Mr. Crews wrote 17 novels and a memoir, “A Childhood: The Biography of a Place,” that has been praised as a modern classic. He was a popular professor at the University of Florida, but he was also seen as something of an outsider with a tough-guy persona that exuded danger.
He had a face that could stop a fight — or start one — and led a life that was as thorny and rugged as those of his star-crossed characters. He grew up in dire poverty in rural Georgia and was a heavy drinker, a student of karate, a trainer of hawks, a survivor of motorcycle crashes and a raconteur who came to see writing as the saving grace in a world filled with misfortune.
In his finest novels, such as “Karate Is a Thing of the Spirit” (1971), “A Feast of Snakes” (1976) and “The Knockout Artist” (1988), Mr. Crews showed that he was a master of a style known as “grit lit” — or, more generally, Southern gothic fiction in the tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Erskine Caldwell.
In 1993, Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley praised Mr. Crews for a “sense of humor that is totally off the wall and a deep, abiding sympathy for his characters.”
His books were set in swamps, trailer parks and dismal towns populated by snakes, packs of dogs, backwoods preachers, bloodthirsty mobs and people with grotesque appearances and appetites.
In one of Mr. Crews’s best-known novels, “Car” (1972), a man becomes a nationwide sensation by systematically eating a Ford Maverick, a few ounces at a time.
Humor bleeds into horror in Mr. Crews’s fictional world. Violence threatens to break out at any moment as troubled, angry men seek a kind of rough redemption in their hard-edged lives.
“For 30 years Crews’ fiction has been telling us of the invisible, the poor, the outcast: people who try to survive in the face of deprivation,” novelist Diane Roberts wrote in the St. Petersburg Times in 2007. “He’s the poet of the low-down, the back roads, the broken heart of old Florida.”
Harry Eugene Crews was born June 7, 1935, in Alma, Ga. He was 2 when his father died. Not long afterward, Mr. Crews’s mother married his father’s alcoholic brother.
Much of Mr. Crews’s youth was spent between Bacon County, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla., where his mother fled to escape the alcohol-fueled tirades of her husband, who sometimes fired a shotgun in the house.
As a child, Mr. Crews was stricken with paralysis and once, when his family was butchering hogs, fell into a caldron of boiling water.
“I reached over and touched my right hand with the left,” he wrote in his memoir, “and the whole thing came off like a wet glove. I mean the skin on the top of the wrist and the back of my hand, along with the fingernails, all just turned loose and slid down to the ground.”