The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon

Why We Love Atlanta: Wrecking Bar Pub Hosts Harry Crews Event

Jonathan Knott: HARRY CREWS REDEFINES FREEDOM OF SPEECH IN FICTION

A book launching party in May at the Wrecking Bar Brew Pub in Atlanta included both a discussion of Blood, Bone and Marrow, Ted Geltner‘s biography of Harry Crews, and a celebration of Crews himself. The panel consisted of Geltner (who conducted the final and definitive interview of Crews) and bestselling novelist Michael Connelly (creator of the Bosch novels and TV show), who wrote the foreword and was a former student of Crews at the University of Florida. While I wanted to meet Michael Connelly, I had never heard of Geltner, and yet I had been looking forward to this event for weeks. Why? Reading Harry Crews taught me I could write.

Having grown up a voracious reader, had I decided to become a writer early on I could have cited a wide range of influences. However, there had always seemed to be a disconnect between my hardcore life experiences in what Southerners call “the country” and the lofty prose of my favorite writers before Crews. If I tried to imitate their refinement of thought and expression, it surely wouldn’t be as good, and if I tried to follow the axiom to “write about what you know,” nobody would read it, because as far as I was aware, no such models existed (the great Southern fiction writers of the early 20th century were nearly as far away from my experiences and natural style as the Romantic poets). So I didn’t bother writing much more than academic exercises until I stumbled across the work of Harry Crews.

A contemporary writer from my neck of the woods (for a period of time, the same part of south Georgia as Crews came from), not only did Crews write in a style that felt right about subjects and situations I understood and in the dialect I grew up around, but he was the first author I read who broke through strict behavioral guidelines and wrote exactly what he wanted to. His incredibly harsh and intense upbringing (brought to life vividly in the biography), combined with his own natural gift for insight, brought a level of reality to his prose that practically stared me down from every page. But it was the occasional over-the-top moment he mixed in like a curveball that broke my interest wide open.

In the first novel by Crews that I read, the protagonist was walking around an amusement park observing someone. An old man on a bench was watching him, and a little girl was following him around, being incredibly obnoxious. As the tension in the scene grew unbearable, he finally backhanded the little girl “hard enough to spin her head around,” causing her to go wide-eyed and silent, at which point the old man laughed out loud and clapped his appreciation.

I was stunned. I thought, You can’t DO that…can you? Why, yes. Yes, you can. It’s fiction, you’re the author, and you can do whatever you please. The ethical questions of that scene aside, Harry Crews had let me know it was OK to buck convention and write straight from imagination and soul. It was OK not to worry about what was believable and what wasn’t, so long as “I” believed it and wrote from an authentic place.

Crews broke down the door for a whole new generation of Southern fiction writers (Larry Brown, William Gay, Daniel Woodrell), many of whom cited him as a major influence. This was important to me for a number of reasons. It wasn’t just that Crews gave me access to a multiplicity of new styles and stories about the South I grew up in, though that’s delightful enough. These other writers I mentioned are gifted with skills that exceed Crews’ skills, in my opinion, and they have written some truly great material that is finally getting past the heavy door held closed by the fame of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.

For the longest time, it seemed that ANY positive review of ANY Southern fiction contained some form of placement “in the spirit/tradition of” or “reminiscent of/calls to mind” Faulkner or Flannery. That’s still going on, but now it can be chalked up to the laziness of the reviewer rather than the dearth of quality Southern fiction.

Something new started with Harry Crews, and on this evening Charles and I with others drank Bloody Marys and listened to stories of him (and shared some of our own). Connelly said he used to watch Crews hold court at a bar in Jacksonville from a barber chair Crews had set up permanently there for the purpose, and had been too intimidated to approach him despite having been his student. He also said on the one time later, after becoming a famous author, he did introduce himself, claiming their former acquaintance, Crews gruffly dismissed him with, “Never heard of you.” The sting of this rebuff was tempered when Connelly later watched a TV interview of Crews in his office that had occurred prior to that meeting, and he noticed Crews’ bookshelf in the video had three of Connelly’s books on it.

Ted Geltner, who was all too aware of Crews’ reputation, showed up at Harry’s home for the first attempt at an interview and was met at the door by a drunk, naked and hostile Harry Crews in no condition for an interview.

I remember when he showed up at East Georgia College in Swainsboro (not far from Crews’ hometown of Waycross) to do a reading and book signing. In front of a crowd of ultra-proper and provincial folks, while they sweated and squirmed as politely as possible, he read them an excerpt from his most recent book at the time. I won’t get into details (do yourselves a favor and read his books!), but suffice it to say the scene he picked was obviously designed to shock and disturb the audience, most of which looked like they might have been librarians who had told him to hush and act right when he was little. It seemed a bit like sweet revenge.

It was a pleasure to attend this Atlanta gathering for an unquestionably irascible, enigmatic, unpredictable, often frightening man with the wonderful ability to bleed himself onto paper so that others could feel free to do the same. The challenge, of course, is to do it as well as he did, well enough to bring 40 or 50 people together on a given summer evening to wax nostalgic in a brew pub conversation about you and your work.

During the event I attended in Swainsboro, the one time I noticed his hardcore veneer crack briefly was when he was signing a book for me, and I told him I’d spent many hours reading his work and never considered any of it wasted. He looked up at me and said, “We really need to hear things like that; it keeps us going in the dark times.” His work didn’t make him rich or famous, but I don’t believe that was ever what he was aiming for. What he wanted to do and needed to do and did were all one and the same. To quote one of his books, the rest was just “atmosphere.”

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Copyright 2016, Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.