that. At least sometimes.' I always think of that thing Faulkner saidwell, I think of a lot of things that Faulkner saidbut he said, 'We all start as poets, find that too difficult and go to short stories, find that too difficult and go to the easiest of all forms, the novel.' It's the easiest because it'll tolerate more errors and false moves without the reader stopping and putting it down and making a sandwich and forgetting about it."
"Something I was wondering about," I asked him. "Something that's sort of come up here a couple of times. Do you read your reviews? And how do you respond to them? I mean, some people ignore them, others take them with a grain of salt, others write long, nasty letters in response"
"Well . . . when I started outin publishing, that isI wanted to know what people were sayin' and thinkin'. Nobody said much of anything about The Gospel Singer. But good God, after that Naked in Garden Hills was incredibleit didn't do anything, but Jean Stafford wrote a half a page in the New York Times and Guy Davenport wrote a long thing in Look magazine, and there was a long thing in Harper'sit was really well-received. And thatI confess I read those reviews. But then I wrote the third book, This Thing Don't Lead to Heaven, and it just got killed everywhere. James Boatwright, who wasstill is, I guessthe editor of The Shenandoah Review, reviewed it in the New York Times. Long review. Uniformly from start to finish bad. And a halfway through it, he just stopped talking about the book and got on me. He wasn't just unhappy I wrote the book, he was unhappy I was alive.
"But it's all right, it's cool. Then, when I was working on the fourth book, still smarting from the third, reading those reviews, I thought, 'Well, if you go read these damn reviews and you're gonna believe 'em when they say good things about youthey say he's got great potential, great promise and all thatyou're gonna believe that. But when they come back and say you're a dog, you've gotta believe that. It's only fair. You can't have it both ways.' And that is about where I said to myselfif my editor, my agent, whoever, sends me these reviews, I keep 'em, but no. No, I don't read them. No, I don't."
The Freaks I Never Asked About
"There are a lot of questions that I'm asked that I can't answerTake this one thing. You haven't asked it, you've been kind enough not too, but most people get on it right to start withthe business with freaks, which I . . . well, I don't use that word. I might use it in a book if it's dialogue or whatever. I have just always thought that, for me anyway, that I could say more about what was right, or normal, or acceptable or humanthat's a better word, 'human'and about the people we normally associate with and see by writing about people who were physically, mentally or spiritually deformed, somehow. And it seems to be a perfectly legitimate way to think. I mean, after all, a simile or a metaphor, you're telling somebody what one thing by telling them what somethin' else is. And so I don't get it, why everybody gets so excited aboutI mean, they get pissed off and stay pissed off, because of the freaks in my books."
We talked for a bit about various carnival experiences we've had, and about Biphetyamine 20. By this time, I was under the impression that he was almost working from a script, that he had answered all these questions so many times, that he didn't really need me there to ask them again. But I didn't care about that. I'd never heard these answers before, they were new to me, and I was just happy to be listening.
Drinking and Not Drinking
"You're still teaching at the University?"
"NoI haven't taught at the University, sir, since about . . . oh, it's gotta be about eight years I guess."
"They're still putting that in the little bios on the backs of your books."
"You know what, I just figure I should change it. And they asked mewhen I was at Knopf, a guy asked medid I want to write the copy that was on the jacket and all that stuff. I said no, my job begins with the first line of prose inside and ends with the last line. The rest of that stuff, I don't want to know about. My editorhe's over at the New Yorker now, but he was running Knopf at that time. He was Updike's editor. He said Updike designed his own covers. But Updike studied art an' stuff, so I guess he likes to do that. Nothing against the guy, if he wants to do it, fine. I don't wanna do itI'd be embarrassed. Because, y'know, they always write this super-great stuff. even if the book's not very good, they still write it."
"I actually know a fellow once who says that he was in one of your classes for three days."
"Then what, he ran screaming?"
"Yeah, pretty much. I had to explain to him who you werehe had no idea. To him, he was just in this class with this crazy drunk."
"Yeah, I . . . uhh.."
