"we can only do what it seems to us we were made for, look at this world with a happy eye but from a sober perspective.”

-W.H. Auden

Youth in Repose

The Basketball Diaries
by Jim Carroll
Penguin, 5th ed., 210 pp.

When Jim Carroll slumped over his desk on 11 September of this year, felled for good by a busted heart, the usual observers took note. Press photos in the obits mourned a pale man who looked like David Byrne with all the juice sucked out of him, or maybe a coked-out Jon Voight. Mr. Carroll had written and recorded a minor punk hit in the early eighties, they reported, and also a book called The Basketball Diaries. He had famous friends: Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, and Robert Mapplethorpe get nods in the Times. He was a “rock-and-roll poet.” I’d already gotten pretty heavy, belatedly, into Off The Wall this summer; one slim memoir couldn’t put me too much farther over the bandwagon’s outer railing, I decided, and so I scadded off to my local bookseller to take a look.

The Basketball Diaries goes down fast, like fizzy candy. It is literally a collection of diary entries, undated but for the season and year of their composition, and no entry runs longer than three trade-paperback pages. Mr. Carroll’s was not a New York childhood of stickball and five-cent moon pies at the drugstore. He’s huffing Carbona on Staten Island by the book’s second page, when he’s thirteen in the fall of1963, and he’s a full-out junkie sludging around on a dirty uptown floor by the time he’s sixteen at the end of the book. On the way, he jacks cars, cuts Catholic school, hustles, and ingests heavily. There is a lot of vomiting. Basketball too, as promised, though Jim is more interested in what increasingly byzantine combinations of uppers and downers he can take before games than the athletics itself.

Jim’s urchin-speak, resplendent with snotty colloquialisms and the repeated phrase “you dig?”, is zonked-out, but it derives from a wicked intelligence. Each diary entry has the feeling of deliberation and careful craft, with sharp force applied upfront then eased up, toward dancing little denouements that float up from concrete and grimy to airy and unreal:

Half an hour gone past now and Brian asks if it’s hitting. “Just coming on,” I tell him, and that was the last thing either of us muttered for seven hours when we both looked up to take a sip of beer and Brian says, “Do you feel it?” and I just mutter “Yeah, I feel it.” What an understatement, I was so zonked that I’d let whole cigarettes burn down to the filter and burn my fingers without taking one drag. We had about six hours more of good solid nods and then sat around and rapped slowly about all our little visual dreams that passed in our heads clear as movies.

Prose like this—fluid, supple, and chatty without affectation—pops up often in The Basketball Diaries. Jim Carroll was a terrific basketball player but a better worker of the nervy downtown argot around him. The Basketball Diaries is sharp as needles and manically funny for it, driven forward by rhythms that trip gleefully and mime kid-thought itself:

On the way we met a few more heads, also stoned, and began to realize as we got closer to the dive that no one had enough bread for a fucking pretzel stick. We had to think this over. Being stoned, we all agreed that hunger demands food, money or not, and that only people who were not hungry should pay for the food because it is in that instance more a luxury than necessity. This theory seems a little obscure now, but at the time it made profound sense.

There’s a rickety danger about it all, as though life must be somehow imperiled in order to be rendered so vital. Whether this feeling comes embedded in the language somehow or if it just has to do with the outrageousness of his hijinks, I can’t make out. But the implosion never comes, not before the book is up at least. We have only our own imaginations with which to find Jim in a rat-hole on St. Mark’s three years after the last diary entry, strung out and left to air-dry into a Keith Richards-like husk, all fearsome glower and leathered carapace.

Poetry saved him, we are to understand—redeemed him. Poetry receives its first mention in The Basketball Diaries on p. 151, as Jim ministers on the page to his paranoia about nuclear apocalypse. There’s the expected sense of finiteness and the urgency it administers, but profounder here is the breadth of the plane in which he scopes out his anxiety about vocation: “…will I have time to finish the poems breaking loose in my head? Time to find out if I’m the writer I know I can be? How about these diaries? Or will Vietnam beat me to the button? Because it’s poetry now … and the button is still there, waiting…”

Save him from what, though? By the end of the book, it’s looking like he’s reconciled depravity and poetry by fusing them, in Rimbaud’s image. The junkie’s fried patter was to be his lyrical idiom and the high his Polestar:

Just such a pleasure to tie up above that mainline with a woman’s silk stocking and hit the mark and watch the blood rise into the dropper like a certain desert lily I remember I saw once in my child’s encyclopedia, so red … yeah, I shoot desert lilies in my arm.

It’s been hard, the writing, lately. Just all comes in beautiful fragments, like nods now … so high … guess I’d rather sleep forever this sleep and forget … but the gnats, they keep buzzing in my ear and the heat and the dreams …

In the winter of 1966, Jim Carroll spent a month in Rikers Island Juvenile Reformatory for possession of heroin. After he was released, in the spring, he checked into the Chelsea Hotel to begin writing the poems that would comprise his third collection of verse, Living at the Movies, which would eventually be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and make him the youngest person ever to be nominated, at age 22. What’s recorded of this time in The Basketball Diaries—a seething rant from spring 1966—is sketchy but suggestive of the moment’s centrality: “…suffice to say that I found a broom closet at the end of my cell-block where I could hide from the ugly screws and filthy cock and sad-eyed forms and learn to love silence and suffice to say that, though I spent four hours a day in that closet, I didn’t become pure on Riker’s Island.”

