Unless, that is, you are a real muleman, in which case you can get the age of a mule from how his haunches sit, how he walks, whether he has stiff joints or sore spots, how shiny his coat is, and whether he kicks. Any market invites fraud, though, and mulemen are matched by mouth doctors, who, for a dollar if they aren’t very good or for five if they are, will use a drill to recondition a mule’s teeth, the way a used-car salesman might roll back a car’s odometer. This makes Crews’s memoir sound like “Moby-Mule,” but the whole equine excursus is only a few paragraphs, a short prelude to an explanation of how Crews’s mother came to pay twenty dollars for a mule named Pete, who had to stop every seventy yards to rest, not because he was tired but because he’d picked up the habit from the eighty-year-old farmer who owned him before.
Earlier, when Crews describes how he fell into the cauldron of boiling water, the accident is prefaced by a granular account of hog-killing in Bacon County. He moves between several registers—the culinary, the veterinary, the down-home—deploying highly specific words like a poet: goozle, haslet, gallus, gambreling stick, cracklins, headcheese, heel strings. After Christmas, when the winter was deep and the crops were in, families would gather at a farm, as if for a barn raising, to butcher hogs, putting meat away in a smokehouse for the coming year. The temperature outside, cold enough for the pork not to spoil, was crucial, as was the temperature of the water into which the hogs were dipped: too hot and the hair stiffens and can’t be removed from the hide; just right and “the hair slips off smooth as butter, leaving a white, naked, utterly beautiful pig.”
That perfect temperature was still so blistering that it scalded Crews, who was five when he tumbled into the water after being snapped off a chain of children playing pop-the-whip. Crews remembers a neighbor reaching into the water to get him out, and then, as if he were one of the hogs, the skin on his hand slipping off like a glove, fingernails and all, and collecting into a puddle on the ground.
That was the third time in about as many years that Crews’s life nearly ended. The year before, he woke up with his legs drawn up under him, suffering from what he would later learn was polio. He was told that he would never walk again, and months of bed rest left him with a sense of being both blessed and cursed, granted special privileges but subjected to endless stares and speculation about his infirmities. Three years before that, when he was just a toddler, his father had been spraying the family’s tobacco fields for cutworms when their two yearling cows wandered near a barrel of poison. His mother ran to shoo them away, and when she came back into the house Crews was bleeding from his lips, holding the raw lye that she had been using to clean the floors. They rushed the boy to the doctor, and when they returned home the cows were dead anyway, having got into the poison while they were gone. “How tragic it was and how typical,” Crews writes. “The world that circumscribed the people I come from had so little margin for error, for bad luck, that when something went wrong, it almost always brought something else down with it.”
Tenant farmers, mouth doctors, faith healers, conjure women: the Bacon County of Crews’s book is populated with people who know how to do things—the kinds of things that can help you survive, if they don’t kill you. And Crews knew how to do things, too, things he learned in his home place, the same way others learned their trades. Storytelling was something everyone in Bacon County did, and Crews paid attention. He practiced what he learned by making up tales about the people in Sears, Roebuck and Company catalogues. These characters would invariably come to bad ends, because that was the direction most stories tended where Crews came from. The men around him told tales about people they knew, full of violence and death and yet somehow always darkly funny; the women told harrowing stories about anyone at all. “It was always the women who scared me,” Crews writes.
By way of example, he sits us down on the floor of his family’s cabin, under his mother’s large, square quilting frame, listening as she and other women sew, their thimbles and needles clicking like keys on a typewriter. “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” one woman says. “None of us knows the reason.” The quilters keep on with their staccato sermonizing about the certainty of God’s mysteries and the need to keep the faith—and then comes the turn: “A week ago tomorrow I heard tell of something that do make a body wonder, though.”
