HARRY CREWS' father worked for seven years in the 1920s building a road through the Everglades; the first part of A Childhood concerns itself with a son imagining what his father, whom he never knew, might have thought about an Indian woman his father had known in the swamps: "He had not wanted her, but they had been in the swamp for three years. They worked around the clock, and if they weren't working or sleeping, their time was pretty much spent drinking or fighting or shooting gators. So since he could not have what he wanted, he tried to want what he could have, but it had been miserable, all of it because of the way she sounded and the way she smelled and the mosquitoes clotted about their faces thick as a veil and the heavy black flies that crawled over their legs."
When Crews' father left the swamp to go home to Bacon County, Georgia, he took a little money and a gold watch, inscribed "To Ray Crew, Pioneer Builder of the Tamiami Trail." He left behind a testicle, lost to the raging case of gonorrhea he contracted during their brief and unsatisfactory coupling.
Since he could not have what he wanted, he tried to want what he could have... that clause might be the key to this little gem of a book. Detailing his life up until his sixth year on a hard-scrabble south Georgia farm during the Depression, Crews joyously, almost perversely, catalogues the variety of horrors that can befall a young child. But the book is much more than just a catalogue, more than just biography--it is, as Crews writes, "the biography of a childhood which necessarily is the biography of a place, a way of life gone forever out of the world."
The South Crews presents in his novels (Car, A Feast of Snakes, and The Gypsy's Curse, to name three of the better ones) is inventive, absurdist, existential, savagely funny--like a script by William Faulkner and Jean-Paul Sartre. Good books, some of those novels, but sometimes just too frustratingly weird. Crews also used to write a column called "Grits" for the pre-Felker Esquire, and the best of them stick in your memory like Georgia mud to your boots--an old, nearly-blind mule trader sagely discusses the art and artifices of a trade that is almost dead; a poacher takes Crews alligator hunting in the Florida swamps. And now in A Childhood, we have an account which blends the best of the columns and the best of the novels with the life that produced Crews' brutal imagination.
Ray went home to Bacon County, got married, and spent the next few years trading one barren farm for another, always behind at the bank. One story especially illuminates the Crews' plight during these years: In 1936 they got a little ahead and were able to buy two cows. Early one morning, Mrs. Crews, cleaning the floor with homemade lye, happened to notice their two cows wandering towards a barrel of lead poisoning used for spraying tobacco plants. She yelled for Ray, but far out in the fields he couldn't hear her, and so she started for the cows herself. Two steps out the front door she heard young Harry scream and knew immediately he had swallowed some of the lye. She ran back into the house and snatched him up, then ran for Ray, who hitched up the wagon and galloped the eight miles to the nearest doctor. It turned out Harry's injuries were not as serious as they had at first seemed:
When they got home, the yearling cows were dead, lying already still by the barrel of lead poisoning.
Daddy strapped the sprayer on and went back to work in the tobacco. He worked until it was so dark he couldn't see, and then he hitched Daisy to the only two cows he had ever owned and dragged them off behind the field for the buzzards to eat. He was afraid to butcher them because of the poison.
In 1937, Ray died--of hard work, Crews suggests. The night he died, one of his friends stole all the meat in the smokehouse. Not apparently a friend or supposedly a friend, says Crews--a friend, and a close one. "It was a hard time in that land, and a lot of men did things for which they were ashamed and suffered for the rest of their lives. But they did them because of hunger and sickness and because they could not bear the sorry spectacle of their children dying for lack of a doctor and their wives growing old before they were thirty."
Harry's mother married his father's brother, and things seemed to be getting better again. One day Harry's legs began to tighten up and then they began to draw up, until the backs of his heels touched his buttocks. No one seemed to be able to find out why--including the old faith healer who came by to say a verse from Ezekiel and "I cain't say as I've ever seed laigs jest like them. But them is the Lord's laigs and he's seed them laigs and He's laid His hand on them laigs and He knows, so it don't bother me none that I ain't seed'm."
The point is obvious--if you can't have what you want, try to want what you have. Poor Harry had only recovered from his sudden disease and his legs straightened out again when he fell into a vat of almost-boiling water, intended for just-slaughtered hogs. In the most starkly written passage of the book, Crews says:
What I remember is John C. Pace, a black man whose daddy was also named John C. Pace, reached right into the scalding water and pulled me out and set me on my feet and stood back to look at me. I did not fall but stood looking at John and seeing in his face that I was dead.
The children's faces, including my brother's, showed I was dead, too. And I knew it must be so because I knew where I had fallen and I felt no pain--not in that moment--and I knew with the bone-chilling certainty that most people are spared that, yes, death does come and mine had just touched me.
John C. Pace ran screaming and the other children ran screaming and left me standing there by the boiler, my hair and skin and clothes steaming in the bright cold February air.
They wrapped him in a sheet: "They did it out of panic and terror and ignorance and love," and Crews did not die, although most of his skin came off with the sheets.
At times, A Childhood is a wondrous and fearful book--funny, too, as when Crews describes how people doctor mules to make them appear younger, concluding that "a farting mule is a good mule." But always he comes back to his central thesis: It was a hard time in a hard place, and lot of times the only way to find the courage to get by was to by-God want what you had more than the next fellow. The book ends, skipping forward 15 years, in 1956, with Crews just home from the Marine Corps, cropping tobacco with his cousins under a hot Georgia sun. As it got hotter and hotter, his cousins began to pick on him a little bit; three years in the Marine Corps had not prepared him for this. Looking up, Crews mumbled, "Goddam sun."
The joking and laughter were gone. In Bacon County you did not curse "the sun or the rain or the land or God. They were all the same thing." To have lived there and known that was something Crews had forgotten--something the pop sociologists, fresh from one tour down Interstate 20, never understood--but he knew it again and would always know it. We are fortunate he has taken the time to explain it to us.