What he covets in “purity” is murkily limned. More than a few young literary men and women have taken purity as an injunction to shave their heads and become hypochondriacs or animists. Literature is not and has never been a hermetic existence of cosmic communion; those who’ve taken it for one tend toward output of bloated, impenetrable abstraction, and whether sixteen-year-old Jim knows this is left unexpressed. When he signs off the book’s final entry with “I just want to be pure…”, the melting terminal ellipsis isn’t vanquished or unwilling; it’s aposiopesis, breaking off into rhetorical silence, summoning the reader toward a better resolution than any Jim had managed on his own.

On 14 September, the day after Mr. Carroll’s death was announced, the music critic Carl Wilson updated his blog, Zoilus (www.zoilus.com), with a brief plaint for Mr. Carroll. Mr. Wilson discovered Jim Carroll in 1980, when he was twelve. He’d been staying in his grandparents’ basement in Selkirk, Manitoba, northeast of Winnipeg and deep into Chippewa country. A track from the Jim Carroll Band’s first album, Catholic Boy, floated in through the radio, and what shook terribly inside of him frightened him at first. But later, between chapters of Joyce and Hesse, he’d pick up a comb to use as a microphone and sneer and snarl at himself in the mirror. That the story and the disdain weren’t his didn’t matter; “Wanting to be cool for the first time is no small thing,” he writes.

This is punk’s propagation narrative, but it is also poetry’s, and smack’s. The possibility of accessing “certain kinds of seriousness,” to use Mr. Wilson’s phrase, represents a powerful motive force for a particular kind of twelve- or thirteen-year-old. “Seriousness” promised a way, finally, to harmonize our impassable youth and the adult world just beyond it, to contemplate the ether without slighting our squirming young bodies. We’d read dense modernist prose, grow out our hair, and listen to gnomic recordings by arty rock bands, all without really ever understanding the big fiction by which we’d been taken, without grasping its baked-in arc of soaring initial possibility and rueful retraction in later, wiser life.

Jim Carroll lost his virginity at age twelve and popped a vein for the first time when he was thirteen, but not even he was exempt from backpedaling on decadence. In the twenty years after The Basketball Diaries was published, in 1978, he would marry, publish more verse, and divorce. He continued to give readings well into this decade. He had become the emblem of glamorous decrepitude, but in the industry and prolificness of his later life, he too seemed to recognize that all he had done during that fraught period was leapfrog into a cartoon-outlaw version of adulthood without actually subsuming any of its riches.

Coming into Mr. Carroll at age twenty-one instead of age thirteen and with my Neanderthal's ear for verse, I cannot help but illuminate The Basketball Diaries from its aft end in this way. But junk’s closeness with decay provides fruitful soil for this kind of reading, which, I propose, enables a clarity and distance that better serve passages like this one:

Keeping your head in order is what counts, tidiness never saved anyone the good times we have, and all that means freedom. Like to sit in this awful mess and maybe smoke some dope and watch some innocuous shit on a dumb glass tube and feel fine about it and know there’s really nothing you have to do, ever, but feel your warm friend’s silent content is what this place is about. You don’t feel guilty about not fighting a war or carrying signs to protest it either. We’ve just mastered the life of doing nothing, which when you think about it, may be the hardest thing of all to do.

This is flaccid stuff—dumb-tough and fake and inchoate—and it is no accident that Mr. Carroll, in his last diary entry, tourniquets the book off in irresolution: he is lamenting the tumbling romance of youth as much as he is reveling in it.

“People Who Died,” the best-known track on Catholic Boy, is a eulogy for young victims of drug culture set to pogoing punk squall. Teddy fell off a roof while high on glue; Georgie got hepatitis; Bobby ODed on his wedding night; Cathy and Judy offed themselves. “Those are people who died, died,” Mr. Carroll yells in the song’s refrain. Whether Jim Carroll found his purity—at age sixteen or ever—isn’t for me to say. There are six books of verse, five long-players by the Jim Carroll Band, and another book of prose, 1987’s Forced Entries, in none of which I have begun looking for an answer. The caveman threnody of “People Who Died” suggests that, at least once, he found serenity in the speed and noise that his milieu had cultivated, and that it happened to sound good enough to get airplay.

These days, Patti Smith is writing fond op-eds for The New York Times and tending to her memoirs. Johnny Rotten is shilling for butter on British television wearing tweeds and a bowler hat. They are collecting themselves and, with them, our own delusions about their epoch and their place. It’s, after all, the last line of the chorus of “People Who Died” that gives the song’s real soul away: “They were all my friends! And they died!”

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A Matter of Life or Death