He had dreamed of being a writer since childhood, when he would read through the Sears catalog. Thanks to the GI Bill, he attended the University of Florida and graduated in 1960. Crews wrote fiction throughout the decade and had four novels rejected before his first work of fiction, "The Gospel Singer," came out in 1968. Several more novels followed, including "Car" and "The Hawk is Dying," adapted into a 2006 film of the same name starring Paul Giamatti and Michelle Williams. From the start, he hauled Southern Gothic down back roads even Flannery O'Connor never traveled, like in "Karate is a Thing of the Spirit," which features female impersonators, gays making out on a Florida beach and a pregnant woman karate kicked in the belly as she's perched over a swimming pool.
"His stock in trade is the unexpected," John Deck wrote in The New York Times in 1971. "His humor produces something between a laugh and a gasp."
He found new admirers on thanks to his columns and essays for Playboy and Esquire in the 1970s and after. He wrote profiles on everyone from Charles Bronson to white supremacist David Duke and traveled to Alaska for Playboy, completing a 7,500 story about the impact of the energy pipeline on the city of Valdez. "Going Down in Valdez" concluded with a young prostitute receiving a butterfly-shaped tattoo, a scene he likened to Alaska itself.
"If Alaska is not our young whore, what is she?" he wrote. "If we scar her, leave her with pestilence and corrupted with infection, irrefutably marked with our own private design, who can blame us?"
Crews did not look or act like your typical college professor, shaving his head or wearing a Mohawk and making every literature lecture a performance. Other writers described him as "riveting," especially when he was talking about writing.
"A writer's job is to get naked, to hide nothing, to look away from nothing, to look at it," he wrote. "To not blink, to not be embarrassed by it or ashamed of it. Strip it down and let's get to where the blood is, where the bone is."
Erik Bledsoe, an English professor at the University of Tennessee and editor of "Getting Naked with Harry Crews," said, "His typical subject matter is a rough and violent world with characters, usually male, on some kind of self-imposed quest to make sense out of the world that does not make sense anymore."
"He is very much a cult figure," Bledsoe added. "There is no doubt in my mind that certain of his books will continue to be read."
Crews was married to Sally Ellis Crews twice; she has his power of attorney and said they remained "great friends" since their second divorce in 1972. The couple had two children: Patrick, who drowned as a child in 1964 and Byron, who lives in Ohio.
He did not want a funeral service or a viewing, said his ex-wife, who added that Crews wanted to be cremated.
The author thought often about death and how he would be remembered. In his memoir, he recalled hearing relatives in Bacon County tell stories about his father.
"Listening to them talk, I wondered what would give credibility to my own story, if, when my young son grows to manhood, he has to go looking for me in the mouths and memories of other people," he wrote. "Who would tell the stories? A few motorcycle riders, bartenders, editors, half-mad karateka, drunks, and writers.
"Even though I was gladdened listening to the stories of my daddy, an almost nauseous sadness settled in me, knowing I would leave no such life intact. Among the men with whom I spent my working life, university professors, there is not one friend of the sort I was listening to speak of my daddy there that day in the back of the store in Bacon County."
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