The Basketball Diaries

by Jim Carroll

Start Free Trial

Carroll's Use of Extremes in The Basketball Diaries

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1483

Jim Carroll fills his autobiographical diaries with graphic language and imagery and includes situations that take the reader from one extreme emotion to another. Says Jamie James, in his 1980 review of the book for American Book Review, ‘‘When it is funny it is hilarious, reminiscent of Lenny Bruce at his best. When it hits a blue note, it is harrowing.’’

An example of a hilarious incident is Carroll’s observation of the melodrama during a going-away party for Gums, a local military recruit. Gums’s family makes a big fuss about his potentially dangerous involvement in the Vietnam War, but Carroll finds out that the boy is really only going to serve six months in a local reserve unit. As Carroll notes, ‘‘from the scene here you’d think old Gums had to assassinate Chairman Mao with a water pistol.’’ On another occasion, Carroll talks about a kleptomaniac friend, Bobby Blake, who gets high, breaks into a closed ice cream parlor to steal the cash register, and ends up making himself an ice cream soda instead. He is still drinking it when two police arrive, ‘‘not believing for sure anything they see, Bobby not budging but biting away, cash register wrecked on the floor and the grilled cheese sandwich which Bobby forgot about burning to a crisp.’’

Carroll also describes some extremely gutwrenching episodes, such as the various sex acts he has to engage in to support his drug habit, which lately have involved ‘‘handcuffs, masks, snakes Leonardo DiCaprio as Jim in the 1995 film version of the work (yeah, that’s right, real ones), chains, whips, last week a guy had a pet parrot that he had eat grapes out of my pubic hair.’’ One of his heterosexual encounters leads to getting a case of gonorrhea, which he describes in excruciating detail: ‘‘it’s quite a bringdown waking up with your underwear a mass of red-brown blotches, all stiff as cardboard except where the gooey fresh blobs are.’’ Some of the most harrowing descriptions in the diaries are associated with Carroll’s heroin use. When he resurfaces after a four-day high, he notices two sets of needles next to him ‘‘in the slightly bloody water in the plastic cup on the crusty linoleum, probably used by every case of hepatitis in upper Manhattan by now.’’ When Carroll goes through heroin withdrawal, his descriptions get even more disturbing. On one occasion when he is strung out, he waits the hour that it will take for a dose of methadone—a slower-acting drug—to take effect. ‘‘You bet that’s a long hour too, with them cold flashes shooting up from your crotch right out your skull and your muscles feeling like wood and your energy to a sad eyed drip.’’

Besides the funny or disturbing descriptions, the situations themselves are often extreme. Even ordinary situations, like the many basketball games that Carroll plays, fall into one of two extremes—he either plays well or he takes drugs and plays horribly. In the beginning of the diaries, Carroll is a basketball star. The diaries are filled with several accounts of Carroll and his team dominating lesser teams. For example, at one point, Carroll’s team is shorthanded while playing another team, but ‘‘it was the lamest bunch of saps ever put on a court, this other team, and we wiped them out by at least forty points.’’ On another occasion, Carroll’s team is ‘‘ahead by 23 points’’ by the end of the first four minutes of the game. As for Carroll himself, he easily impresses girls at his games. For example, he describes one game, during which the girls in the stands open their legs wider and wider as they let out ‘‘oohs’’ and ‘‘ahhs’’ to show their amazement at Carroll’s athletic ability. This phenomenon increases ‘‘in direct proportion to each ‘ooh’ that by the time I dunked one backwards I could almost distinguish what color panties each chick sitting there was wearing.’’

At the other extreme, Carroll plays badly in games in which he takes drugs, such as when he takes some pills that he mistakenly thinks will make him faster. In reality, they drag him down. ‘‘The other team’s dude who I normally leave looking at my shoelaces sailed over me and easily laid it in.’’ Later in the diaries, Carroll notes that the massive drug habits of his and two of his teammates are affecting the team’s performance. ‘‘It is common knowledge around the entire school that Marc Clutcher, Anton Neutron and myself are f—ing up our basketball team by taking every drug we can get our hands on before games.’’