"You stopped drinking."
"Yeah. The only way I did it, though, and have done it, and the only thing that keeps me soberI have been in, what, one-two-threeI've been in three drunk rehabs. They keep us for 28 days, it's a locked ward, we do all these things. Didn't help me a damn bit. I tried to go to those meetings, but they just depressed the shit out of me. If you've heard one story about pissin' in an ice box when you're drunk, you've heard 'em all.
"Only thing that worked for me, take one every morning, got it right by my toothbrush. I take 650 mgs. of Anabuse."
"Anabuse!" That caught me by surprise.
"You can't even prescribe that stuff in West Virginia, Virginia, a few other states. People died on this shit. One shot of alcohol, you won't even be able to talk when you get to the emergency room. So, but . . . so far as I know, I'm not suicidal. But there are a lot of things you've got to really be careful about. All kinds of that stuff you put on saladssalad dressingthere's desserts that they pour a thing of brandy over before they bring it to you. You have to check all that stuff, man. Alsonow, this doesn't affect me, I've tried it and it doesn'tbut you're not supposed to use any after-shave that's got alcohol in it. It's pretty potent stuff.
"I wrote, somewhere, that the hardest job I ever had was being a drunk. I was a drunk for a long time. Ain't no other way to say it; I don't like 'alcoholic,' I like 'drunk,' because it sounds more like what it is."
"It's like that old Jackie Gleason joke," I offered, glad to be able to tell it to someone who would understand. "Alcoholics got to meetings." Harry Crews laughed hard at that one, hard for a man who rately laughs, and it sounded good to hear him laugh.
"Yeah," he went on, "Jackie said that he drank for the ancient and honorable reason of getting totally schnokered. That's the way I am. I mean, if you've never seen an Indian drink, well, then, you oughta watch me. I'd just pour it down. That's just the way it's been. But you know, I didn't start drinking till I was 30 years old. I didn't drink all the way through the Marine Corps. But when I started, well by God, y'know, I think I'd been an alcoholic all that time and didn't know it. I drank with both hands.
"Finally, I had a choice. I had a choice. I guess I'd still be alive, but . . . I had a choice. I could write, or I could drink. But I couldn't do both. I'm not the kind of guy who will get drunk today, this evening, and get up in the morning and sober up. I'd get up in the morning lookin' for a drink. And I'll do that, until I'm either in the hospital, or jail, or locked up somewhere."
"But you must've been both drinking and writing for a long time, though," I suggested. It's a complaint I hear from old, hard-core fansthat once he stopped drinking, his writing started to slip. I wasn't going to suggest that to him.
"Well, now, there's another thing. I think one of the reasons I becameand I've been sober now, God, for about 10 years"
"Since about the time of All We Need of Hell."
"Yeah, that's right. I think the reason I became the kind of drunk I was is that I never had hangovers. I don't know what these guys were talking about, how they had headaches or were sick at their stomachs or were throwin' up. I never had any of that. I started drinking about 30, and it didn't turn bad on me, against me, until I was about 46, 47, maybe? And when it turned, it turned like a vicious dog, manhell, I just couldn't drink. Nobody wanted to be around me and everything went to hell. I have to say, though, that if somebody had told me that I could've got it back together the way I did, I would've said no way. I live in a nice housewell, I mean, it's nice to mewhen you grow up in a tenant farmhouse, anything's nice. But it's in the woods and it's on a little creek, and I got myself a dog and everything's kinda cool."
"And so, I don't knowI have said before, that I've got two strong suits, and I think they both came from Graham Greene, from whom I learned more than I learned from any other writer, and to whom I'm most indebted. Dead now, God bless him. He never learned to type. All that stuff he did, he wrote by hand. But anyway, I got two strong suits, and their Greene's really. One of 'em is the narrative line. It's a good, strongI'm gonna say this even though it's my stuff and y'ain't s'posed to say stuff like this about your own work, butit's a good, strong, clean narrative line, as a rule. And dialogue. If you took those two things away from me, I'd have to write essays or something."
