The scene could fit nicely into a Harry Crews novel: A legless man with a “beatific look of ecstasy on his thin, pale face” sits on a dolly outside the airport in Valdez, Alaska. Crews initially understands the look to mean the man must be a “religious mystic famous in Valdez for seeing into the secret heart of things.”
But then, as Crews moves toward him:
The legless man put his padded fist down and gave himself a shove, shooting his little dolly past me. I stopped, blinked. There on the cement where the legless man had been sitting were two symmetrical, perfectly formed human turds. I turned just in time to see the man being lifted by two young boys into a camper on the back of a Ford pickup. I knew I’d been given a sign. Because I believe most devotedly in such things, I knew I had been given a sign to be reckoned with.
It’s an image that is both disturbing and funny, one that stays with you, whether you like it or not. Crews’s fiction is rife with such images. He made his living writing about the outcasts, the social, sexual and physical deviants, the “freaks” from whom the rest of us would avert our gaze. This image, however, wasn’t one he conjured up. It was the opening lines to his very first work of journalism.
Though it wasn’t apparent at the time, in the mid-70’s the sun was setting on the first wave of New Journalism. (The first issue of People, perhaps the sign the wave had crested, appeared on newsstands March of 1974.) It had been an unrivaled era of literary innovation. Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion, Gay Talese, and others had been allowed the freedom to experiment with the form. Magazines such as New York, Esquire, and Rolling Stone had become canvases upon which writers could show their stuff.
Over at Playboy, a team of young editors was aware of the New Journalism trend. Playboy was, at the time, a profit machine. Hugh Hefner’s grand plan to mix sex with high-society culture had dovetailed nicely with the changing mores of the era, and, thanks to the resulting financial success, the editors had a big budget and the freedom to spend it as they pleased.
At the end of the work day, the Playboy editors would make their way across the street from their headquarters in Chicago to their favorite bar and dream up ways to spend money and attract new writing talent to the pages of their magazine. Late into one such session, an idea was hatched: How about if we send Harry Crews to Alaska?
Crews had burst on the American literary scene in 1968 with the publication of The Gospel Singer, which drew comparisons to Faulkner and O’Connor. By the 70’s, he had developed a reputation as a writer of unique talent and subject matter, one who focused on the fringes of society, and who found humor and humanity in the margins. Though he had turned down several magazine assignments already, something about Alaska intrigued him, and in the summer of 1974 he flew to Chicago and spent several hours in the bar with the Playboy staff. By the end of the night, he had agreed to fly to Valdez and look into the controversial Trans-Alaskan Pipeline project. Valdez was the epicenter, a tiny town that was in the midst of a 500 percent population explosion, where land values had shot up 5,000 percent.
As the Watergate hearing droned on that summer, news of the coming Alaskan pipeline could be found alongside Nixon and his men on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers. Writers from big city newspapers had already parachuted into Valdez to take the temperature.
Crews’s encounter with the legless man at the airport was his introduction to Valdez. He arrives “confused and disoriented,” and “stunned with exhaustion.” As he watches the man being loaded into the trailer, he must, literally and figuratively, find his balance. One of the joys of what follows is that we, the readers, get to observe from the outside as Crews works out his dilemma: how to navigate this foreign territory, and how to write about it.
On the second question, Crews took a page out of Gonzo playbook. The story he would tell would be of his own fish-out-of-water adventure, his dubious attempts at journalism as an untrained reporter. Where Thompson, in his Fear and Loathing persona, was the drug-addled cynic looking to score and unmasking a sea of hypocrisy along the way, Crews was the novice journalist at the mercy of both the elements and the natives, just looking for a beer and a place to crash.
After seven flights, the last of which was a bone-rattling, rain-soaked single-engine ride through the Chugach Mountains, he finds himself exhausted, with no idea how to complete his assignment, and no place to stay.
Valdez is a tiny outpost completely unprepared for the onslaught of humanity brought on by the pipeline. On the advice of a bartender, Crews heads to a work camp looking for lodging, where he mistakenly announces himself to the proprietor as a reporter writing about Valdez.
“No way,” he said. “Take you a year to write this and you still wouldn’t have it right. You’d have it wrong. The only way to measure what’s happening here? You know? You want me to tell you? I’ll tell you. A six-inch ruler made out of rubber that stretches to seventeen feet. That’s how. Nothing like this ever been done. And you can’t worry because a ruler’s got twelve inches to the foot. In Valdez, there may be twelve feet to the inch. OK?” The explanation seemed to satisfy him immensely. It tended to confuse me, but I thought better of asking him to explain it.
