the contextual life

thoughts without borders

retro reads :: forced entries

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jim carroll is best known for his first memoir, the basketball diaries. published in 1978, the book is a reflection on his teenage years spent with friends, basketball, and drugs. carroll, born in 1949 manhattan and just recently deceased, was embodied in his writing the city where he’d spent his life.  basketball diaries was catapulted outside its cult encampment into mainstream fame with the 1995 film starring leonardo dicaprio as jim—the resemblance between the two making it all the more compelling. forced entries: the downtown diaries 1971-1973 is the follow up; picking up where the other ends, written by a still-addicted, subterranean carroll.

i’m a sucker for drug-lit, or anything involving deeply tormented, anti-social characters—s.e. hinton was one of my favorite authors in my pre-teen and high school years; jim carroll is a master of this particular genre. unlike most ex-addict writers out there, jim doesnt present his readers with some redemption-seeking reflection. he doesn’t seek forgiveness—from himself or others. you won’t get a narrowly-focused, formulaic sob story. instead, carroll is an unapologetic chronicler of a time and place. he’s a character within his story, an object in perpetual motion and a vessel for the reader to experience an otherwise unseen world. at times highly solitary, at others forced entries is a down on the floor view of new york city’s infamous art scene in the early 70s. both aspects of jim’s life are projected onto paper in his unique, self-searching street poet way.

with a careful read it becomes obvious that writing keeps jim alive. his passion and ability kept him from crossing over to the wrong side of a fine line. the reader is forced to suspend disbelief when realizing that jim was able, not only to locate a pen, but to churn out poignant and poetic prose as well. life lessons are sprinkled generously throughout his works and it’s these moments that patti smith speaks in the foreword to carroll’s last novel, the petting zoo: “Jim’s mythic energy is at once laconic and vibrating; his bouts of meandering humor are punctuated by undeniable common wisdom.”

You draw up your ego not from stains on a black satin sheet, but from the precision of the poem within . . . the torturous, elegant process of each clean, white page fulfilled.

a later vignette, a riff on our perception of time, shows a lucidity often not granted to drug addicts—probably for good reason—but carroll maintains his capacity for analysis:

When I left the church after a couple of hours, I saw a horrible car accident at an East Side intersection. Some Buick had run a red light and a cab doing close to fifty swerved and lost it and went right through the window of a dress shop.  The driver was dead on impact; his fare was taken off in an ambulance.

Violence is so terribly fast . . . the most perverse thing about the movies is the way they portray it in slow motion, allowing it to be something sensuous . . . the viewer’s lips slightly wet as the scene plays out. Violence is nothing like that. It is lightening fast, chaotic and totally intangible.

noticing the inevitable decline that heroin brings, jim took it upon himself to cut down on his intake; he kept the sickness at bay but wouldn’t let himself get high. he quickly realized it wasn’t an answer and turned to a high school friend who was able to pull a few strings and get him into a methadone program. in one scene carroll’s unmasked skepticism for mental health professionals is on full display; but more importantly so is his ability to observe the humor in the darkest of circumstances.

. . . Mrs. Toto finished with the more formal data and moves on to some quasi-psychological tests—old standards like the inkblot, etc. I keep getting distracted by the couple in the corner arguing. Their gauges are moving towards red.

Now I have to draw a picture of a tree—God knows what it has to do with anything. All I want is some of that orange shit in the paper cup. I draw the tree and reveal more about my lack of draftsmanship than the condition of my mind. I draw it totally barren of leaves, with dead branches twisted and gnawed like the fingers of a cartoon witch. I imagine they’ll conclude from this that I am a sick, empty spirit, but it’s just that, from the first days of second-grade art class in the School of the Good Shepherd, I have never been able to draw a leafy tree. . . . The only thing the picture reveals is the condition of my education. But shrinks, prigs that they are, will not consider this point and will have a proper field day profiling me from a sketch of a fucking tree. Jung would be outraged.

jim’s circle of friends, acquaintances, and business associates is legendary: he worked for andy warhol, despite andy’s strict no-drugs rule; he went to the same parties as william s. burroughs; and allen ginsberg crashed in his apartment when he needed a place to stay. these guys, although they added to the appeal of jim’s story, were essentially background, fillers. jim’s impeccable storytelling, infused with provocative observations, stands alone.

Since childhood I have loved the fear a storm brings. Inside the fear I feel alive. Inside that fear we are forced to transform knowledge and wisdom . . . all our learned trivia into principles.

in hindsight, i shouldnt have been as surprised to find a trove of vocabulary words but i was. some are more obscure than others but it’s obvious all had been chosen by a poet devoted to the craft: non-litigious, prestidigitationperspicuous, satoritableau, exigent, novitiate, atavistic.

some people are brilliant regardless of how destructive and destroyed they are; jim carroll was one of those people. forced entries is drug memoir at its subtlest.

[digging deeper]
the petting zoo: a novel
jim carroll
viking / november 2010

the petting zoo tells the story of billy wolfram, an enigmatic thirty-eight-year-old artist who had become a hot star in the late-1980s new york art scene. as the novel opens, billy, after viewing a show of velázquez paintings at the metropolitan museum of art, is so humbled and awed by their spiritual powerthat he suffers an emotional breakdown and retreats to his chelsea loft.

in seclusion, billy searches for the divine spark in his own work and life.
courtesy of book’s flap copy


Written by Gabrielle

December 18, 2010 at 12:34 pm

Posted in books, reviews

Tagged with ,

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