"But you do write one damn good essay."
"I tell yaI've got a book I'm working on now, which I am obligated to Simon & Schuster for. Then I've got another book, which is called Assault of Memory, and it is a memoir after the fashion of the childhood book. But it's later. My brother and I are older, and my mother, God love her, she lived to be 83, but at that particular time, I was 10 years old, my brother was 14 years old and she had to be in a body cast, man, from just above her breasts to just above her knees. That was back when body casts were like steel. Things were rough. I had to go live one place, he had to go live another place. I'll be writing that book, and again, I'll be obligated to Simon & Schuster for it. After that, I think I'm gonna take a year minimum and maybe two years off and write some short stories, which I have wanted to do for a long time. I just haven't done it, because there are so damn few places to put a short story. If you look in collections of short stories, hell, you look in the front of the book to see where those stories are published, they're all published in these little magazines that maybe 200 people read.
"So I haven't done that, primarily for that reason. Maybe there are some writers who don't, but this particular writer lusts after audience. I haven't really had much of an audience over these past 30 years. I mean my books just don't sell. I mean, they sell well enough for publishers to publish them, but they don't . . . If you look at the printings, you'll see that they just don't print very many copies. Maybe in paperback, a few more people read 'em.
"There's only two kinds of people where my work is concerned: the people who really, really, really like me, and the people who really, really thinknot only do they hate the work, but they think I'm a fraud. Just not a very good writer. And some of them are other writers who are my friends. Hey, if you don't think a guy is good, hell, it's just an honest opinion, and you can't get pissed off at a guy just because he don't think you're a marvel.
"No, writing, for meGod knows what I would've done if I didn't have it. It's kept me alive and it's kept me feeling good when nothing else could. At least I had that to go back to."
I looked down at the two sheets of paper in front of me. I had a bunch of questions written down, but I never got to ask themwhich is cool, because he answered them anyway. I had a bunch of quotes written down, that I planned to sprinkle through the text of the story, but I never got a chance to use themwhich is cool, because in the process of talking to him, he cited those same quotes, and quoted them word for word.
There were a few stray questions leftover, though. But by this time, we'd been talking over an hour. I didn't want to be a pest.
"Let me ask you one last thing" I started to say.
"Oh, you go ahead an' ask me whatever you want to ask me. Don't feel hurried or rushed or nothin'. I mean, you do what you want to do. This long life can be so incredibly short, that this might be the only time I ever get a chance to talk to you. You've been around a few blocks, I like that. You'd be surprised that some of these guys that wanna call me from journals or newspapers or magazines, or somethin' the way they soundthey sound like English teachers or somethin'."
"Nossir, I've never been one of those," I confessed.
"Good for you," he said, "Ain't worth a damn thing."
"Well, one of my favorite of your essays was 'Climbing the Tower,' which was just remarkable. Just this morning I read this essay of yours where you wrote that nobody understood what 'Climbing the Tower' was all about. I looked down at the question I had written a week ago, and felt like a fool."
"Is that where I said that the editors of Esquire didn't get it, either?"
