Saturday, August 17, 2013

In The Briar Patch With Harry Crews (1935 - 2012)

In March of 2012, after hearing of the passing of the novelist Harry Crews, I flashed back to the Fall of 1956, when I arrived in Gainesville, met Harry, and saw we may have been attracted as embryonic writers, as moths to light, to the University of Florida Resident Writer, the distinguished Southern novelist Andrew Lytle. Harry and I became friends and roommates during our time at UF.

First, we set up in a one-bedroom apartment, which was all-in, with a huge double bed.  Eventually, I found Andrew Lytle's writing class. After reading some of Harry's shallow campus fluff writing, I asked him, why not write about his life in Bacon County, Georgia. He said that was too painful.  I suggested he attend Lytle’s class. He first refused, and then later did. In Mr. Lytle's magical classes, we often heard, “Life is melodrama. Only art is real.”

We then moved into a house, called Twelve Oaks. We partied in town, then at the Rawlings' place at Cross Creek. In 1960 I married and went to law school. Harry went on to English Grad School, then, with Sally Crews, to Ft. Lauderdale to write.

In 2007 I moved from Winter Park to Gainesville. And began writing plays for off-off Broadway. In the wee hours, after a writing stint, I’d bike to Harry's house, bringing him smokes and groceries. Harry was in constant, crippling pain from a post polio syndrome and wounds of his many fights and bouts with booze and drugs and could not drive.

As I sat with Harry, I began to realize maybe why he hadn't kicked the deadly voice of John Barleycorn.  The literary novelist must enter the unconscious, no matter how horrid and painful it may be, write up the stories found there, but then, as a shaman, get back out.  To recover, one must see a benign world resides beside the dark, ghostly, fictive world. I don't think Harry could do that for fear of losing or diminishing the intensity of the violent, lucrative grist for his literary mill. Delusion can be the novelist's friend and foe.

When Harry's alter ego, Joe Lon Mackey, in A FEAST OF SNAKES, jumped into the pit of rattlers, I feel Harry joined him, into a briar patch which had become his comfort zone and territory for his Gothic fiction. 

So we had our early morning talks of literature and life. I felt my best function as an old friend was to be there for the creature comforts I could provide -- taking him to the doctors, bank, for groceries, making breakfasts.  I stopped seeing Harry after 2007. 

In March of 2012, I heard the sad news that Harry had bought the farm as he might have said.  From a nursing home, he was taken to his tree shaded home where we had had those intriguing early morning sit-downs, had helped each other fend off the fantods with coffee and lively banter between brothers in the written word. Harry died on March 19, 2012.

Many peoples' lives-- his legions of readers, writers like myself and his students --- have been touched and rendered better by knowing Harry. The saying, “When they made him, they broke the mold” was never truer than with Harry Crews, this splendid writer, artist and remarkable man from the phantom tenant farms of Bacon County, Georgia.

~~Edward Nagel

Edward is a novelist, playwright and screenwriter. Visit his website Quantum Literary Group.

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