The Basketball Diaries

by Jim Carroll

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Critical Overview

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By the time The Basketball Diaries was published in a limited-edition book in 1978, and again in wider distribution in 1980, it was already a hit with underground readers. Literary critics soon followed suit. Many of them, such as Jamie James in his 1980 review of the book for American Book Review, discuss the gritty nature of the book. As James notes, it is ‘‘a blow-by-blow account of a season in Hell.’’ James, like many other critics, was impressed by the literary skill of the young Carroll. Says James of the book, it ‘‘is a literary miracle; a description of the formation of an artistic sensibility written by the artist, not in retrospect, but in the process.’’ Several other critics also note Carroll’s talent. Says Barbara Graustark of Carroll in her 1980 review of the book for Newsweek: ‘‘His terse wit, with its archly contrived naïveté, transformed a tale of teen-age rebellion into a contemporary classic.’’

The Basketball Diaries received additional notice when the Jim Carroll Band released its first album, Catholic Boy, in 1980. The album’s lyrics were rough and dark, like his diaries, and several music critics commented on the book in the course of reviewing the album. In his 1981 review of the album for Stereo Review Magazine, Steven Simels calls the book ‘‘a scary, mordantly funny odyssey along the dark underbelly of the Sixties, a virtuoso performance that ought to be must reading for those who still tend to romanticize the counterculture.’’

The Basketball Diaries also received favorable critical attention in 1987, when it was reprinted to coincide with the publication of its sequel, Forced Entries. The same was true in 1995, when the book was reprinted to coincide with the film adaptation of the book. This time around, with the help of a tie-in cover featuring actor Leonardo DiCaprio, the book landed on the bestseller list. Some critics, like Lewis MacAdams in his 1995 profile of Carroll for Entertainment Weekly, praised the book again. MacAdams notes ‘‘the miracle of Jim Carroll,’’ a boy who ‘‘wrote like an angel, creating a transcendent autobiography.’’ Others, like Wayne Jebian, in his review of the book for the Columbia Journal of American Studies, note how the book’s graphic language did not turn off many readers, as one suspected it might. Says Jebian: ‘‘Words that might bore or disgust if spouted by a dirty old man sitting on your couch instead shock and amaze when uttered by a tender-aged youth in a pre-political correctness era.’’ For Cassie Carter, the graphic quality of Carroll’s life is what leads to his genius and his literary success. In her 1996 article for Dionysos: Literature and Addiction Quarterly, Carter notes that The Basketball Diaries ‘‘performs an amazing feat of alchemy, transforming the waste of Carroll’s adolescence into a victory.’’

Still, despite its legendary status with both reviewers and popular readers, the book is not without its critics. Most of the negative criticism has centered on the book’s graphic depictions of sex, violence, and drug use, and the book has been banned in certain areas as a result. In addition, in 1997, following Michael Carneal’s killing spree in West Paducah, Kentucky, the film version of The Basketball Diaries came under fire. Carneal claimed that a scene depicting one of Carroll’s classroomshooting fantasies from the book had encouraged him to kill his classmates..

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Essays and Criticism