"That sometimes happens. I didn't do what I thought I was doin'. The essay happened just about the way I got it written down. I did have a little piece out of the paper about me being banned in South Africa by the directorate of publications, which I found extraordinary. I mean, here's way the hell yonder and gone, and a government I certainly didn't admire, and I was banned. Like I said, I was feeling . . . well . . . I'd been drinking before I ever got there, and in those days, when I went to a university or somebody invited me to come, man, as soon as I stepped off the plane, somebody was handing me a drink. The name of the game was 'let's get Crews as drunk as he can get and let's see what kind of fool he'll make out of himself, or what sort of unconscionable behavior he'll get himself into.' So I'd been drinkin' and that's why I was feeling contiguous . . . like smoke or something. But I wasn't aware when I was going there to Austin that that was that damned tower that Charles Whitman got up on with that footlocker full of stuffhis M-1 rifle I think he had, whatever else he had. And I didn't find that out until I was walking across campus with this professor, and he just, out of left field, said 'here's where they started dropping.' And, well, I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. Then I thought, 'oh my God' and I looked up at that damn tower and I remembered it all. Then later that night, for reasons which I'll never know, I went back out there to that damn tower. I would've climbed to the top of that sonofabitch, but it was locked. I don't know why I would've done that. Maybe it was the drinking and maybe it was something else. But as I remember itmemory is notoriously fallaciousas I remember it, I was pretty clear in my thinking. I mean, yeah, I'd been drinking pretty heavy. Look, it's obvious that my job, or anybody that does the kind of thing that I do, novelist, dramatist and so on, I have to get out of my skin and get into his skin and see the world the way he saw it. To do that, you have to manufacture motives, which probably, more often than not, are wrong. He didn't do it out of what you think he's doing it out of. But you're always asking yourself, what is this character acting out of? Why the hell is he like this? The answer's never easy. You can't just go back and say, 'Well, his mama got on him when he was a little boy, and he never got over it.' Welll, maybe that's true, but that won't take you very far. So I dunno.
"I like the essay, too, and that was the last column I did for Esquire. Esquire called me upI'd done some work for 'em, but they called me up and said would I like to write a column? My good friend Don Pierce, wrote Cool Hand Luke, said, 'Always get the job first, then figure out how you're gonna do it.' So I said, 'Sure,' then I said, 'What's the column about?' I thought sports or politics or whatever. And they said nothin'whatever's goin' on in your life. And at the time I thought it was great. But God, it ain't great. 'Cause sometimes there ain't shit goin' on in your life, or that you can think of writing a column about it. But . . . I told 'em I'd do it a year, and I did it 13 months, then I hung it up. I would never want to do that again. These guys who write columns for newspapers, I just don't know how they do it."
I explained my own situation, how I've wasted the last 11 years of my life, before going on. "Let me go back to 'Climbing the Tower' for just a second"
"Well, do, but say what you have to say, and I'll probably give you an inadequate answer, but I'll respond to it."
"Okaygiven what you just said, at the very end of the essay, you wrote that we all have towers out there, waiting for us, and that you were afraid that yours was there, too, and that one day, you would have to climb it. I guess my question was, have you done that, in your mind?"
"Well, there are towers and there are towers, as you know. Asking that question, you, obviously, are not thinking of a literal tower that you would climb and get on top of.
"Yeah, I would have to saythough I'd have to think about it a little bit to name the towersbut right off I know I've been the kind of guy, led the kind of life so that I've climbed entirely too many towers. And towers that I didn't have to climb. But not since I've gotten some maturity, let's just say that. Or say another way that I've gotten old enough to realize that y'know, you don't have to."
"I don't know how I got abroad in the land, but certainly here in the town I live in, and ion other places, the word got out that I thought I was a badass, and that I enjoyed physical combat and bloody closed eyes and all that kinda shit."
"There was that essay in Playboy, about how you like to get the shit kicked out of you."
Well, yeah, while it is true that if you're too worried about all these abstract, metaphysical questions: Is there a God? What's the Purpose of the Universe? And if you're all jammed up about it and hurtin' about it,, if you go out and get a couple of ribs brokenI guarantee anybody that's ever had a broken rib, if it's not threatening a lung there's not a damn thing they can do about it except to tape you up and send you home. And all you can do about it is pray you don't sneeze or laugh or somethin' like that. I guess I was that way. I've got a temper that has not served me well, and when I was younger, I'd be standin' in a bar somewhere, and some guy'd come up and say, 'You're Harry Crews,' and I'd say, 'Well, yeah, but you're one up on me, bud, I don't know your name.' I'd stick out my hand, and he'd leave his hand down and say, 'No, you're the guy that thinks you're the badass.' And right away, I'd be thinking 'Oh, shit,' and right away, it'd be nose-to-nose time. Then there came a time, and I can't say when, maybe my middle 30s, something like that, when I would just tell the guy, 'Nooo.' Usually, see, he'd tell me a story that I was supposed to have been involved in in one way or another. and I'd say, 'Bud, I've never been near the place, and I wasn't there the night you're talkin' about' and he'd say, 'Yes, goddammit, you were, and we're gonna do such-and-so right here.' In my middle-30s somewhere, I got to the place where I'd say to the guy, 'Look, man, I don't know you, and really don't know me, but see that door over there? If you'll let me get to the door, I will leave this damn bar, and you won't have to put up with me any more.'"
