Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi The Prophet Motive

By Blake de Pastino

JANUARY 26, 1998:  Forty years ago, Henry Miller knew that a man like Judson Crews was one of a kind. It was 1957 when the famous author of Tropic of Capricorn wrote all about his cohorts--the hangers-on and admirers who had surrounded him in Big Sur, Calif.--and his kindest remembrances were for a lad named Crews. "He lived almost exclusively on peanut butter and wild mustard greens," Henry Miller wrote, "and he neither smoked nor drank." Both ascetic and eccentric, the young man reminded Miller "of a latter-day prophet."

Judson Crews has spent the rest of his existence living down that description--forever wrestling with the image of some teetotaling, Apollonistic kook--but in the intervening years he has also managed to build another reputation for himself. Soon after parting ways with Miller and Big Sur in the 1940s, Crews lit out for New Mexico and became noted as a poet, bookseller, free-speech activist and publisher of literary "little magazines." He kept correspondence with the likes of Charles Bukowski and John F. Kennedy, and he trundled a deeply reluctant New Mexico into postmodernity with publications like Poetry Taos and Suck Egg Mule. He was not as austere and pure-hearted as Miller had thought, but in many ways, he had indeed become the prophet of a new Southwestern literature.

The fact that Crews is both elemental and tangential to the culture of New Mexico is what makes his memoir, The Brave Wild Coast, so engrossing. As hotly anticipated as a small-press manuscript can be, Wild Coast was written between 1976 and 1986, and for much of the time since then, its editor--an appropriately independent publisher in Los Angeles--has performed the arduous task of picking away at its 9,500 pages. The result is this, a humble, one-color, 300-page treatise on a painfully specific yet undeniably important event: the one year that Judson Crews spent with Henry Miller in Big Sur.

To look upon The Brave Wild Coast as an autobiography, though, would be to invite disappointment, not only because of the book's limited scope, but because it really makes no attempt to document Crews' daily life. Instead, it's much more like a monologue, a performance--stream-of-consciousness literature as it has hardly been done since On the Road. From the beginning of his visit early in 1945 to his departure a year later, Crews flashes his anecdotes in front of you with all the dirty commotion of an oil projector. Like his take on sex in Big Sur: "Ass ... was mostly what I thought of. If you saw anyone, they would not let you forget ass for ten minutes." But at other times, he speaks with a beat and a soul that remind you that he found his bones there, living among America's best post-war writers. Like when he got lost in L.A.: "Up and down, in and out, on these tarmac roads, tamarack and camellias and boxwood hedge and no more sidewalks down that way."

It's this tension between the profane and the inspired that really animates Crews' memoir, and thankfully, he, rather than Henry Miller, is the focus of the story. More than an insiderish account of Miller himself--resplendent as he was in his odd coastal estate--this is a portrait of the young artist in his company, undergoing profound transformation. Crews arrived in Big Sur fresh from the army, innocent as a lamb and sexually ambiguous in ways that he did not fully understand. But when he finished his year of semi-isolation, he was in full possession of himself, ready to undertake what would be his greatest accomplishments--like his prolific series of chapbooks and his mail-order service, The Motive Book Shop, which kept avant-garde and banned books in circulation for decades. Of course, there are a lot of unnecessary diversions as he subtly imparts all this to you--he spends an entire chapter describing his typewriter, for instance--but that's an expected hazard of improv books like this. The Brave Wild Coast is a bawdy, rewarding performance by one of New Mexico's all-but-forgotten cultural gurus. And if anything, this long-awaited book of confessions only gives weight to his reputation, proving that Judson Crews was in all truth a foul-mouthed prophet of the Southwest. (Dumont Press, paper, $20)


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