“Nobody asks what she heard,” Crews writes. “They know she’ll tell. The needles click over the thimbles in the stretching silence. Down on the floor we stop sucking and have the sugar tits caught between our teeth.” That “we” is Crews and two other young children, but it includes us, too, since the stories of how Crews learned to write are also fine demonstrations of how well he does it. Like all of Crews’s stories, it is built on diction so distinctive that it’s confined to one or two census tracts, on sentences so plumb that you could rest a level on them, and on characters you cannot forget.
What Woolf wrote of Dickens is true of Crews: he has astonishing powers of characterization, and he sketches full figures with striking simplicity. Such individuals could seem like caricatures, except that they are seen as children see: with attention, curiosity, and awe. Crews’s childhood is Dickensian in other ways, too—ways that are almost unimaginable in today’s safety-strapped, cotton-balled world. He loved imagining the lives of the models in the Sears catalogue because they seemed wildly unlikely to him: none of them had scars, and all of them had complete sets of fingers, teeth, and limbs. The people in his world were maimed and marked by hard labor and hard living.
This was true not only on the surface but often at the core. Crews recognized the ugliness in Bacon County as well as the beauty, and he did not shy away from the former. The first page of “A Childhood” is an account of how Crews’s father “got the clap” from a “flat-faced Seminole girl.” Later, “the sorriest man in the county” uses a racial slur as an “affectionate name” for his wife, and an aunt interrupts Crews when he refers to a Black man by the honorific “Mister” to tell him that he should use the same slur. A friend’s father routinely beats his entire family “until he had punched them all enough to make them listen,” and Crews’s stepfather menaces his family with fists and a twelve-gauge until Crews’s mother finally takes the kids and flees. She tells a crying Crews, cold and tired from walking through the night, to quit wishing that he could go back to his father. “Wish in one hand and shit in the other,” she says. “See which one fills up first.”
We all leave childhood behind, but we don’t all leave everything behind, as Crews did. First, his mother moved her sons a hundred miles south to Jacksonville, Florida; then Crews left for the Marine Corps, eventually attending the University of Florida on the G.I. Bill. After earning a graduate degree in education, he became a creative-writing professor and taught in Gainesville for thirty years. Every one of these moves took him farther from Bacon County—if not in miles then in milestones, each more estranging than the last.
“Blood, Bone, and Marrow,” a readable and sympathetic biography by Ted Geltner, from 2016, chronicles the other seventy years of Crews’s life after the six recorded in “A Childhood.” In Gainesville, Crews became an acolyte of the novelist and critic Andrew Lytle, an associate of Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. Crews hated suburbs and strip malls as much as any Southern Agrarian did, but he knew too much about subsistence living to defend it; he came from a different class and arrived at a different politics than most of the Agrarians. That was true when it came to what he later called the “racist virus,” which he insisted he never caught, even though he was exposed to it like air during childhood. Lytle taught Crews about craft, both how to hone it and how to teach it, but Crews ultimately rebelled against his teacher and the field of creative writing. He was alienated by the middle-class life style that the university setting offered, and he acted out by offending its mores and transgressing its rules. He also transgressed in his personal life, which remained as turbulent as it had been in his childhood. He married and divorced the same woman twice; they lost their firstborn when the boy, not yet four, drowned in a neighbor’s pool.
A one-novel-a-year pace through much of the sixties and seventies gave way to three decades in which Crews, by his own account, wasn’t sober a single day. He drank booze and did cocaine, Dilaudid, Darvon, heroin, quaaludes, and any other drugs he could find; in between benders, visits to rehab, and affairs with students, he put together a few dozen essays and features for magazines, including Playboy and Esquire. For much of his life, Crews looked like he belonged either behind a bar or behind bars: his head was wide like his shoulders, he had worry lines and wrinkles that looked as deep as the furrows in a field, and he showed off as much muscle and tattoo as the weather allowed. He was obsessed with sports—bodybuilding, boxing, drag racing, dogfighting, karate, hawking. While working on a story about a pipeline in Alaska, he woke up one morning with a black hinge inked on one of his elbows. Years later, he covered an arm with a smiling skull and the calligraphed words of an E. E. Cummings poem: “how do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mister Death?”