Carroll’s experiences with drugs are also extreme. At thirteen, Carroll is sniffing cleaning fluid. On another occasion, he is able to drink an enormous amount—two bottles—of codeine cough syrup before a party. When he first starts using heroin, he mainlines it, meaning that he injects it directly into a vein as opposed to injecting it into his skin or sniffing the dry powder. Novice heroin users usually avoid mainlining, since the high is so strong and it is easier to overdose. Says Carroll, ‘‘Tony said I might as well skin pop it. I said OK. Then Pudgy says, ‘Well, if you’re gonna put a needle in, you might as well mainline it.’’’ On another occasion, Carroll’s friend, Willie, was beaten up by mistake; the attackers try to make up with Willie by letting him wash his bloody mouth out with soda. ‘‘Willie took one sip of the soda, slipped in (and this is true) 200 mgs. of pure crystal amphetamine, and gave it back to the prick, who drank the rest.’’

Carroll’s deliberate statement that this incident is true highlights its extreme nature. In fact, after another extreme episode, Carroll notes: ‘‘You probably figure I made this one up, but I swear every word is true.’’ In fact, the many outrageous episodes in the book have caused some critics to question its authenticity. In his 1981 review for Creem, Richard Riegel calls The Basketball Diaries ‘‘a disturbingly seamless mixture of fact and fiction.’’ Likewise, in his 1987 New York Times review of The Basketball Diaries and its sequel, Forced Entries, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt notes that The Basketball Diaries was ‘‘filled with a kind of vitality, though clearly exaggerated in its boastful accounts of drinking, drugs, sex and every sort of crime from stealing cars to hustling homosexuals in Times Square.’’ As James notes, ‘‘It suffers from all the faults of the genre,’’ including the fact that ‘‘some of the stories sound made up.’’ However, as Peter Delacorte notes of The Basketball Diaries in his 1987 San Francisco Chronicle review of Forced Entries, ultimately, the speculation over the work’s authenticity does not matter. Says Delacorte: ‘‘Of course, from the author’s point of view the reader’s confusion on such a point is absolutely irrelevant, as long as the reader stays interested.’’

In fact, Carroll himself is aware that normal situations make uninteresting diaries. At the end of one of the rare entries that does not include an outrageous situation, Carroll notes that this particular entry is boring. ‘‘I just couldn’t think of anything else to write about anyway, no dope, no nooky, no queers following me today, I guess you start writing lame diaries like this.’’ With this statement, Carroll hits on a well-known belief. Most people’s lives are not that interesting. Despite the popular demand for biographies of interesting people, on a day-to-day basis most people—even celebrities—lead normal, and even boring, lives. Not Carroll, however. In his life, as depicted by The Basketball Diaries, there little boredom; readers are treated to a continuous, exciting variety of extreme dialogue, imagery, situations, and characters.

However, in the end, the diaries are true, even if Carroll did make some of it up. They offer an accurate reflection of what life was like for kids like Carroll, growing up on the tough streets of New York in the 1960s. At one point in his diaries, Carroll says that most people are unaware of what life is like in the city. He says that he will soon let people ‘‘know what’s really going down in the blind alley out there in the pretty streets with double garages. I got a tap on all your wires, folks. I’m just really a wise ass kid getting wiser.’’ Carroll’s main purpose in writing his diaries is not to provide a completely accurate account of his own life but to represent his life and the lives of all those like him. His is the voice of criminals, junkies, prostitutes, and other urban characters who, like him, have struggled against their disadvantaged surroundings and who have failed to ‘‘become pure.’’

Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on The Basketball Diaries, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.terature.

The Poet as Rebel

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1657

The primary value of Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries is its contextual vision of time (from the fall of 1963 to the summer of 1966) and place (New York City and its environs) and its carrying onward of a dramatic cultural strand that presents the (in this case young) artist as incorrigible rebel. The importance of the historical content highlighted in the published text is heightened by comparison with the financially successful movie adaptation, starring actor Leonardo Di Caprio that was released in 1995. In the latter version, all references to the 1960s are excised; the setting in the movie version is still New York City, but it is a very different, much more affluent and much more apolitical version of the city apparently of early- to mid-1990s vintage. Indeed, even though the movie quotes extensively from the printed version, it loses much of the charm and background tension and interest rendered in the book. The original diarist makes much of the atomic jitters caused by the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and ferment caused by class and racial friction, indirectly (and at times directly) using his and societal fears as justifications for his rebellious attitude, drug-use, and generally antisocial, at times violently sociopathic behavior.

