In the tradition of William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell, Harry Crews was a raconteur with a gift for making art of the poverty, violence, and grotesquery of his native South, his raucous novels about wrecked but sympathetic souls earning him a peculiar place among the greats of Southern Gothic literature.
After a long illness caused in part by a couple motorcycle accidents, Crews died Wednesday at his home in Gainesville, Fla. He was 76.
Prolific and diverse, Crews wrote plays, short stories, essays, and novels--about traveling evangelists, rattlesnake rodeos, midgets, and violent alcoholics. In Car, he portrayed a man who eats an entire Ford Maverick, four ounces at a time. But he displayed an earnest empathy for his damaged-goods characters, many of whom who sought an escape from their bitter hardships.
Like his fictional characters, the man lived a rough life. As a toddler he was bedridden with an undiagnosed illness that caused paralysis and spasms, prompting visits from faith healers and gawkers. Around age 6 he fell into a cauldron of boiling water used to skin slaughtered hogs. He served three years in the Marine Corps, and on the G.I. Bill studied at the University of Florida with the novelist Andrew Lytle, who deeply influenced his writing. He and his wife, Sally, married and divorced twice. One of their sons, Patrick, drowned in a neighbor's pool at age 4.
In his 1978 memoir, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, Crews wrote elegiacally about his birthplace--a one-room sharecropper's cabin at the end of a dirt road--and paid homage to rural South Georgia, "all its loveliness and all its ugliness." According to the Wasington Post, he had been working on another memoir at the time of his death.
Over the years, Crews had also written gritty stories for Playboy and Esquire, where he penned a column called "Grits," covering such Deep South topics as cockfighting and dog fighting. (Some of those essays can be found on Crews' website.) Before retiring in the 1990s, Crews had taught writing for many years at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Suggested soundtrack for reading Crews: Drive-By Truckers.