Duly warned, Crews plows forward with his futile attempt. He takes out his notebook, and runs through Basic Reporting 101. He goes to what passes for city hall, where he finds the mayor is out delivering the mail, and the frightened city manager, “a neatly dressed man with slicked down black hair and nervous eyes,” rattles on about the impending sewage crisis. Next he tries the police chief, who presides over a force of two officers. Crews interviews him for “a minute or two,” and learns only that he’s not getting anywhere.
While Crews the character plays the novice, Crews the writer expertly fills in the holes. The details paint a picture of a way of life being disrupted by outside interests. He describes the 400 miles of steel pipe waiting to be laid by the thousands of men that will be streaming into town, exploding the population 10 times over. He explains the looming battle between the oil companies and the defenders of the caribou and Dall sheep and the rest of the Alaskan environment that are threatened by the pipeline project.
There is tension, even a violence, in the air in Valdez, poised on the brink of becoming something it has never been before. What that something is, nobody knows. But you can hear it in the growling machinery, the whine of ripsaws, the constant beat of hammers. You can smell it in the smoky bars. You can see it in the faces of the people.
Years later, after he had dozens of journalistic assignments under his belt, Crews described his personal reporting technique. “I would listen to what the editors wanted on an assignment,” he said, “and then I would go out and get into some shit and write about that.”
In Valdez, he established that pattern. His standard reporting attempts stifled, Crews decides to look elsewhere for a story, the story he knows he will be able to tell. The remainder of his time will be spent at the Club Valdez, the town’s lone jukebox and pool-table joint, and assorted trailer parks and mobile homes where the party moves after the Club closes down.
As the drinks flow, the natives unburden themselves to Crews. Those from the lower 48, known to native Alaskans as “The Outside,” are the enemy. The people he meets are the voices that show him, and by proxy his readers, the true ideology of Valdez. Late one night at the Club Valdez, one tells him:
This job’s going to draw every high roller, promoter, hype artist, con man, pimp and dopester … It’s gone suck’m up here from the outside. And once they’re here, it’ll be all over. They’ll go through this country every city, every town, every village, like maggots through meat.
His new friend is prophetic, and, as his booze-filled nights line up one after another, he begins to meet some of the first wave of Outsiders. He meets a pair of tattoo artists in a Volkswagen van who are associates, they tell Crews, of Lyle Tuttle, “Tattooist to the Stars, the one who tattooed Janis Joplin.” After waving them off during daylight, Crews wakes up in their van the next morning, a fresh tattoo of a hinge on his elbow. “You’ve been rolled and permanently discolored in Valdez, Alaska,” Crews tells himself, and us, as he nurses the wound.
It’s during the final extended scene of the story that we finally discover what he’s been searching for – the perfect Harry Crews metaphor to sum up the state of Valdez. He finds it in the double-wide home of Micki, a Los Angeles prostitute brought to Alaska by her husband Buddy, who is “tricked out in the best tradition of pimpdom.” (How Crews ended up in the double-wide is left to the readers’ imagination; the story includes what appear to be several alcohol-related chronological jumps.) Micki and Buddy had come to town hoping to ride the pipeline influx to an early retirement in the French Riviera.
Micki desperately wants a tattoo of a butterfly on her derrière, over the strenuous objection of Buddy, who believes it will hurt her production. Crews, whom we’ve watched evolve from Outsider to native, is now able to put Micki in touch with his tattoo friends from the Volkswagen van. As he watches the blood being wiped away to reveal the outline of the fresh butterfly, Crews finds what he’s come for:
It was no doubt gratuitous, even sentimental, but looking at the butterfly on the young whore’s ass, I thought of the long snaking pipeline falling from Prudhoe Bay across the interior of Alaska to the Bay of Valdez. I thought: If Alaska is not our young whore, what is she? She is rich, but who can live with her? She is full of all that will pleasure us, but she is hard and cold to the bone. And if we scar her, leave her with pestilence and corrupted with infection, irrefutably marked with our own private design, who can blame us? Didn’t we buy her for a trifling sum to start with?
As his editors had hoped, Crews had followed his own path and ended up somewhere unexpected, but somewhere that allowed for the discovery of a deeper truth. The vision he created in fiction had proven adaptable to reality. The town would eventually survive the influx, the pipeline would be up and running in a few years, and Valdez would become a cold, snowy footnote.
Crews, on the other hand, found he had a taste for journalism. He wrote celebrity profiles, first-person adventures, and pretty soon had his own monthly column in Esquire. Whatever the assignment, it would be refracted through his own unique lens. His approach to journalism, to take a subject and combine reporting, experiential material, and personal essay, would allow him to make each story distinctive to him. Take the byline off, readers would still know they were reading Harry Crews. It was a formula he used to carve out a niche in magazines and draw new readers to his fiction, a formula not that different from the one he concocted as the whiskey flowed and the sounds of Charlie Pride emanated from the jukebox in the Club Valdez, in a tiny little outpost nestled in the shadow of the Chugach Mountains.