If a cult writer’s aura endures long enough, their work might be elevated to Penguin Classics status. At leas, that’s what’s happened to Harry Crews, the author of many southern gothic novels populated by freaks and grotesques, including his most well-known novel, A Feast of Snakes. Born in Georgia in 1935, Crews died in 2012 and claimed to have sold only a few thousand books in hardback during his lifetime (a series of celebrity admirers including Sean Penn and Madonna failed to translate into mainstream popularity). Having published eight novels in as many years, beginning with The Gospel Singer in 1968, in his 40s Crews turned to nonfiction to recount his first six years alive and testify to “a way of life gone forever out of the world”. His memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place was first published in 1978 and is now reissued (along with The Gospel Singer) with a loving foreword by Tobias Wolff. In the US, there has been a corresponding surge of enthusiasm for Crews and his work, with the New Yorker recently describing A Childhood as “one of the finest memoirs ever written by an American”.
Childhood memoirs (and novels) face a formal difficulty relating to the essence of childhood itself: if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Whereas adult life, differentiated by profession, sexual career and cumulative experience is infinitely diverse, all childhoods are basically alike – which is why the subtitle to Crews’s book is crucial. Bacon County, Georgia, in the 1920s and 30s is depicted as a violent, pre-modern backwater of poverty and squalor inhabited by the variably disfigured: scars, missing fingers, chewed-up ears and mangled extremities are more common than wholeness. Harry and his friends pore over the Sears, Roebuck catalogue in wonderment at how “all the people in its pages were perfect”, though he “had known for a long time that it was all a lie” and there surely couldn’t be a way to live in this world without mutilations.
The first and more moving of the book’s two parts recount events that took place before Crews’s birth, portraying the biological father who died when Crews was two years old. We first encounter his father as a very young man, stricken with gloom after contracting “the clap” during a sordid sexual encounter with a Native American girl (he subsequently loses a testicle). This man “who I never knew but whose presence has never left” haunts both Harry and A Childhood as a shaping absence, a figure who, because he can never be known in reality, assumes mythic proportions in the boy’s imagination. Harry and his older brother are raised by his inventively foul-mouthed mother (“You the two sorriest boys that ever shit out of the gills of an asshole”) and his father’s brother, who takes to whiskey and eventually discharges a shotgun in the family home, provoking mother and sons to flee to Jacksonville.
Amid the hard rural living we see glints of the writer young Crews will one day become. The aforementioned Sears, Roebuck catalogue is a fount of invented stories, Harry and friends imagining the conflicts, lusts and alliances that form between the models, who Harry imagines all know one another: “There had to be hard feelings, trouble between them on and off, violence, and hate between them as well as love.” Crews emphasises that he grew up in an oral culture of storytelling and that making up stories “was not only a way for us to understand the way we lived but also a defence against it”.
Southern vernacular is rendered faithfully in dialogue – “When I hern tell about that gul taken and died after her snake was kilt, I known the same thing gone happen to me I keep goin out there” – and so is the era and region’s perfectly casual racism.
Typical of memoirs and especially childhood ones, Crews’s book lacks any strong narrative pull beyond the simple passing of time, settling for a descriptive neutrality in its succession of anecdotes and incidents, some more engaging than others. The degree to which a reader enjoys it will depend on how compelling they find the details of country life in bygone times (for me, there were quite a few humdrum passages). The rural world Crews evokes is harsh and brutal, but a sweet, unsentimental sadness softens the pages, his generous and forgiving consciousness declining to come down hard on the volatile figures who make up his past. Everyone has their share of sorrow and trauma, including him. After he falls into a trough of boiling water used to scald the hairs off slaughtered hogs, he watches his skin peel away, leaving severe burns he is fortunate to survive. When he contracts polio, his legs bend back grotesquely (a faith healer assures him the cruel deformation won’t be permanent and so it transpires). Both experiences are a schooling in empathy that will later serve him well as a novelist: “I hated it and dreaded it and was humiliated by it. I felt how lonely and savage it was to be a freak.”
It seems that writing A Childhood took its toll on Crews. Afterwards, his heavy drinking escalated and he endured a decade-long fictive drought. In preserving a vanished form of American life, he admits to his own incurable estrangement: “If you do not have a home place, very little will ever be yours… there is nowhere I can think of as the home place.”
• A Childhood by Harry Crews is published by Penguin Classics (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply