Harry Crews! I guess I thought he would live forever. When all of those years of out of control drinking did not kill him, I decided he had outwitted the devil. That would be just like Crews--to make a wager with the devil and win.
When a great storyteller dies, someone should tell a story. Here is a story, as I remember it. I may not tell it accurately, but I tell it with great enthusiasm and con amore.
I first met Harry Crews at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, TN, about thirty years ago. By that time I had read most of his opus. I was a young college professor, eager to meet the man behind the words, author of such books as A Feast of Snakes and the compelling A Childhood: The Biography of a Place. I stood in line to have all of my books signed, several of them second hand paperbacks. Crews never seemed to notice that I was not having him sign expensive hardback books. He was gracious and polite, even though I knew he was itching to get out of there and have a drink. I desperately wanted to drink whiskey with Harry Crews.
But first I got a phone call. When I picked up the telephone, an unfamiliar masculine voice said bluntly, "This is Harry Crews. Do I know you?"
"No," I blithered, "but I know you and I am a great admirer of your work." Crews assured me he would send an endorsement for Phillip's book, and then he launched into a monologue about Madonna whom he had just met. He was captivated by her and wanted me to know she was no dumb blond.
"That woman is brilliant, " he gushed, clearly smitten. When he hung up, I just sat there, staring at the phone and thinking, "Damn, I just had a conversation with Harry Crews!"
The next week the blurb for Mussels arrived in the mail, written on the back of a photo postcard of Maya Angelou that I had sent Crews in the package. I still have that postcard tucked safely inside my inscribed copy of Mussels. I know I should have sent the card to Phillip, but I am not that unselfish.
It was Phillip Morris who introduced me to Harry Crews. Phillip had been a student of mine at Athens College (now Athens State University), and we remained fast friends. His father and my father were buddies. Phillip was a body builder and a mussel diver (hence the name of his first novel Mussels), and he worked part-time as a meat cutter at his father's grocery in Athens, AL, our hometown.
One day Phillip came up to me and said, "If I don't get out of here, I am going to do exactly what Joe Lon did in Feast of Snakes. I am going to jump up on that meat counter with a sawed off shotgun and mow down everyone in sight." I believed him. I immediately procured a copy of A Feast of Snakes and read it in one night. I knew Phillip had to go, and he did. A decade later, Phillip published two novels: Mussels (1989) and Thirsty City (1990).
After reading A Feast of Snakes, a book like no other I had ever read, I started in on the Harry Crews canon. I already knew the author by reputation--a hard living, hard drinking professor at the University of Florida who was often found passed out on the streets of Gainesville next to a parking meter. He had come up hard, too---dirt poor in the parched and unforgiving land of south Georgia and north Florida. He wrote powerfully of his early years in one of his finest works, his memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place. I loved Harry Crews. I loved him for surviving and writing about it.
Although I read most of Crews' books and essays (he wrote for Esquire for 14 years), I never loved a novel like I loved A Feast of Snakes. Maybe it has to do with always remembering your first: your first kiss, your first drink, your "fust spotted hoss sirkus." A Feast of Snakes was my first taste of Harry Crews and I was hooked. Just as many of us can quote line after line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I used to be able to reel off lines from A Feast of Snakes. Before I had read James Dickey's Deliverance, the works of Harry Crews had taken me into a dark and dangerous world that I had only glimpsed but could not even imagine.
I still cannot accept the fact that he is gone. Crews had achieved a kind of mythic status in my mind. Like Prometheus, he had stolen fire from the gods and lived to tell about it.
The story goes that Crews had a tattoo on his right arm: a skull and this line from one of my favorite poems by e e cummings, "Buffalo Bill's Defunct." The line reads, "How do you like your blueeyed boy, Mr. Death."
---Penne J. Laubenthal