If you visit Bacon County, Georgia, the birthplace of the novelist Harry Crews (1935–2012), you won’t find any commemorative markers, statues, street signs, or parks. But further south, across the state in Gainesville—where Crews taught for decades at the University of Florida—he is still remembered as a legendary figure. He was infamous not only in literary circles but also in pool halls and bars. In South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature, Margaret Eby follows the rough and occasionally blood-stained trail that Harry Crews blazed in becoming a “literary wild man, a cult writer with moxie.”
On a sojourn to Gainesville, I met Ted Geltner, Crews’s biographer and friend, for a beer at Lillian’s Music Store, one of the dive bars Crews used to frequent in the college town. It’s the kind of place that it’s easy to imagine Crews in: a popcorn machine lurks in the corner, the bartenders wear suspenders with musical notation printed on them, and the décor looks like it was lifted from a church auction. During a lull in our conversation, Geltner pointed to a corner across the street from where we were sitting. “That’s where Harry got stabbed,” he said, with all the gravity of noting his favorite coffee spot. In Geltner’s telling, a fan had come up to Crews and asked who he was. Once confirming the writer’s identity, he produced a knife and cut Crews, as a kind of souvenir interaction. The wound wasn’t that serious, Geltner assured me. Some fans ask for autographs, but Crews’s fans demanded blood—perhaps because blood is the currency Crews most valued. These are the kind of Crews stories that Gainesville is rife with, the ones where he is a cross between Hunter S. Thompson, Lord Byron, and Popeye. Crews mythology floats over Gainesville like a thin fog. He is part of the climate.
Reprinted with permission from South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature, by Margaret Eby, published by W. W. Norton & Company. © 2015 by W. W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.