As instructed, we had shown up at the fairgrounds in Rocky Mount, arriving just before sunset and wearing makeshift rain gear built of garbage bags. "Don't worry," one of the guys from the U.S. Department of Agriculture assured us, "they'll be here."
As the sun began to set, we saw just a few blackbirds, flying in a straight line and landing gently in the trees that bordered the big empty space. Minutes later, the sky was black with their bodies. They seemed more like a swarm of insects than a flock of birds.
The USDA team used a rocket net to move a bunch of those birds to an abandoned house where they became part of our re-creation of the "bird room," which the mother of writer Harry Crews let him and his brother keep. When the blackbirds went from the rocket net into the room we had set up, the space became something ethereal, as though a beautiful and strange sepia photograph had come to life.
The news of Crews' death on March 28 hit me hard. I didn't really know him, but I knew his life from working on Gary Hawkins' documentary, The Rough South of Harry Crews, in the early 1990s. I spent months as part of the crew helping film scenes from Crews' autobiography. The Rough South meant getting inside Crews' life. That felt like work while it was happening; afterward, and even now, it felt like a lesson in resilience.
Crews' oversized life was truly stranger than fiction: His father died of a heart attack when Crews was a baby. His mother subsequently married his father's brother. They were scratch-poor when young Harry contracted polio, only to recover and be badly burned when he was accidentally flipped into a vat of boiling water. Most tragic of all, he lost his beloved first-born son, who drowned in a swimming pool. Still, Crews himself had grown into a brilliant writer—and an epic drinker.
Crews is best remembered for his fiction. His most freakish characters actually make Flannery O'Connor's seem tame (I don't know that she ever wrote about anyone attempting to eat a Ford Maverick). But he wrote nonfiction, too, offering unflinching looks at his own life and loss that will take your breath away. The Rough South was very true to Crews' memoir, A Childhood, a book The New York Times recently called "among the rawest and most under-sung memoirs of the last century."
After Crews' death two months ago, I returned to A Childhood. I was struck anew by all of it, but especially this statement, which the author renders as fact: "The only way to deal with the real world was to challenge it with one of your own making."
That is, fill a room with birds. Write a novel about a man attempting to eat a car. Wherever Harry Crews is now, I assume it's every bit as magical as that room full of blackbirds.