In his ‘‘Author’s Note’’ to Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries, 1971–1973, Jim Carroll writes: ‘‘This diary is not the literal truth and is not meant to be a historical recounting of the period. The entries were consciously embellished and fictionalized to some extent. My purpose was simply to convey the texture of my experience and feelings for that period.’’ The same probably holds true for The Basketball Diaries. What the reader can gain from the early diaries is a sense of what life was like in New York City during a three-year period for a precocious adolescent and teenager who was a good basketball player, drug addict, and neophyte poet. From his wry observations, often dangerous preoccupation and conflicts, one can also learn much about attitudes that oppose his, the prevailing norms, and generally what was going on culturally. Simply put, Jim Carroll’s rebelliousness tapped into a relatively small but growing societal discontent that was building momentum for the entire duration of that historical period.

One of Jim Carroll’s heroes throughout the diaries is singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, an important cultural rebel and icon of the period and ever since. A Summer 64 diary entry observes: ‘‘I spent most of the time just drinking beer in the corner and listening to Dylan on the jukebox.’’ At a time when bands such as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles were spearheading the famous musical upheaval dubbed the British Invasion, Carroll chose to focus most of his musical attention on Minnesota-born, New York veteran Bob Dylan (he mentions charismatic soul singer James Brown in one incident). This makes perfect sense in that Dylan defined himself as rebel-poet, the very thing Jim Carroll wanted to become in full. Bob Dylan could fuse the power and possibilities of poetry with music, passionately rail against the things in society he didn’t like, and become rich and famous all at the same time. Technically, he couldn’t even sing very well, an evident fact that inspired all sorts of aspiring poets and singers. Indeed, Jim Carroll himself eventually (in the late 1970s) formed a rock band and sang his own poems and lyrics just like his hero, including ‘‘People Who Died,’’ a very memorable song on the album Catholic Boy that chronicles the deaths of friends and acquaintances, many of whom appear and whose deaths are mentioned or similarly described in entries of The Basketball Diaries. This song also appears in the movie version, tying four art forms (written diary, poetry, music, and cinema) together. Carroll’s interest in Bob Dylan persists throughout The Basketball Diaries. It is worth noting that Carroll’s voice has an imprint that is almost equally affected and unique as Dylan’s. For Carroll as a boy, as with heroin, once hooked, it would have been difficult to avoid his interest in Dylan, for during the approximate period covered by the diaries, Dylan released no fewer than six very influential albums; indeed, halfway through the period he caused a ruckus among folk music ‘‘purists’’ by changing from acoustic to electric guitar. Carroll, in a Winter 1966 entry, describing an incident shooting up heroin, notes: ‘‘Bob Dylan, he’s in the radio. He glows in the dark and my fingers are just light feathers falling and fading down. . .’’ Carroll was sensitive enough to discover that Dylan did not and does not carry his appeal to everyone, in one case to an African-American friend. In the spring of 1966, after the electric album Highway 61 Revisited had climbed the predominantly white popular music charts, Carroll noted in his diary: ‘‘I tell my friend play Dylan . . . ‘Who he?’’’

The Basketball Diaries also taps into one of Bob Dylan’s major literary influences, the Beat Generation. This loosely defined group of poets and writers included novelist Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road (1957), poet Allen Ginsberg, author of ‘‘Howl’’ (1956), and writer William S. Burroughs. Carroll does not inform the reader whether these are important influences on him at the time as well, but their impact and his meetings with some of the Beat figures is definitively mentioned in Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries, 1971–1973. As with his fondness for Dylan, this again make sense, for Carroll shares many of the same values and interests as the Beats. In fact, Carroll’s preoccupation with drug addictions, especially with heroin, parallels Burroughs’ recounting of his own addictions in the memoir, Junky. All three of these key Beat Generation figures spent formative college years in New York City during the World War II barely twenty years before the events and musings of The Basketball Diaries, so he shared the same geographical space, the same sense of rebelliousness, a common exposure to drugs, numerous (including sometimes bizarre) sexual encounters, and at times criminal behavior. With Ginsberg he shared a love of poetry and a sense that prevailing society must be questioned and challenged because of its at best apathetic and at worst reactionary politics. They all enjoyed bucking the status quo, a hallmark of and now a stereotyped way of viewing the 1960s.

