Thursday, July 25, 2013

In Short: Harry Crews

I love short stories. They come by the book full; a whole collection of different little stories that you can read in an hour, sometimes less, and feel as utterly satisfied by that story as if you'd just finished a novel. You can read the stories in any order you chose. You can skip a story if you don't like its title. You can become attached to a character in the span of a page, and then you can leave that character as you found him, several pages later.

Welcome to the first installment of "In Short," the aptly named new feature here on the blog in which I will dedicate a weekly post to a short story and its author.

I decided that I need to read more short stories and write about them here. I arrived at this decision after recently (and voraciously) reading a collection of short stories in a couple of hours. My husband had insisted I read this one short story by Harry Crews called "L.L. Bean Has Your Number, America!"

Harry Crews. Photo by Tom Graves.  
"C'mon," he kept saying, "it's only seven pages. That'll take you, like, five minutes. And its a really great story." He had just finished reading this author's memoir and was now getting into a collection of his short stories called Blood and Grits. Every meal my husband and I shared included some episode, some remark, from the things he'd just read by this author. I had been wrapped up in reading the Brazilian epic, Os sertões (which will be a post unto itself), but when I finished that book there was nothing standing between me and reading those seven little pages anymore, so I did. And then I knew I had to read the rest of the collection.

Harry Crews was a beer-drinking man. And a vodka-drinking man. And a whisky-drinking man. And he wrote as if, after having been drinking all of those things all morning, he had gotten a little uncomfortably sober in the afternoon sun, irritated by anyone who happened to enter his periphery, and probably even self-consciously irritated by having to keep himself company if he was alone.

Yet, in spite of the jagged edge with which much of his writing is presented, there is a vulnerability that permeates each line-- the true brute masculinity of his writing is most evident in the moments of fear, melancholy, uncertainty, awkwardness. Crews has a remarkable way of looking shyly at something and then proceeding to describe it, always a little bashfully, in a savagely raw and accurate way. No frills, no apologies-- no attacks or accusations either-- just a timid observer with an unflinching gaze, a relentless power to see. The force of his narrative voice moves over his literary landscape with authority, but does not bulldoze it.

Here's an example from "L.L. Bean Has Your Number, America!":

The building in front of me, the L.L. Bean store, was a miserable-looking structure. ... For no good reason, I though it looked like the kind of building that would house a third-rate plumbing company on the verge of bankruptcy.

The stories of Blood and Grits are strangely real, too. By strangely real, I mean they're non-fiction. Blood and Grits is a collection of this man's experiences and thoughts. All but one of these short stories were originally published in Esquire, Playboy, or Sport magazine in the 70s. These stories describe the confusion of the forest and its natural and unnatural inhabitants, the comfort of lonely dive bars along highways, the threat of violence from animals, the threat of violence from men, the crude impulses that we indulge in when we think no one (or everyone) is looking. They describe how many stupid ways we've come up with to stop hearing ourselves think, at the same time they listen deeply to the longing a man's soul can harbor.

One of his former students, Lucy Harrison, describes the collection like this: "It's a funny book. It's also awfully sad. It's about living the best you can with whatever burden you've chosen for yourself. It's about getting rid of that burden and dancing around like a crazy person. It's a book, largely, about drinking. ... It's a man's book. It isn't a guy's book. But I'm a girl, and I get every word of it. Got it?" 

Yep. That's about right. 

Probably one of my favorite stories from the collection was "Tuesday Night with Cody, Jimbo and a Fish of Some Proportion." It is such a simply story, all of 8 pages, in which nothing really significant happens. It takes place in a dark old bar sparsely populated with dedicated, professional drinkers. Crews describes the pleasure and downright necessity of such a worn-down  worn-in place: "Say it's sentimental or romantic or silly, but I'm convinced nothing new will work with whiskey because whiskey is never new. It's old and likes old things." 

The story is about two friends that don't shy away from demonstrating their "mutual admiration" by getting "locked up toe to toe and beat[ing] each other severely about the head and shoulders." One of the friends, Cody, brought a fish he caught that day into the bar and was estimating how much he thought it weighed. His friend, Jimbo, disagreed with that estimation. To settle the matter, the men took to the empty parking lot to put the powers of their pick-up trucks to the test in a reckless competition in which the friends, with trucks hitched to one another at the rear, tried to dominate his opponent's truck by putting full force on the gas peddle.

It's a funny story, but its also deadly serious, in the way you can tell a joke to a drunk who laughs at first but then suddenly becomes angry and dangerous. You watch two men take their lives into their hands, over the weight of a fish, on a Tuesday night, in a near-empty bar. And then they laugh about it and head back to their stools to finish their beers. Think about it.

I am inspired to read more of Harry Crews' work, especially his fiction. He died just last year on March 12th, but he left behind a large collection of work. In precious few words, the Crews short stories I read today seemed to say so much about life. The tattoo on the author's arm, an excerpt from an e.e. cummings poem, shows in equally few words the way Crews felt about death-- at once taunting it and fearing it:

how do you like your blueeyed boy 

  Mister Death

What are your favorite short stories?? Have you read any Harry Crews?? What are your favorite author tattoos??

Until next time, fair petticoat rustlers-- keep rustling!!


  1. Love, love, love Harry Crews' writing. He taught writing at the University of Florida when I was in grad school there. I had the occasion to be in his company once or twice at gatherings, and he was as fearsome and inspiring as his work.

    Pennie Magee (because I'm too lazy to go look up my Google or Wordpress passwords...)

    1. Pennie- that is awesome that you had the chance to see the man himself! And I'm so glad that you also love his work! I can't wait to read his fiction (I can only imagine it's as strange and wonderful as his nonfiction!). xoxo

  2. i like that top picture....he spent so much time making sure that stache was perfectly groomed, then just cut the rest of his hair with a lawnmower.

    1. Ha! Absolutely!! Perhaps that is a good metaphor for his writing, too-- as controlled and meticulous as his style is, the stories are rugged and rough...