Motor-mouths and a gypsy's curse : Classic crews Harry Crews Gorse £9.99

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There's a picture of Harry Crews on the cover of this admirable new collection of his work, his first British publication in 20 years. A crop-haired figure looks up at the sky flexing a bicep at the camera. On the bicep there is an extensive tatto o, consisting of a skull and the motto, "How do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mr Death". Overall, it's a regular enough pose for a dedicated, youthful follower of Kurt Cobain, but perhaps a tad unusual for a 59-year-old grandee of American fiction.

But the picture is Crews all over, playing up to his image - the novelist as Carny huckster. It's not exactly a pose - there is something authentically gaudy in Crews's personality and in much of his work - but the deliberate vulgarity of his image has perhaps contributed to the long-term underrating of this most Southern American of writers.

Evidence of Crews's greatness abounds in this collection. For a start, there are two short novels, Car and The Gypsy's Curse, reprinted in their entirety, and these are both strange tales from the weirder fronts of white trash culture. The Gypsy's Curse has a narrator who is deaf, dumb and legless, who lives in a boxing gym in Clearwater, Florida, and who makes a living doing a balancing act. Car, on the other hand, is a baleful parable, the everyday story of a man who sets out to eat his motor (a Ford Maverick as it happens). What is remarkable about both novels is the depth of Crews's sympathy with his protagonists; they may be freaks, but the author is right in the freak show with them, peering out, not standing in the audience looking on.

Classic Crews also includes three non- fiction essays, among them the terribly moving "Fathers, Sons, Blood", on losing a child. Sadly there's no space for any of Crews's journalism; the pieces he wrote for Playboy and Esquire in the Seventies - particularly his account of the building of the Alaskan oil pipeline - rank with the very best of American reportage. What is here, though, making the book something like an essential purchase, is his one extended work of non-fiction, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place. This account of his upbringing in dirt-poor Georgia, is Crews's masterpiece, but the writing of it precipitated his long descent into literary exile fuelled by alcohol and drugs.

A Childhood is a rare work, the story of an impossibly hard rural life in the late Thirties and Forties that is without sentiment or self-pity - even in the account of the formative experience of his youth, when the five-year-old Crews landed up in vat of scalding water and spent a year in bed recovering from his burns. It is entirely suffused with love and respect for the community out of which he grew. Next year Gorse, the small press clear-sighted enough to bring Crews to Britain, reissue his debut novel, The Gospel Singer, which remains his most completely realised work of fiction. Some booksellers may also stock imported copies of more recent works, such as the flawed but grotesquely brilliant A Feast Of Snakes or Body. All are well wor th seekingout, all the work of a man who did not want, but who needed to be a writer.