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Book review: ‘Blood, Bone and Marrow’ looks at a Southern original

Harry Crews, one of America’s foremost chroniclers of the grotesque, long has been heralded as the unofficial poet laureate of the “Dirty South,” an impoverished landscape populated by freaks, misfits, white trash and sociopaths.

His twisted, tragic characters, and the dark comedy of their lives, were rivaled only by the Rabelaisian author himself, whose appetites, outspoken personality and taste for violence eventually came close to eclipsing his literary celebrity.

“So far as I can see,” Crews once told an interviewer, “nothing good in the world has ever been done by well-rounded people. The good work is done by people with jagged, broken edges, because those edges cut things and leave an imprint, a design.”

Now, with Ted Geltner’s definitive biography, “Blood, Bone and Marrow,” Crews’ jagged edges and good works finally get their due in an unblinking look at a writer whose fierce intelligence and talent carried him so far from home he could never return, but whose darkness never entirely allowed him to leave.

Crews’ output was considerable. The self-proclaimed Georgia “grit” fled rural Bacon County to wolf down literature and spit it back out in a way no one else had before or since. He wrote 17 novels, including “Feast of Snakes” and “The Knockout Artist”; numerous short stories and novellas; a play; and the memoir “A Childhood: The Biography of a Place.”

From 1968 to 1997, he taught creative writing at the University of Florida to graduate and undergraduate students, who both loved and feared him. In March 2012, after years of poor health, he died of peripheral neuropathy.

Geltner first met Crews in 2004, when writing a story for the Gainesville Sun; in 2010, the ailing Crews agreed to be interviewed with this book in mind. No doubt, he would approve of the results, drawn from hundreds of interviews with family, friends, colleagues, students and contemporaries, and from Geltner’s in-depth analyses of Crews’ fiction, journalism and memoirs.

Geltner, now an associate professor of journalism at Valdosta State University, spent 17 years as a writer and editor, and his clear-sighted reportage, combined with a vivid, novelistic approach, is the perfect vehicle for Crews’ shot-from-a-cannon persona and a life that sometimes defies belief.

Much of Crews’ early childhood is the stuff of legend. A tenant-farmer’s son who lost his father at 2, he survived polio at 4, only to fall, at 5, into a cauldron of boiling water used to butcher hogs. His mother then married his abusive, drunken uncle, a decision that gave rise to years of crippling poverty. Geltner fleshes out this well-known “CliffsNotes version” with first-hand accounts and some welcome genealogy.

Equally mythical are Crews’ unlikely metamorphoses: tobacco picker to Marine, high school composition teacher to much-in-demand creative writing teacher, emerging novelist to hotshot Playboy freelancer and columnist, family man to rampant womanizer, revered professor to tattooed, Mohawked outlaw. With a journalist’s eye for the zeitgeist, Geltner sets each phase of Crews’ development into its historical context, whether describing the Korean War recruitment in South Georgia during the ’50s or the prostitution, narcotics and organized crime surrounding the Valdez, Alaska, pipeline Crews reported on in the ’70s.

Geltner maintains a warm relationship with his subject, allowing Crews’ irreverent, raunchy, no-holds-barred personality to swagger forth in delightfully uncensored remarks and observations, many of them unprintable. We see the faces of the demons that compelled him through Geltner’s careful anatomy of their origins: the poisonous beginnings, the death of Crews’ first son by drowning, and the lifelong, “relentless feelings of inferiority” that no success could check.

The central mystery of Crews’ life — the identity of his biological father — surfaced in his restless dealings with mentors, publishers and editors, notably Andrew Lytle, who had mentored Flannery O’Connor and was a highly regarded professor at the University of Florida in 1957, when Crews arrived as a freshman. Geltner tracks Crews as he breaks with Lytle’s influence, copes with his disapproval and criticism, and patterns his own flamboyant teaching style after Lytle’s.

His search for the father he never knew culminated in Crews’ best-selling memoir, “Childhood,” a project he’d hoped would be “a soul-cleansing experience.” Though its reception surpassed everything he’d written so far, the book seemed only “to magnify his psychic pain,” Geltner says, signaling a new level of misery and self-loathing. “He would not go to bed sober for nine full years.”

It was during that era that a bruised and sodden Crews, in an incident Geltner captures with dignity and humor, answered a question after a reading at the University of South Florida, inspiring the book’s title.

“What does it take to become a real novelist?” someone asked. “Blood! Bone! Marrow!” Crews bellowed repeatedly, before being carried out.

But, no matter how large his reputation loomed, Crews never lost sight of the difference between the legend and the reality. Rarely a day passed that he didn’t fulfill his 500-word quota. “There is no quitting,” Crews said of writing. “There is no finish line. … That’s the one thing you don’t entertain. To quit lets you off the hook, takes the hook out of your gut.”

By the late ’90s, drugs and alcoholism, compounded by Crews’ childhood polio and an oxycodone habit, had taken a heavy toll. Geltner writes movingly of this last decade, when Crews, housebound and consumed by loneliness, passed up awards ceremonies and grew increasingly dependent on his first wife and remaining son for care.

“A writer’s job,” Crews famously said, “is to get naked, to hide nothing, to look away from nothing, to look at it. To not blink, to be not embarrassed by it or ashamed of it. Strip it down and let’s get down to where the blood is, where the bone is.”

In this brilliant record of the life of one of our most afflicted and uniquely Southern writers, Geltner has obeyed Crews’ rule — all the way down to the marrow.

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