Today marks the late Harry Crews' 82nd birthday—the start of the Harry Crews story back in 1935—and as we brought you a compilation of all of his literary "last words," back in March as an homage to his passing, here's its companion, all of the "first words" of all of Crews' works. According to award-winning Crews biographer, Ted Geltner, "Harry Crews thought a lot about first lines. He liked to use his opening to set the tone for each book." As if a motto for how he lived his life, Crews once said “I try to write the strongest beginning I can write and then try to live up to it.” Geltner added, "Harry would often recall toiling for hours to get the first sentence of A Childhood just right" and recalls Crews bragging, “I can quote that sentence; sentences like that don’t just pop out of your head. I’m proud of that sentence. I was proud of that sentence when I finally got it.”
"I can really see how accomplished he was, experiencing these sentences years after reading the books for the first time," said Geltner. "Many of his openings both introduce the protagonist and reveal something about them that the reader will not truly understand until more than 300 pages later. I hope you enjoy these!"
“Gospel Singer” (1968)
Enigma, Georgia, was a dead end.
“Naked in Garden Hills” (1969)
In a cabin on the treeless side of Phosphate Mountain, Jester was asleep in the saddle. He lay in the legs of his high yellow woman and dreamed of the Kentucky Derby. It was the Run for the Roses and the smell of money was in the air. His nostrils flared, and his tiny, iron, yellow-palmed hands held the oily reins tight. His green and yellow silks fluttered over a stallion whose mane and tail were black fire. The horse was enormous, cantering sideways as they approached the starting gate, pawing the earth, snorting, breathing like a bellows. Jester rode him high and light, the way a leaf rides the wind. He was not afraid.
“This Thing Don’t Lead to Heaven” (1970)
Carlita Rojas Mundez walked out of the men’s rest room at the Gulf Oil Station in Cumseh, Georgia, and saw the Greyhound Bus leaving her. She did not shout for the bus to stop, or even wave, but simply stood watching until it was gone. Then she walked around to the door of the station and told J.L. Gates that the bus had just left her and she was not sure what she was going to do now. But J.L., who had been looking at a comic strip from the Albany Herald, didn’t under her because she told him in Spanish. And J.L. had never heard any Spanish in his life, didn’t even know anybody spoke it.
How’s at? How’s at? he said.
“Karate is a Thing of the Spirit” (1971)
From this distance it sounded like the barking of a dog. At regular intervals the sound – hoarse, abrupt – came to her over the sand dunes. It was the only sound anywhere. She had been walking for almost an hour: north on U.S. 1, then east on Andrew Johnson to Hollywood Beach, and through the retirees and their wives, burnt the color of cork, paunched, sunvisored, greased with Coppertone and baby oil, through their beach chairs and umbrellas and blankets and wailing transistors, their pinched leathery faces squinting in her direction, their eyes rolling to follow her, not believing her, even though they saw her nearly every morning and knew who she was, knew that she was lethal, knew that she taught killing techniques gently.
Mister sat at the top of the car-crusher as close to joy as he’d been in a long time. The afternoon had come up Cadillacs. It seemed a good sign, a great sign. He needed one. They all needed one. The enormous machine that he used to smash cars into suitcases throbbed and pulsed under him. In the small yellow cab thirty feet off the ground, Mister took the controls in his hands and revved the engine. The leather seat that held him rocked and swayed. He waited patiently for the next car to slide into the cradle below.
“The Hawk Is Dying” (1973)
Billy Bob Mavis had been in twice that morning – talking to George with his mouth full of tacks – about Volkswagen headliners.
The Gypsy’s Curse (1974)
For the record, call me Marvin Molar. I said to call me Marvin Molar because that’s not my real name. It’s only what I call myself. I don’t know my real name. Nobody does. Actually, somebody does, but I don’t know where they are. Al Molarski raised me and named me Marvin and his name is all I got. But I dropped the “ski” part of it and just call myself Marvin Molar. I figured I had enough wrong with me without being a Polack, which is what Al is.
A Feast of Snakes (1976)
She felt the snake between her breasts, felt him there, and loved him there, coiled, the deep tumescent S held rigid, ready to strike.
A Childhood (1978)
My first memory is of a time ten years before I was born, and the memory takes place where I have never been and involves my daddy whom I never knew.
All We Need of Hell (1987)
He was thinking of Treblinka. He had already finished with Dachau and Auschwitz. And now in an effort of will the images of death pumped in his head in a certain steady rhythm. Behind his pinched burning eyelids he saw a pile of frozen eyeglasses where they had been torn from the faces of the men, women and children before they had been led into the gassy showers.
The Knockout Artist (1988)
From where he sat on a low stool, the boy – whose name was Eugene Talmadge Biggs, but who was often called Knockout or K.O. or Knocker – had counted the suits hanging in the open closet three times. And each time he counted them he came up with a different number. That did not surprise him. He was not a good counter. It was just something to do until it was time for him to go out and do the only thing he had left. Besides, nothing much surprised him anymore.
She was called Shereel Dupont, which was not her real name, and she had missed her period for the last three months running, but she was not pregnant and knew it. No, it was much better and much worse that than.
“Scar Lover” (1992)
Pete Butcher had not meant to speak to her. And he probably would not have if she had not stared at him so directly as she stepped out of the shade of the oak tree in front of her house to stand in the sun on the sidewalk.
“Where Does One Go When There’s No Place Left to Go?” (1995)
Parked in the Winnebago Camper right on the wide beach at St. Augustine, Duffy was listening to the sound of the ocean.
“The Mulching of America” (1995)
The air was a shimmering of heat, and it felt to Hickum Looney as though with every step he took, the weight of the sun on the top of his balding head and his thin shoulders became heavier.
When Johnson Meechum came up the three steps of his purple double-wide trailer and opened the front door, his wife, Mabel, was waiting for him, her thin hands clenched on her hips, her tinted hair standing from her scalp in a tiny blue cloud. He could look right through the hair to her freckled skull.
“An American Family” (2006)
It was Sunday, Major Melton’s second wedding anniversary. As soon as he opened his eyes he heard the demented barking of the pit bulldog. Then all the way from the other room he smelled the baby. The baby boy with the strange markings. The dog’s barking got louder. Curled beside him under the thin blanket, his wife farted briefly as she snored counterpoint to the barking of the dog. He knew the dog was probably as crazy as it was ever going to get now. Poor bastard. Major was sympathetic. The dog had gone crazy from being tied on a leash that was too short. Major’s own problem exactly, which hardly made him or the dog unique.
“Going Down in Valdez” (February 1975, Playboy)
I was standing there in front of the Pipeline Club in a fine, misting rain with my hand still on the door of the taxi that had brought me in from the airport to Valdez, Alaska (pronounced Valdeez, so that the last syllable rhymes with disease, by the folks who lived thereabouts, folks who do not take the pronunciation of their town lightly and who are subject to become very pissed very quick if you do not come down hard on the eez, drawing it out in a long sibilant z); I was standing there looking at a legless man where he sat on the sidewalk on his little wheeled dolly, a beatific look of ecstasy on his thin, pale face as he looked not back at me but up into the cold, slanting mist, and the lady cabdriver was saying for the fourth time since I got into her cab: “These goddamn new people think they own this goddamn town, but I’ll tell you one goddamn thing: They don’t own it yet.”
“Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews” (Paperback – May 2017)
The features editor at the Gainesville Sun pivoted in his chair slightly and looked down the two short rows of cubicles that housed the Sun’s feature writing staff. The writers paused, put down their phones, swiveled away from their keyboards, and focused their attention on the editor.
“Who wants to call Harry Crews?” he asked.