In The Basketball Diaries, Jim Carroll frequently argues with his father over societal and political issues that raged during the period. In the movie version, it is worth noting, Carroll’s father is edited out along with the 1960s. Carroll’s father, in the book version, sides with the status quo along with most of white Americans at the time: to show one’s patriotism, one should trust and not criticize the government or religious institutions. But Jim Carroll distrusted, and he criticized vociferously. Like Dylan and Ginsberg, he had specific reasons to feel distrust and anxiety and to show opposition. One was fear of incineration by nuclear weapons as a by-product of the Cold War between the Americans and the Soviet bloc. Just prior to the period covered by The Basketball Diaries, a third world war had nearly broken out during the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962); not mentioned but clearly felt by Carroll and most New Yorkers at the time, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963; and in 1964 United States began escalating its involvement in the Vietnam War (1964–1972). Intermittently throughout The Basketball Diaries Carroll addresses his pervasive fear of nuclear holocaust. He describes feelings of being stuck at ‘‘ground zero in one fireball Island’’ in a Summer 65 diary entry devoted to atomic jitters and the psychic trauma it inflicts. ‘‘After all these years of worry and nightmares over it,’’ the entry continues, ‘‘(I remember my brother enticing me on to panic during the Cuban crisis saying they were coming any minute) I think by now I’d feel very left out if they dropped the bomb and it didn’t get me.’’ When a power outage shut down much of New York City and the east coast in the fall of 1965, Carroll was caught in a subway train and thought the end had come, later noting to his diary, ‘‘the fact there were no tunnel lights on either made for more A-bomb paranoia.’’ Carroll’s diaries also intermittently mention his dread of Vietnam, for after high school he might be drafted into military service there, mixed with the recurrent fear of nuclear war. In a Winter 1966 diary entry, things have gotten so bad that he thinks of his whole life as a reprieve from the inevitable. ‘‘It’s just gotten bigger now . . . 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 . . .’’

The movie version of The Basketball Diaries was made and released in a rare bubble of time. The Cold War had ended, and so had some of the decades-old fears of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The American economy boomed at the time, so there probably seemed no reason to set the film back during the tumultuous 1960s. At the time, who would have cared? The relevance and acuteness of Jim Carroll’s awareness and fears of New York City as a target of sudden attack feels far more visceral and immediate since the events of September 11, 2001, a sad and tragic fact that nonetheless helps the text version of The Basketball Diaries to resonate again in time and place, both as a recapturing of the past and prophesying for the future. Artists and poets may seem paranoid at times, but this does not mean that something like what they fear does not sometimes really come to pass.

Source: Erik France, Critical Essay on The Basketball Diaries, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.

The Destructive Rift Between an Adolescent Young Man and the Adult Society Around Him

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1825

A picaresque novel differs from a conventional novel in that the picaresque form usually revolves around a main character who travels loosely from scene to scene, encountering other characters and situations in a random fashion, gathering whatever seeds of wisdom that present themselves. The conventional novel, on the other hand, typically involves characters whose actions and conflicts form a plot, which leads to some sort of resolution in the end. Miguel de Cervantes’s (1547–1616) Don Quixote was the original picaresque novel, from which a long tradition of storytelling has evolved. Don Quixote was a knight whose travels have been viewed by critics as a spiritual quest, a journey undertaken for self-knowledge. The main character in The Basketball Diaries might be considered, in a stretch, a modern-day teenage knight, whose battles are on the basketball courts and on the streets, and who also is on a quest, when he states that he just wants ‘‘to be pure.’’ But this is the only similarity between these distant stories that somewhat share a form. Knights in Don Quixote’s day had very strict societal codes of conduct (chivalry), while the main character in this book is an unformed young man who is either lacking in reliable codes of conduct, or whose main mission seems to be to challenge and test codes and ethics.

