Florida Frenzy (1982)
I figured I’d start here. Get a feel for the fella, since this is a collection of essays and a three pieces of fiction – two of which are excerpts that I’ll skip as I plan to read the full novel. Most of the essays seem to have been published in Esquire or Sport magazines.
But why start at all? Who can explain these things.? Readers! Whatcha gonna do with ’em? I noticed the name (Harry Crews) on an interesting list – 100 Great American Novels You’ve (Probably) Never Read – and I thought I recognized it. But no, I must have been thinking of someone else. Checking further though, the guy intrigued me. First off, he had been teaching at the University of Florida around the time I was there. As I read further, I figured I had to take the cruise. After all, I can get off whenever I want, right?
So I’m off on a voyage of indeterminate length.
Before Crews starts to give some local color, he let’s us know where the local is. Gainesville, Florida (home of the UofF) and Southern Georgia, where he grew up. In Why I Live Where I Live, Crews sure brings back a memory of something that I (we…many of us did it) used to do back in the day.
I can leave the place where I live a couple of hours before daylight and be on a deserted little strip of sand called Crescent Beach in time to throw a piece of meat on a fire and then, in a few minutes, lie back sucking on a vodka bottle and chewing on a hunk of bloody beef while the sun lifts out of the Atlantic Ocean (somewhat unnerving but also mystically beautiful to a man who never saw a body of water bigger than a pond until he was grown) and while the sun rises lie on a blanket, brain singing from vodka and a bellyful of beef, while the beautiful bikinied children from the University of Florida drift down the beach….if all that starts to pall…I can leave the beach and in three hours be out on the end of a dock, sitting…while the sun I saw lift out of the Atlantic that morning sinks into the warm, waveless Gulf of Mexico.
I don’t know how many times during the course of the four years I was in Gainesville that I made this criss-cross trek along the upper neck of the Florida peninsula. Sunrise on the Atlantic, sunset on the Gulf of Mexico. The experience brings a peace with it that is incomparable
Crews gives a simple yet eloquent explanation about where his writing comes from. From his soul, shaped in the swamp.
T.J. made his living out of the swamp,and I make mine now out of how the swamp shaped me, how the rhythms and patterns of speech in that time and place are still alive in my mouth today and, more important, alive in my ear. I feed off now and hope always to feed off the stories I heard told in the early dark around fires where coffee boiled while our clothes, still wet from stringing traps all day, slowly dried to our bodies.
In The Hawk is Flying. Crews comes across a red tail hawk that has been shot, its wing injured such that it cannot fly. He knows he cannot leave it, and so has only two options: kill it immediately, or nurse it back to health. He chooses the latter. After many weeks of patient care, it’s time to set her free.
I kept her longer than I needed to because I had come to love her, probably because she did not love me, and never would. She was as wild the day I flew her free as she was the day I found her. Hawks are not your friend and do not want to be. They are incapable of love, and I have for a long time thought that was precisely why I so much loved them.
This essay makes quite a counter-point to the three that follow: Cockfighting, An Unfashionable View, Running Fox, and A Day at the Dogfights. All express ‘unfashionable’ views, to say the least. But Crews slinks not an inch from his views, colored as they are by his upbringing, his culture, his surroundings. There is a certain nobility about his frankness, his I don’t care a whit what you may think of this attitude. And when he talks about our obsession with blood sport, it’s hard to argue with him. That what we really like to see is blood at boxing matches, the gloves dropped at hockey games, the dugouts emptying, the flaming car crashes. These impulses may be withering away, but they still have an atavistic presence in our current obsession with so-called ‘reality’ tv. Reality, indeed. The reality is mostly the hidden possibility of embarrassment and humiliation.
I’ve always been addicted to blood sports of all kinds. And I make no apology for it. Where I come from, we don’t confuse animals with people. We don’t sleep with poodles or whisper baby talk to horses
Some may find the descriptions here, especially of the dogfights, a bit hard to take – yet they seem removed from the Michael Vick variety, at least a little. Crews writes of these people (and he’s of them) in a way making it harder to stand in judgement.
In Tuesday Night with Cody, Jimbo, and a Fish of Some Proportion, Crews writes about bars and the importance of where you drink as opposed to what you drink:
a bar that’s right is a place you can go and sit for hours in the friendly supportive dark, sipping warm coke and eating endless bags of fried hogskins…
Such a bar should never be crowded. If a bar’s crowded, you know immediately it’s no good because there are never enough people who know a good bar from a bad bar to cause a crowd. A crowded bar always pours a lot of things like Tequila Sunrises and Black Russians, drinks that have nothing to do with the pleasures of whiskey.
Not too long ago, I was drinking whiskey with Madison Jones in Alabama and a boy at the table ordered a Bloody Mary. When it came, Madison watched the thing for a moment and said: “What’s in one of them, anyhow?”
The boy said: “Well, it’s a little tomato juice and a little Worcestershire sauce and some salt and just a touch of Tabasco and…:
“You put a little hamburger in that you’d have a whole meal, wouldn’t you” Madison said.
Just so. Whiskey with food is fine, but putting whiskey and food in more or less equal amounts in the same glass is uncivilized.
The mean and ornery sumbitches that Crews surrounds us with are never without their gritty humor, as here in Poaching Gators:
“I probably oughten to ‘a’ shot him.” His voice was quiet, almost bemused, as though he might have been talking to himself. “I don’t like to shoot a bull like that. I think it’s because of his dick. A bull gator’s got a dick a man’d mortgage both his legs for. He draws it in when he ain’t using it, like a rattlesnake, and runs it out when he needs it. But it stays hard all the time, and on top of that, the goddamn thing’s got something that looks just like a tongue on the end of it.”
In the final essay (The Goat Day Olympics), Crews gathers us around him and shows us the community, the spirit, and the affection he has for his people.
Cars and pickups were coming in behind us now, parking all over the place. Nobody is invited to the Goat Day Olympics. Everybody is invited. Jetter had come in with several bushels of oysters from Cedar Key, along with slabs of ribs, and somebody else was unloading baskets of sweet corn that would be soaked in lake water and steamed under hot croker sacks later in the day. Several guys were digging out a place for the oak and hickory fire to burn down for several hours before it would be ready to steam corn and roast oysters and finally receive the goat and pig and ribs. Boyd had brought his charcoal roaster by and put on two ducks and a turkey he’d shot during hunting season. Several dozen ladies had turned up, some with men and some without, but all bearing bowls of potato salad and pies and ambrosia and fresh vegetables that still had to be cooked. Three kegs of beer had already been tapped, and the sun was just breaking clear of the oaks in the east, turning the early sky a brilliant eye-blinding blue. And in the first rays of the rising sun, three stunning ladies waded into the lake, where they seemed to shine not with the reflected light of the sun but with some internal light of their own. It was all happy enough to make a grown man cry.
The collection Florida Frenzy ends with three pieces of fiction. I read only one, since the other two were excerpted chapters of other books by Crews that I wish to read. After the final essay though, The Enthusiast comes as a jarring counterpoint to the bucolic scene that ended The Goat day Olympics. This is not a happy home. The father is violent and psychologically abusive to his son. Unexpected.
So I’ll set out to sea and Crews once more. Port of Call 2? This Thing Don’t Lead To Heaven.