BOOKS: Searing memoir, brilliant first novel by Harry Crews reissued

"A Childhood - the Biography of a Place" by Harry Crews (Penguin Classics, 176 pages, $16)

Credit: Contributed

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"A Childhood - the Biography of a Place" by Harry Crews (Penguin Classics, 176 pages, $16)

Credit: Contributed

The late author wrote with wicked humor and savage intensity.

Harry Crews (1935-2012) was an influential author who wrote dazzling novels and a searing memoir. My favorite Ohio novelist, Chillicothe’s Donald Ray Pollock, told me Crews is one of his great influences and inspirations. It seems hard to believe that many of his books have been out of print.

His son Byron Crews is his literary executor and has been working on getting his dad’s books reissued. Recently the Penguin Classics imprint published new editions of the memoir, “A Childhood - the Biography of a Place,” as well as his first novel, “The Gospel Singer.”

Crews published his memoir in 1978. He never knew his father, a Georgia farmer who worked himself to death. His stepfather, the man he thought was his father, was actually his uncle.

The author recounts how desperate their situation often was but there’s no self pity whatsoever. That’s just how it was. Young Harry miraculously survived his childhood. He got polio and the doctors had no idea how to help him. Then he nearly died when he fell into a scalding vat of water as his family was butchering hogs.

Harry’s stepfather would vanish for days at a time. When he would surface again he was usually in a foul mood. Harry’s mother bore the brunt of his drunken rages. He finally went too far, firing a shotgun off inside their home. That’s when they packed up and she left him, taking Harry down to Florida where she got a job rolling cigars.

‘The Gospel Singer” (1968) was the debut of a writer with unbridled imagination and an excruciatingly macabre sense of humor. The gospel singer of the title, we never do know his name, grew up in a dead end rural town in Georgia called Enigma.

The place is abuzz. The gospel singer is coming back to perform. At the funeral parlor Mary-Bell Carter, the woman who was engaged to the gospel singer, is lying in state. The funeral director had quite a task concealing her sixty-one ice pick wounds.

Over at the jail Willalee Bookatee Hull, a Black preacher, stares down from the window of his cell. He’s been charged with raping and killing Mary-Bell. He also understands the likelihood he’ll ever go to trial. He knows intuitively that a lynch mob of local citizens have their own notions of rough justice.

The gospel singer’s agent, Didymus, is a religious fanatic who believes in the power of suffering. The gospel singer is handsome, charismatic, and has a beautiful voice. He’s also utterly immoral and a sex addict. Every time he seduces a woman Didymus insists that he do penance by going inside a closet and singing hymns to himself.

Then there’s Foot, the proprietor of a freak show shadowing the gospel singer. Foot has the largest foot in the world. The crowds that came to hear the gospel singing then stuck around for the Freak Fair. This debut novel churns and burns with an exuberant brilliance.

Vick Mickunas of Yellow Springs interviews authors every Saturday at 7 a.m. and on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on WYSO-FM (91.3). For more information, visit www.wyso.org/programs/book-nook. Contact him at vick@vickmickunas.com.

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"The Gospel Singer" by Harry Crews (Penguin Classics, 210 pages, $17)

Credit: Contributed

"The Gospel Singer" by Harry Crews (Penguin Classics, 210 pages, $17)

Credit: Contributed

caption arrowCaption
"The Gospel Singer" by Harry Crews (Penguin Classics, 210 pages, $17)

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

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