Carroll portrays his main character and his street-wise life with a palette of decadence. The protagonist’s reality is a downward spiral of drug abuse, theft, violence, altercations with police and other authority figures, sexual abuse, and prostitution, often described with crude and profane language. Indeed, the repetition of these sordid scenes and the protagonist’s capacity for self-destruction and wayward behavior would be tiresome if not for the Tom Sawyer-ish charm the protagonist manages to maintain throughout the story. The reader can be attracted to this character despite his trouble-making and his tough-guy posturing because the story plays upon sympathy; the reader knows that this young man has been dealt a harsh reality by fate, lacking in teachers, mentors, and caring parents. The young man, as evidenced by his striving on the basketball courts, also wants to rise above it all and occasionally does, and records these efforts poetically and intelligently at times. The reader feels for him when the protagonist becomes mired in addiction and the troubles of street life.

The protagonist of The Basketball Diaries is curiously without any deep relationships throughout the story. His friends of his own age are partners in petty crime, but none of these adolescents are described with any conviction and remain vague for the reader. No characters in the protagonist’s life are memorable and these characters only briefly appear and disappear in the narrative. The protagonist does not even give his own name; perhaps the author wants the reader to believe that it actually is a diary. A policeman refers to the main character as ‘‘Jim,’’ keeping with the diary form. However, this omission of a proper name also has the effect of making the protagonist seem young, unformed, and very isolated; the story is told from a vague first-person perspective. The protagonist comments on his isolation when he describes a feeling he has while standing on a rooftop, looking down at the city: ‘‘It’s just me and my own naked self and the stars breathing down. And it’s beautiful.’’ This is a revealing scene; the young man wants to soar above the troubles of the street, but he can only do so by himself, as other people seem so dangerous and distant to him. At the same time, he discloses later in his narrative that it is not really beautiful to be isolated; he has a dream in which he longs for ‘‘an incredible love somewhere in my world,’’ and near the end of the story, he has a horrifying drug experience in which he realizes, with emphasis, that ‘‘I AM ALONE.’’ His isolation ends in increasing self-destruction and addiction without anyone to help him.

Of all the brief relationships described in the narrative, the protagonist’s relationship with authority might go the deepest in giving insights into his character and his troubles. Like Tom Sawyer, he finds the adult world alien and to be avoided. Adults in these diary entries have few redeeming features and give reasons for profound distrust. On the first page of the book, the basketball coach (a classic mentor figure for young people) is revealed with undertones of potential sexual abuse, and later in the book priests, teachers, and a basketball scout are all portrayed as sexual predators. Adults are also shown as helpless addicts, such as the alcoholics that single out the protagonist on trains, or as desperate prostitutes. The protagonist sees a woman commit suicide as though it is a common occurrence in the adult world, and he can only turn to heroin to dull his shock. The protagonist and his friends are in a constant struggle with police, the symbol of society’s authority. However, these authorities are also untrustworthy; a policeman, for instance, unjustly strikes the protagonist. When the protagonist’s basketball talents gain him a scholarship to a prestigious school, he recoils against the school and remarks, ‘‘I feel like . . . blowing up the 257 years of fine tradition of this place.’’

Tradition is not the only thing the protagonist wants to blow up. He is alarmed by the violent thoughts that fill his mind; he sits in class and fantasizes about taking ‘‘a machine gun and . . . firing like mad’’ to ‘‘release some tension.’’ It seems that there are areas in this young man’s psyche that haunt him and that he is unable to confront, and he has no trustworthy adults who can guide him to deeper self-knowledge, or with whom he can even share his troubles.

The protagonist’s parents are no help to him. His father accosts him with anger, and the young man describes that relationship as ‘‘an unending rift.’’ At one point the young man swears on his ‘‘mom’s grave,’’ then quickly notes that his mother is not really dead, although she only pops up in his narrative when she finds drugs and lectures him on the matter, or when she unreasonably attacks his beliefs. He describes his home as ‘‘a screaming maniac nut house,’’ and hints that his parents are angry racists, although at the same time he clearly needs his parents’ love. He tries to escape his family strife through heroin, writing how his ‘‘veins are sore,’’ yet he still loves his parents ‘‘somehow more’’ through the pain and addiction. Near the end of the diaries, when he is in a juvenile reformatory and his mother refuses to visit him, he wishes he has godparents.