"But that just seemed to piss them off all the more. And so then we'd . . . well, you know, you get backed up sometimes, and unless you just wanna take a beating, then you gotta do something. I don't why I got into quite so much trouble. There's a place right here in town, the county correctional center, which is where they take you when they arrest you. I've been in that sonofabitch entirely too many times. You can bail yourself out for $500, if you just got in a fight, or were drunk or some shit like that. I've been in that place entirely too many times, and I won't be in it anymore, and I don't think I will. But I may, I may.
"There are people in the world who, hell, maybe they got trouble with their old lady, they got their own bag of shit to carry around. And they see you, and it's just a way to work it off or something. And there's another thing I thought of, y'know?
"I think to some extent we're all the victims of our faces. Just the configuration of your face, and our body types. A buddy of mine said, 'Y'know, Crews, you got the kind of a face that, whenever you walk into a bank, all the guards draw their guns.' And I do have this heavy brow ridge and my eyes are deep, but I didn't ask for any of that. I think that kind of stuff plays a much bigger part in our lives than we think it does, If a guy is sorta short and sorta pudgy, has wide hips or whatever, I do think he's less likely to get into the kinda things that we're talking about than if he is taller and looks likes he might go a few rounds. Got a little scar tissue in his eyebrows. So I dunno. I dunno, man.
"My hair isn't that gray, but I got some gray in it. My beardif I grew a beard, that son of a bitch is white as snow, as is my mustache. But my hair, is not all that gray. I'm obviously not a young man. My legs've been hurt enough timeswell, I don't gimp or limp. But I ought to, with as much trouble as I've has with my knees, from motorcycles and other things. Yessir."
"You said that you're doing a book now before you go on to the memoir. What's that going to be about?"
"I thought I'd finish it this month, but it looks like I'll finish it next month. Celebration is copyrighted this year, so no one's going to touch this one until next year, anyway.
"It's called Things that Swim in the Night, and it's about, it's really about . . . luck, if you're going to talk about it that way and I know it's not the way you want to talk about it. It's about the role that luck plays in people's livesthe turn of the card, the cut of the deck, the hand you're dealt. It's about a jockey."
He went on to tell me what the rest of the book was about in great detail. It involves the jockey, like he said, and the jockey's wife, their two football-playing sons, and a rich man who owns both a hog and an alligator farm.
"It sounds like it might almost have a bright ending," I said, when he was done telling me about it.
"Yeah, well, I hope it does. A woman of whom I'm very fond I dedicated it to. I told her I didn't want to dedicate The Mulching of America to her, 'I'll write you a better book,' I said. George Kingston's her name. She's a writer, and she says, 'If the jockey's wife doesn't get her comeuppance and what she deserves . . . ' W'hell, if she gets what she deserveswhat Shakespeare saidwhich one of us would escape a whipping? So no, I don't want to blow everything up, I don't want to kill anybody. I don't know what'll happen. I still got a third of the book left to go. I'm there, and it's funwell, it's fun most of the time. Anyway, I'm very grateful that I had it to go to everyday of my life. I write seven days a week. I'm always afraid that if I leave it aloneI mean, all writers work different, but some writers may not work on something for two or three weeks. That'd scare me to death. I might lose the momentum. So I do it every day and I am glad I have that. I don't know what they, God, at my age would do if they didn't have a job and didn't have something to do. I guess they fish all the time." Harry Crews paused for a second, and thought about it. "That'd drive me crazy."
First published in New York Press ["Books and Publishing" 11.16 (April 22 - May 5, 1998): 5-7].
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