Harry Crews is the writer whose name Kim Gordon, Lydia Lunch, and Sadie Mae used to name their band, Harry Crews. (They also used the title of his novel Naked in Garden Hills for the title of their one album.) Many critics and reporters called him a cult writer—he died in 2012—and this year, Penguin Classics released its editions of his first novel, 1968’s The Gospel Singer, and his memoir, 1978’s A Childhood—The Biography of a Place.
Crews was born in Bacon County, Georgia, in 1935, and grew up in a community of subsistence farming. He dedicated A Childhood to his son, and one of the book’s intended purposes seems to be recording his memories of a gone way of life when he still had those memories. Killing a hog and utilizing all of its parts, for example, was a procedure that Crews describes in journalistic detail, and showed me that while America may be on its way to becoming a poor country—and has more and more citizens who angrily identify as poor—we still waste like the idle rich. The truly poor waste nothing.
Much of the book is procedurally descriptive, the style is never dazzling, and it’s for those reasons that when Crews throws in a surprise, it is really surprising—there’s no natural narrative crescendo: it just happens. One was horrific enough that I thought about not continuing, which very rarely happens with a good book.
Crews’s honesty never flags, and so, for example, if a band of people then pejoratively referred to as “gypsies” distracted Crews’s family while some of them stole a sow, fulfilling the gypsies-tramps-and-thieves stereotype and inflicting a serious financial hit, he writes about it agenda-free. Same when he recounts his earliest memory, an overheard story about his father sleeping with a Seminole woman, the noises she reportedly made, and the gonorrhea he received as a result: agenda-free.
Also, in 1978, memoirs by relatively unknown people weren’t particularly popular (it’s unjust that the ’70s got stuck with the “Me Decade” tag before the ’10s came along). Crews likely assumed that A Childhood would have even fewer readers than his under-read novels, but it was time to write it, and he wrote it. I’ve never read a better memoir. –Jim Woster (Penguin Classics)