The narrator does give hints that he may recognize that he has a problem with authority, and perhaps justifiably so. This is a young man who lives in a period and culture haunted by war; in his fantasies of violence, he dreams of fighting the Germans of World War II. He describes his boss at Yankee Stadium as a man who could be a ‘‘commander in any of Hitler’s war camps.’’ Furthermore, the Cold War atmosphere in which he exists haunts him deeply. Several times he notes his fear of a nuclear bombing, remarking on his ‘‘A-bomb paranoia’’ and the specter of the ‘‘Russians’’ with their ‘‘atomic arrows.’’ He describes his state of mind as ‘‘hideous fear’’ brought on by ‘‘constant drills in schools and TV flashes.’’ His fear and fatalism concerning nuclear annihilation have been with him for so long that he says, ‘‘I’d feel very left out if they dropped the bomb and it didn’t get me.’’

The political atmosphere in which the protagonist lives gives him a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness. For instance, when his school arranges a traditional Thanksgiving fast to support the poor and hungry, the protagonist can not believe that such a gesture could be beneficial and calls it a ‘‘farce.’’ At a peace march, he comments, ‘‘Who needs leaders?’’ He concludes that violence is a better means to solve problems than peaceful demonstration, and there are no wise people or leaders present who can guide him and share ideas. At the same time, the protagonist is sensitive enough to ask a little girl if ‘‘Christ would fight in the war?’’ Rather than finding a meaningful way to express and sort out his beliefs, the protagonist turns again to drugs and denial, so that he will not feel ‘‘guilty about not fighting a war’’ and as a means to escape the ‘‘scheming governments of death.’’

Finally, as meaningful relationships with other people and with authority figures are lacking in these diaries, the protagonist develops his addictive relationship with drugs. In the beginning of the story, the reader is told about the young man’s first heroin experience, as well as his experiences with marijuana and psychedelic substances. At first, the protagonist seems to approach drugs with a sense of adventure, recalling the French poet Rimbaud’s (1854–1891) famous quote that a poet must use any means available to cause a ‘derangement of the senses,’ in order to enhance poetic and visionary experience. However, when the reader becomes familiar with the young man’s pains and troubles, it becomes clear that his drug experiences are far from positive and visionary. A flirtation with drugs leads to destructive addiction. Although the narrator describes an experience with the Native-American ritual plant peyote as ‘‘incredible,’’ the reader still grasps the escapist motive when the young man writes that his mind went ‘‘somewhere’’ the ‘‘bald headed generals and wheelchair senators could never imagine.’’ Unlike the Native-American vision-seekers, who have had organized rituals and elder guides for excursions into their experimental realms, the protagonist only has a casual friend to accompany him. His experience becomes one of escape from the world and from his own society’s elders, with no life-changing wisdom or visions following it.

In the end, the protagonist of The Basketball Diaries uses drug addiction to fill the void created by a lack of positive authority and genuine mentors. The young man, although once a star on the basketball court, cannot shine by himself in the world. In his final diary entries, he goes through cycles of addiction and withdrawal, and seems to hope that the police catch him, a desperate plea for attention from authority. He blames impersonal ‘‘big business’’ men and ‘‘white haired old men in smoking jacket armchairs’’ for the troubles in the world. In his last diary entry, he describes ‘‘four days of temporary death.’’ Lacking any true adult guides in life, and too young and inexperienced to guide himself, he remains an unformed ‘‘foetus’’ longing to go ‘‘back to the womb,’’ rather than a young man with great potential springing forward into the adult world.

Source: Douglas Dupler, Critical Essay on The Basketball Diaries, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003.

Lord Jim

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2509

‘‘I could get my shooting eye back,’’ says Jim Carroll in a voice from the Borough of Lost Souls. ‘‘But that first step, man, that’s the first thing to go.’’ Carroll, at 44, still has the wounded-fawn cheekbones and red hair of the immortal adolescent. Thirty years ago, he was already a god in his small New York universe, a basketball star, literary prodigy, and fledgling heroin addict. That boy has been mummified in celluloid in the film version of his memoir, The Basketball Diaries, with Leonardo Di Caprio playing the stoned angel in a blazer and rep tie.

The actual Jim sits today in a Madison Avenue coffee shop, over rice pudding and apple-cinnamon tea, and looks back on his glory days with toneless eyes of battleship gray, eyes that look like they have seen three lifetimes.

