I studied under the novelist Harry Crews, who died at few days ago at age 76, and got to know him somewhat in 1977 and 1978, the peak of his creativity, just after he'd written his best novel, A Feast of Snakes, and when he was writing A Childhood: The Biography of a Place.
In his creative writing classes at the University of Florida at Gainesville, he was a big early influence on me and taught me lessons about writing that stick with me to this day, among them:
1) Don't be boring.
2) The definition of poetry is memorable language.
3) Nothing happens unless it happens in a place.
4) Don't be boring.
His first and fourth commandments were on display every time you walked into the faculty lounge or saw him after class, when he'd be telling a story to a group that was hanging on his every word. I once walked by him and heard him say:
"And this guy has a knife to his own dick and says, 'I'm going to cut it off for you.'"
Nobody could leave Crews when he was telling a story!
No, I didn't subscribe to the macho image of the two-fisted drinker and fightin' novelist -- he came to class more than once with serious physical injuries related to fights he'd been in -- but he sure did have a brilliant imagination.
And, no, I'm no expert on his oeuvre; the Crews novels I've read I read many decades ago -- and I never really went back to them. I remember the man more vividly than his fiction, which may be telling (or may merely show that my own aesthetic tastes run in another direction).
Crews knew great writing whether it came from the bread trucker driver, a Pulitzer winner or a pop song. I remember hanging out at the Windjammer bar with him in Gainesville when Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue" came over the speakers.
Crews said, "This guy's special. 'The past was close behind' -- great line."
Of course he'd love such a Faulkneresque line.
The rumors about Crews in those years were absolutely wild -- and who knew how many were true? One myth had it that he had been brutally stomped by the mafia after writing a non-fiction expose. Another said he had experimented with LSD and heroin. I was never able to confirm either.
He encouraged me in my writing and liked one of my comedies called "Bruises After Dark," which he read in front of his creative writing class in 1978. And, much to my surprise, the audience roared with laughter, people gave me high fives -- they really enjoyed it. Wow!
The last time I ever saw him was after a speech he gave at the University of South Florida in Tampa. After the lecture, I decided to go out to the parking lot to say hello. But as soon as I saw him, and smelled the booze, I knew that wouldn't happen. He was so drunk he could not stand up; two friends of his were lifting him by the arms through the lot as Crews said, with real fear in his voice: "The cops are gonna come! The cops are gonna get me!"
"Don't worry, Harry, this is Florida, this isn't Texas," one of his friends assured him as they carried him to a car.
"The cops are gonna get me! The cops are gonna get me!," Crews continued.
And that's the last time I ever saw him.
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