Terry Southern Essay - Critical Essays

Southern, Terry

Southern, Terry 1926–

Southern, a popular American novelist, short story writer, and screenwriter, contends that the essence of successful fiction is "the capacity to astonish." His writing, a potpourri of social commentary and ribaldry, is amusing and, occasionally, astonishing. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Mr. Southern is a disciple of Henry Green, who has endorsed "Flash and Filigree" with enthusiasm; however his method of attack suggests the Evelyn Waugh of "The Loved One," with perhaps a dash of Patrick Dennis. What he has projected in his novel is a sardonic view of respectable individuals caught in a shadow game of grotesque surprises. But though his clinical specimens are in exceedingly sharp focus (down to blackheads, psychoses and sports-car mania), they are bakelite people without substance or feeling. Inevitably, they leave the reader with a lingering sensation of emptiness. Maybe that is what Mr. Southern is getting at.

Martin Levin, "Danse Macabre in Los Angeles," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1958 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 28, 1958, p. 44.

[In The Magic Christian,] Terry Southern, with his vision of Things As They Might Be, adds to our small list of satiric novels and short stories that create what might be called topical nightmare. Our popular culture engenders works of this sort from time to time but does not seem to nourish them, especially in the form of prose fiction. James Purdy and Calder Willingham have done similar things…. William Gaddis's frighteningly ambitious novel The Recognitions was spiced with weird mutations of religious fervor …, of radio and painting and science and nearly everything else.

These works have a somewhat Nathanael West-ern flavor and they manifest, in varying degrees, the imaginative and technical influence of the master, Evelyn Waugh. They form a delicious genre for those who like savage debunking within the limits of real intelligence. But the popular temperament, being touchy, defensive, and narrow, cannot relax enough to enjoy this kind of satire. We don't like our soft pieties to be sharply challenged: we prefer the obvious, sanctimonious shock of the quiz-show contestant's confession of cheating, and the subsequent acts of contrition, made in public. Even blasphemy seems to misfire in our world; whereas true blasphemy corroborates faith, the irreverent sounds that we hear only make us uneasy, as if we were the object. It is true the Vladimir Nabokov, currently popular, belongs to his genre: his little Lolita would doubtless enjoy a drive through the park with Mr. Southern's Guy Grand. But her story's success as a best-seller probably cannot be attributed to its nightmarish topicality.

It isn't only our lack of receptivity that holds this type of satire back, however. Works of this kind require a rare, grisly spirit of fun which seems to exist too often in isolation, not accompanied intimately enough with other story-telling powers—plotting, characterization, description, building of form. Nabokov does have these powers, and so does Waugh. Whereas Waugh's fine, firm stiletto usually penetrates neatly into its targets, the one that Mr. Southern uses (and this is true of most of the others who try it) must sometimes bend, probe clumsily about, slip and slide, before finding the vein or tendon that it is aiming for.

Mr. Southern's scalpelings aren't always as "clean" as they might be…. Much of the time, however, Guy is simply great, as when he makes tea with his dear old maiden aunts. We have nightmares of our own, true enough, but Mr. Southern's can be a lot of fun. (pp. 133-34)

Edwin Kennebeck, "Topical Nightmare," in Commonweal (copyright © 1960 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), April 29, 1960, pp. 132-34.

Assuming that we are to use the word in a derogatory sense, any honest definition of pornography must be subjective. For me it reduces itself to that which causes me disgust. (There is also a good kind of pornography, like Fanny Hill, which may give pleasure.) In order fully to appreciate the satire on "bad" pornography in Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg's Candy, it is helpful to dip into some of the aids to erotic enjoyment which are currently filling the bookstores.

It is [the] kind of mechanical howtoism [represented by Dr. Albert Ellis's Sex and the Single Man], with its clubfooted prose and its desolating veterinary odor, that constitute the really prurient writing of our time. It is pornographic and disgusting, and it is one of the major targets of Candy in its satirical foray against sickbed, sex, both scientific and literary…. Although by no stretch of the imagination is Candy an obscene novel, a bizarre feature of the book's history is that it became … one of the few works in English ever to be banned by the French government on the grounds of indecency. This is a circumstance which might make the book appear positively satanic were it not for the fact that Candy is really a droll little sugarplum of a tale and a spoof on pornography itself. Actually, considering its reputation, it may be surprising to discover that much of the book is not about sex at all. At any rate, there was no official reaction in France when, in an evasive maneuver, Candy's publisher continued to issue it under the name of Lollipop. Now it comes to us in the United States from Putnam, unexpurgated, and with the real names of the authors revealed. Let us hope that Candy, the adorable college-girl heroine of the book, is not hounded into court after the fashion of Lady Chatterley—and this for a couple of reasons. First, since this book too is not a supreme masterpiece, we shall be spared the spectacle of eminent critics arguing from the witness stand that it is. But more importantly, Candy in its best scenes is wickedly funny to read and morally bracing as only good satire can be. The impure alone could object to it, and we should not risk letting ourselves be deprived of such excellent fun even when a certain wobbly and haphazard quality, which may be due to the problems created by collaboration, causes the book to creak and sag more often than it should.