‘‘I was always such a f—n’ gunner,’’ he says. ‘‘Y’know, if they had a three-point line back then, I woulda scored, like, seven more points a game. But see, I wasn’t a natural one-step leaper. I didn’t have spring. But I worked really hard with, like, weighted spats and stuff. So by my sophomore year, I could dunk a ball, like, backwards, take off from the foul line. After a while, they’d have a guy just sitting there for me. Y’know?

That was in 1966. Carroll was an all-city guard for Trinity, sparring with legends like Vaughan Harper—the Felipe Lopez of his day—and ‘‘the Goat,’’ Earl Manigault, on the playgrounds of Harlem. By night, he was traversing the city in a hormonal search for significance, pulling off wild stunts and minor crimes with pals like Pedro and Herbie, and using his basketball-star status to score with girls from Park Avenue to the Grand Concourse. And, amazingly, he was getting it all down on paper. Jack Kerouac said that at 13, he wrote better prose than 89 percent of the novelists in America (‘‘I’m so sick of that f—n’ quote, man,’’ says Carroll). It was a world without gravity.

Carroll is on his second coffee shop and it’s only 10 A.M. He’s just met with a few friends from Drugs Anonymous and is stopping off before continuing an epic walk to the Fifth Avenue office of his lawyer, ex-wife, and friend Rosemary Carroll. A few minutes ago, he was walking down Lexington Avenue when a guy in Chuck Taylors, maybe 25, stalked him for a block before interrupting, reverentially: ‘‘You’re Jim Carroll! I just heard this voice. . . . ’’

‘‘It’s, like, I call up stores, and the person on the other end of the line says, ‘Is this Jim Carroll?’’’ Carroll says in his characteristic pinched whine, equal parts Edith Bunker and William Burroughs.

He wears a denim work shirt, blue watch cap, and black sunglasses. Flecks of gray have pushed into his thin, incongruous beard. Tiny folds of skin gather under the eyes, though no one can see past his black-framed sunglasses. And he’s talking incessantly, allowing each story the freedom to ramble.

Carroll is talking ball again, wagging his wrist in a dribble motion. ‘‘So it was the day we were auditioning Patrick [McGaw], who plays Neutron in the film, and they were short a guy for three-onthree. It was freezing, y’know, down on Thompson Street, with ice all over the side of the court, like where your hands get all cracked, like, when you’re a kid, playin’ outdoors in winter? It was me and Marky [Wahlberg] and James Madio versus Patrick, Leo [Di Caprio], and Bryan [Goluboff], the screenwriter. And I was pa-thet-ic. I go up for this little jump shot, with Leo guarding me, and he’s got no leaps at all, and he comes in and blocks my shot!’’ He shakes his head. ‘‘I hate them for making me do that.’’

‘‘That’s the thing about this project, the biggest downer,’’ Carroll says. ‘‘I had that moment. I’m not going back to try to recapture it. I had that one chance. . . . ’’

A world without gravity. Twenty-five years ago, The Paris Review published his teenage diaries over his strong reservations; he saw himself as a poet. But the diaries themselves are poetry of a sort: He’s down dealing on the hottest corner in the city, like a furnace that street, can feel narco heat waves through your sneakers.

‘‘I think they saw the diaries in The World magazine, published by the Poetry Project. They told me Plimpton wanted to see them,’’ Carroll says. He says that Truman Capote’s editor at Random House, Joe Fox, wanted to publish the diaries as a book, but Carroll was adamant about doing a poetry collection. He finally sold the rights to Bantam in 1979, insisting on paperbacks only. ‘‘It was the perfect book for the time, the punk scene, but I thought it would be out-to-lunch to publish it as this $19.95 hardcover.’’ Carroll estimates the book has sold around 500,000 copies, and Bantam did a study that showed six people read it for every one who bought it.

The Basketball Diaries, which Carroll wrote between the ages of 13 and 15, is a panorama of winos, preppies, hustlers, and fools. It’s New York picaresque—Oliver Twist with a habit. Carroll published poems in Poetry when he was still shooting jumpers against Riverdale High. In the seventies and early eighties, he played rock and roll and almost made it big.

Now, with the arrival of the long-awaited film, comes Carroll’s unsolicited midlife retrospective. Carroll sighs, a little weary: ‘‘With the records and everything, I’ve had my time above-ground. Y’know?’’

