Harry Crews' sad apologies

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I’ve been reading this Harry Crews book, Classic Crews, a mini anthology of his memoir writing, with A Childhood foremost, and a few other works of fiction. Crews, who died this past week at age 76, in the middle of my read, has been clattering around in my mind since. There’s a sadness to it, of course – the strange distant history of his upbringing in post-Depression Georgia, a childhood that works like a period piece: tobacco crops, a tenant farm, a Sears, Roebuck Catalog carrying the promise of another thrilling world.

There was a bit of well-known brutishness around Crews, specifically an interest in blood sports that earned him his share of broken noses. He drank far too much by his own account and never regretted it, though he knew enough at some late stage he had to stop or it would kill him. He traded hospitalizations with one bar-goer as often as they met, the last time getting sliced the full length of his belly and landing in the ICU for a month. As a boy he broke his neck with a dive off a bridge. Later, when he started to teach, he would offer to settle classroom disagreements with his students outside.

Or that’s all myth, who knows. He was a short fuse, mad when the writing went poorly, and maybe no less so when it was going well. Towards the end of his life he was mad at his physical pain, the great discomfort of arthritis, and then neuropathy, which eventually killed him. There was other pain too, lifelong and recurring, and he wrote about that with the conviction that his words were equal to it. He wrote, he said, “like a house afire.”

But for all Crews’ hardened surface and coarse bravado–whiskeys, fist-fights, and model T Fords, there’s the wounded Crews who spent a life contending with the early death of his father, and the accidental death of his first son. Father, Sons, Blood is about that second orphaning and it’s a tough read. However, it’s the one you come back to, because it forgives so much of him in advance. Like most of his stuff, it’s an attempt to put down what “men say to other men,” – his line – mistreatments yes, but also compassion. He was open to both, but they bothered him equally.

Father, Sons, Blood opens with the news that Patrick, Crews’ four year-old child, has climbed over the backyard fence with the help of the neighborhood boys. He finds his way through an open gate two houses over. He has the heartbreaking, dutiful sense to take off his socks and shoes, placing them poolside, before slipping in deep beyond his depth, old enough to know the pool protocol but with no clue how to swim.

The richness of the writing, and what makes it good memoir, comes sometime after, a lifetime later. Crews is hiking with his grown-up second son. They are caught in the rain together, drenched and miserable, Crews wishes they could pitch a tent and be done with it. His son Byron starts: Dad, you remember that time with the rain? Harry says there’s been plenty of times like that, but with Byron’s nudge it comes back to him. The boy is just seven years-old then. He’s at his friend’s house down the block when it starts to pour. Byron waits it out while Crews waits at home, and when Byron does turn up he’s an hour late, and he’s missed dinner. Harry takes it seriously, a little drunk as he usually is. He tells Byron to stand outside in the downpour “only until we see if it hurts you…I’ll tell you when you’re about to get hurt.”

“So far, pretty shitty,” Crews says in retrospect, “but it gets worse.” He falls asleep on his recliner and when he wakes up, well after dark, he finds his son still standing there, soaked and exhausted. Crews is right, in a way, the rain doesn’t hurt. But he knows, looking back, he’s been a bastard. There’s something really stirring about all that, the tough-love I’ll-teach-my-boy-to-be-a-man take on fatherhood. And then there's Byron, only in second grade, giving him the fuck you in return. Confronted by it now, Crews learns it was a low-and-no-good thing to do. All these years later, he can finally muster an apology, and the two can laugh about it. Crews’ love for him is so acute it seems to hurt. He finds a line that channels Faulkner, to no surprise: What was coming down was the past that is never the past and in this case the past against which I had no defense except my own failed heart. That apology, which comes many years late, seems meant for both his sons. We want to tell Harry Crews that it still counts for something.