Part fantasy, part picaresque extravaganza (the resemblance between the names Candy and Candide is anything but coincidental), the story often suffers from the fact that its larger design is formless and episodic; a number of the sequences, unfortunately, seem to be dreamed-up, spur-of-the-moment notions in which the comic impact is vitiated by obvious haste and a sense of something forced. But in many of its single scenes the book is extremely funny: it is surely the first novel in which frenzied sexual congress between an exquisite young American girl and an insane, sadistic hunchback can elicit nothing but helpless laughter. And at its very best—as with Professor Mephesto—when we perceive that the comic irony is a result of the juxtaposition of Candy's innocent sexual generosity with duplicitous sexual greed, the book produces its triumphs. For none of Candy's seducers seems to realize that he needs only to ask in the most direct and human way in order bountifully to receive. Like Dr. Ellis, they are technocrats and experts, possessing a lust to bury this most fundamental of human impulses beneath the rockpile of scientific paraphernalia and doctrine and professional jabber. Swindlers by nature, they end up only by swindling themselves. It is part of our heroine's unflagging charm and goodness that she confronts each of these monsters with blessed equanimity. (p. 8)

This is not pornography, but the stuff of heartbreak. It is hard to conceive that even Orville Prescott will not somehow be touched by such a portrait of beleaguered goodness. (p. 9)

William Styron, "Tootsie Rolls," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1964 NYREV, Inc.), May 14, 1964, pp. 8-9.

Read any dirty books lately? This one [Blue Movie] is about the making of a dirty movie called "The Faces of Love," but faces are the least of it. Genitalia is more like it, and of course it's a satire—mostly on itself. Although it has no redeeming social value, if that's what you're looking for, I think a good case can be made for it as an anti-aphrodisiac. It should set back the cause of sex for some time to come….

[There] is no doubt that Mr. Southern can be funny. He has an uncanny and deadly ear for Hollywood vernacular, and an eye for the more odious Hollywood types. But the best yaks have little to do with sex, which he succeeds in reducing to a joyless, seemingly endless and certainly loveless ronde of fornication, fellatio, incest and what have you, with a little necrophilia thrown in for good measure—surely, this is one of the longest peep shows ever made, and the dullest. It is pornography without Portnoy….

What's more, the pollution is biologically non-degradable; it never dissolves into any real wit—Southern is not Rabelais, and he is certainly not Peter DeVries—and we are left with a kind of Tillie the Toiler underground comic strip trying to pass for a satirical novel on the skin-flicks. This is one way of smuggling fantasy into the bedroom and sex out of it. (p. 58)

David Dempsey, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 13, 1970.

Terry Southern's Blue Movie is filthy and funny, a pretty fair combination. It describes the making of a high-budget, all-star stag film in the spirit of Candy, with a cast drawn from Hollywood stereotypes. It is written in extreme camp. While it turns up its button-cute nose at the idea of art, and perhaps even has a base impulse to titillate, it is a knowing, on-target satire aimed at those loyal readers who write letters to Evergreen Review that all seem to say something like: "Ooh, goody, Mr. Editor, please, please, please give us more stories about ladies wrestling in the mud!" (p. 26)

Herbert Gold, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review/World, Inc., reprinted with permission), October 31, 1970.

Terry Southern [is no] newcomer to the humorous arts. He was, as the front cover [of Blue Movie] deflatingly announces, the co-author of Candy. So what went wrong? Southern manages the sex badly and since sex accounts for 90% of the contents this is quite a drawback. After the first few incidents it ceases to ignite. The story is about the making of the ultimate blue film, the highest marriage of cinema art and eroticism. But multiple inter-racial fellatio just doesn't get up there. It's rep, man, amateur thesbianism, painfully constricted within standard sexual dogma, all the old hats again wagging about. Shouldn't the ultimate blue film blow the mind as well? Also, to be quite autocratic about it, the book is stodgily written, the characters are weak and repeat each other. (p. 88)

Duncan Fallowell, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Duncan Fallowell 1973; reprinted with permission), September, 1973.

Candy isn't the best, and is far from being the dirtiest, novel first published by [Maurice Girodias at the Olympia Press] but it is surely one of the funniest, and it qualifies as erography by being bold, specific, unashamed, and utterly lacking in coyness. It tends somewhat toward "cuteness" and "sweetness," which is all to the good, since which of us isn't tired of the thunder and gravity that our "virile" novelists like to hand us with their tomboy terror of being thought sissy or sentimental?

Having said this, there is really very little else to say about Candy, for it is an event of sociological rather than literary importance. It is a first-rate potboiler, and as I have nothing in principle against potboilers, the book delighted me. I do, however, take great exception to its morality. Purporting to be a satirical work, its satire is aimed exclusively at the peripheral, the unrespectable, the alien. It is very safe satire indeed. It abuses only those who are quite used to abuse from the popular press and from popular prejudices. (p. 4)

Nobody who matters is going to be offended by Candy. I am unfamiliar with other work [by the co-author of Candy,] Mason Hoffenberg (at least under that name), but Terry Southern is fast gaining national stature. His film Dr. Strangelove, which apparently satirizes the political structure around the atom bomb, in point of fact releases through laughter a good deal of tension about a continuing threat, thus relegating it to the unserious, the not-to-be-worried-about, the yuk-able.

Under the guise of satirizing the holy-holy medical racket (which has long needed a kick), Candy actually satirizes Oriental medicine—the Chinese golden needles. Under the guise of satirizing psychoanalysis, religion and sex, Candy satirizes Reichian psychology, George Gurdjieff, Buddhism, Hinduism, and sexual perversion.

One can come away from this book with all one's provincialism and narrow-mindedness intact. Candy is funny because it gives you the feeling of delicious irreverence; but everything is safe and sound at last, because Southern and Hoffenberg are irreverent only about the eminently unrevered. (pp. 4, 15)

Alfred Chester, "A Sugar-coated Purgative," in Chicago Tribune Book Week (© The Washington Post), May 17, 1974, pp. 4, 15.