In 1986, when I found out I was going to Florida, I started reading Harry Crews. I knew of his world through my parents: poverty, dirt farming, alcoholism, the South. He even had a character with my mother’s maiden name, Nell Head. His books were funny and violent and peopled by outcasts, some deformed, some evil, some just bat-shit crazy. When I learned he’d had polio as a kid, I remember wondering if he was deformed in some way, on crutches with weak legs—this despite his jacket cover photo that threatened to kick anyone’s ass.
When I arrived at UF, I found him relatively whole. He would run the graduate fiction writer’s workshop I was in. The first night, someone mentioned the People magazine interview that had described how Harry, in a drunken stupor, urinated in the interviewer’s car. Harry was embarrassed, but he handled the question fine. For me, anyway, I was in awe—here was a real writer, respected, well published, a bit of a legend. But Harry’s alcoholism would come more and more into the forefront of our class’ relationship with him, and ultimately to a sad night where I tried to sober him up.
I recall the first class we discussed student work. Michael Cox turned in a story that broke from traditional narrative with flashbacks, ellipses, etc., and as the twelve or so of us waited for Harry to start the discussion, he looked around the table with the same mean-eyed squint his book covers portrayed. We were all nervous, wondering what he was going to say, how this workshop would work, what attitude he would have. Finally, Harry opened his mouth like he was ready to spit and said, “What the hell is this? A goddamn dream?” On the outside, we were all downcast eyes and sheepish grins, but on the inside, we were dying out laughing, save Michael, of course, our guinea pig.
What happened next was not so funny. Harry had the habit of calling me “Coach.” My guess is, he called everybody “Coach” if he couldn’t remember their names. That week I called him to discuss my first story. About my writing he told me over the phone, “You got it, Coach.” The IT, I suppose, was talent. I was thrilled. But when I went into the workshop that Monday night to have my story discussed, Harry wasn’t there. He was home, drunk. I remember somehow we got him on a payphone and I was talking to him and he said he needed help. I had had my fair share of experience with drunks, so I ended up at his apartment to lend a hand.
Harry’s apartment complex seemed like something out of the fifties: cinder block, plain, a place I would never want to live. Inside was clean. The living room had no television. On a desk beside a manual typewriter was a three-inch high, perfectly stacked pile of papers. His manuscript for The Knockout Artist. I don’t recall anything else about the main room that I’m sure connected with the kitchen. Just the manuscript of the novel yet to be published. And then there was Harry, in the bedroom, in a shadowy half-light. He lay in the bed, beside him an empty pint of liquor. He’d overdone it, he said. Done it to himself again. I got him a Coke from the fridge and told him to drink it. He spoke about my story, and told me the first sentence wasn’t a sentence, but that the story was good, that I had “it,” the infamous IT. He asked me to get his manuscript from the table and told me the page to read. I read the portion where Eugene Gibbs, the failed boxer, intentionally knocks himself out with a blow to his chin. The passage described why Eugene did it, why he punched himself (which was his act, how he made money), and Harry, in the darkness of his bedroom, said, “That’s me, Coach.” The message was clear. He self-sabotaged himself with booze. I suppose we talked about it, why he did it, and somehow we got to the subject of his son, the one who’d drowned in a neighbor’s pool many, many years before. Somewhere in that discussion Harry started making gasping noises, as though he were drowning, too. I tried to calm him down. I think I even yelled at him to cut it out. He caught his breath. I could only make out his profile as he lay on his back with his eyes closed. Then he said, “Bloody me up, Coach.” I didn’t understand, and he said it again. “Bloody me up.” This was guilt talking, 23-years of it. Later, I was told he’d get into fights for the sole purpose of being beat up. “Bloody me up,” he said again. He wanted me to punch him. To bloody his face. I was repulsed and told him there was no way I was going to hit him. Fortunately for me, he soon passed out. When he did, I left as fast as I could.
Sober, Harry was kind and brilliant. I remember him telling me about profanity in fiction. He said when his brother read the word “shit” in one of his books, it was as if there was really a piece of shit on the page; it was that real to him. He said of staying focused in a story, that you have to keep your eye on the story as if you were pushing a bean across the floor with your nose. He said if you want to be a writer, you have to hold writing above everything and everyone, a rule I think he lived by.
Harry was brilliant. Steel-trap brilliant. Of course, he never remembered me coming by his apartment, and I knew not to mention it. Rumor went around the department that he ended up in detox, and the next week, when the class met, William Logan taught it (and ripped my story to shreds…so much for the IT). Harry never taught us again. Instead, I’d see him in his office. He would always talk to me, give me advice, tell me stories. Later, at my request, he observed the creative writing class I taught and wrote me a recommendation letter. Harry was damaged goods, but he was human and because of his humanity he was loved, especially by his students, many of us who are remembering him today.