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August 22, 2006

Harry Crews, Aging Wild Man, Publishes Again, Quietly


In June, the literary wild man Harry Crews published the latest book ó his 23rd ó in his continuing saga of the roughneck South. The book, ìAn American Family,î a novella about the violent demise and unexpected redemption of an abusive husband, is Mr. Crewsís first in eight years. Unlike most of the others, it was published not by a mainstream publishing house, but by a little-known small press, Blood and Guts, based in Los Angeles.

ì ëAn American Familyí popped up out of the blue,î said Craig Graham, the owner of Blood and Guts and a longtime fan of Mr. Crews. ìHe just had finished it and called me and asked if I wanted to read it. I said, ëOf course.í î Blood and Guts had reprinted an earlier novella by Mr. Crews, so this became the second book of his that it had published.

Blood and Guts quietly printed 2,000 hardcover copies of the book, with an additional 326 copies that were signed. Mr. Graham says he has shipped about 500 copies so far, most of them to Florida, where Mr. Crews, 71, has his biggest following.

ìHe doesnít want to do any publicity or travel any more and he was very firm about that,î Mr. Graham said. ìI had no interest in having him tortured going around to book signings.î As a result, the book has scarcely been reviewed outside Gainesville, Fla., where Mr. Crews lives.

ìAn American Familyî resembles the violent denouement of some of Mr. Crewsís longer works. The story follows Major Melton, an English teacher at a junior college, as he is ritualistically humiliated by his battered wife; his best friend, Pete (whom Melton suspects is the real father of his child); and Peteís father, a former novelist and ìfamous crazy personî who rehabilitates deranged pit bulls and eventually hangs himself over Meltonís dining room table.

Though he has never achieved widespread fame, Mr. Crews has a substantial cult following and legions of former students and protÈgÈs who champion his coarse, macho portrayals of the South. And fans of Mr. Crewsís Gothic tales of emasculation, blood sport, sideshow freaks, sexual deviance and, often, salvation track the authorís movements on the Internet or by word of mouth. They discovered the new book after Mr. Graham shipped copies to an independent Gainesville bookstore and news of its release was posted on a Web site dedicated to Mr. Crews.

While many of Mr. Crewsís books have been reviewed favorably, it was a series of adventures as a columnist for Playboy and Esquire in the 70ís that elevated him to cult status. (While covering the construction of the Alaskan pipeline, Mr. Crews said he woke up from a bender with a cabinet hinge tattooed on the inside of his elbow.) Since then, Mr. Crews has been invoked to represent a gruff Southern reality, most recently in ìSearching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus,î a documentary portrait of the rural South by the English filmmaker Andrew Douglas, which was released in the United States in 2005.

Though his body is breaking down from a life hard lived, Mr. Crews said in a telephone interview that he still writes every day and his door is open to legions of former students, young writers and searchers.

ìNobody has ever been turned away,î Mr. Crews said, his speech peppered with eloquent spasms of Southern-accented profanity. ìWhy would I turn them away? Everyone has terrible and wonderful mysteries just dripping off of them.î

Mr. Crews walks with a cane, his knees ruined by a series of motorcycle accidents and his feet hobbled by nerve damage. But when he was visited at his home recently, he remained a large and physically imposing figure, with a pallid face, close-cropped gray hair and crystalline blue eyes that make him look like an apparition. His house is decorated with pictures that cement his status as a manís man ó one shows him with Charles Bronson, the actor, and another is of a hawk Mr. Crews once tamed.

Mr. Crews, the son of Georgia tenant farmers, taught creative writing at the University of Florida for nearly 30 years before retiring in 1997. His blunt style, combined with his often rowdy behavior, led to an estrangement from the more erudite world of academia.

ìEverybody in the system is scared to death,î he said in the telephone interview. ìProfessors are scared of department heads,î he said. ìTheyíre just scared little people hiding out. And these other scared little people come and sit in a scared little class and tremble. I didnít want to do that. Letís do something memorable, and if we canít do something memorable, then letís go home. Or weíll go across the street and get a drink.î

Mr. Crews was struggling with sobriety by the time Kevin Canty studied with him in the late 80ís. ìIt was like taking a fiction workshop with Captain Hook,î said Mr. Canty, who is now a novelist and a professor himself. Everyone had a favorite Harry Crews story, said Mr. Canty, who had heard that Mr. Crews once showed up at a writersí conference in Vermont ìsmelling like a bearî after walking there from Georgia.

Another former student, Lucy Harrison, recalled some students signing up for Mr. Crewsís class more for the spectacle than for instruction.

ìIt was kind of odd walking into a class and your professor has this fan club in the class with you,î she said.

Erik Bledsoe, a former professor of English at the University of Tennessee who has edited two books on Mr. Crews, said: ìThereís Harry Crews the persona and Harry Crews the writer, and far too often people mix up that persona with the writing itself. The personality certainly helps to enhance the cult following, but it can overshadow Mr. Crewsís literary achievements.î

Mr. Crewsís books, he added, ìwill continue to be read long after Harry Crews the human being is gone.î

This month, Mr. Crews sold his archives to the University of Georgia for an undisclosed amount. He is still examining his life through his writing.

ìI had an ex-wife and I had an ex-kid and I had an ex-dog and I had an ex-house and Iím an ex-drunk,î Mr. Crews said in the telephone interview. ìIíve supported whores and dopers and drunks and bartenders. Thank God I donít do that anymore. Itís a bummer of a way to spend your life.î

ìNow I just keep wondering how this lifeís going to wind down. Itís time to die, but I donít feel like dying. I feel good all the time,î he said. ìExcept when I donít.î