Jim Carroll was an idea fifteen years in the making for his parents, Tom and Agnes Carroll. They had tried to have kids well before Tom’s wartime tours of Iwo Jima and Saipan. They’d given up when Thomas Joseph Jr. was born in 1949; James Dennis (‘‘from Dionysius’’) followed a year later.

Carroll spent his early years in the East Twenties, a tough neighborhood at the time; at 13, his family moved to the more middle-class Irish enclave of Inwood in upper Manhattan. That was the first year he shot up. ‘‘I think the main reason I started using heroin was that everyone else was always going out drinking, and I hated drinking,’’ he says innocently. He hated Catholic school, though, and as a freshman used basketball and good grades as a ticket to the affluent Trinity School on the Upper West Side.

His father was a hard-assed war vet whose own father had run a Harlem speakeasy for Dutch Schultz. ‘‘My old man would listen to the music I was playing, Phil Ochs, and say, ‘What the f— is this Phil Ouches guy? What is this goddamned Communist s—t I’m hearing?’’’ Carroll says. ‘‘Y’know, his bar was this real cops-and-construction-workers redneck bar, and he’d have to listen to them go, ‘What the hell is with your son with his long hair? You know, I used to read about him in the sports pages, scored 40 points; now he’s got hair down to here.’ And then Smitty, the postman from our building, the loudmouthed bastard, starts saying, y’know, ‘Your son gets all this poetry stuff in the mail; I mean, what in the hell is that?’ Because that’s the take in any neighborhood, in the Jimmy Breslin sense. Poetry is sissy stuff. Anybody who writes poetry is a fag.’’ Carroll laughs. ‘‘Which I found out is absolutely true when I got out on the scene.’’

By the time he was a junior in high school, Carroll was traveling down to open poetry readings at St. Mark’s Church, swallowing his fear, and turning heads. He impressed poet Ted Berrigun as well as influential literary editors.

He tried college, attending Wagner in Staten Island ‘‘for a year, as far as the draft was concerned.’’ He adds, with disbelief, ‘‘My dorm roommates, like, they thought the biggest thrill was to go down and see the Johnny Carson show.’’ He was gone within weeks, and spent even less time at his next school, Columbia.

In 1973, Carroll published his first poetry collection, Living at the Movies, and moved to San Francisco with a girlfriend and his methadone. From there it was up the coast to the art colony of Bolinas, where he met Rosemary. ‘‘I learned to like being by myself. Maybe too much. But that was the first time I discovered a writing routine.’’

He might have stayed on that path had it not been for a night in San Diego in 1978. Jim was hanging out with Patti Smith, an old girlfriend, before a gig. There was a scuffle involving roadies, and Smith booted the opening act from the bill. In a pinch, she suggested Jim open the show, just get up and speak-sing some poems, as he had done for her before. Her band would back him, just riff. ‘‘I was like, ‘Uhhh . . .’’’ says Carroll, eyes wide with mock terror. ‘‘I didn’t even like rock and roll that much.’’ The gig lasted seven minutes. But the Jim Carroll Band was born.

‘‘When I came back to New York, it was such a joke, because I was always referred to as the pure young poet who wasn’t in it for what he could get out of it; and all of a sudden, the pure young poet comes back, and I’ve got this deal for the paperback of The Basketball Diaries, and I’m hanging out with the Rolling Stones.’’

The single ‘‘People Who Died’’ was his rock-and-roll master work, a Ramones-style guitar grind molded around a terse catalogue of the victims he knew in his New York adolescence. ‘‘There was that line, G-berg and Georgie let the gimmicks, go rotten/died of hepatitis in upper Manhattan. It was actually five of us that shared that needle, and three of us died from it. I just say ‘G-berg and Georgie’ because of the scan,’’ he says. ‘‘G-berg, yeah, like Goldberg. The guy’s name wasn’t Goldberg; he was a Puerto Rican guy, but everyone said he looked Jewish.’’

Carroll’s album Catholic Boy, which came out in 1980, put him on the commercial radar. Within two years, Carroll’s group was opening for the J. Geils Band in hockey arenas. ‘‘There were always these girls pushing to the front to sock their tongues into your mouth,’’ he recalls.

The fact that the next two records didn’t move was no great tragedy. ‘‘These guys were always saying, ‘The minute you get onstage, it’s great, no matter how much you’re hurting.’ But that didn’t work for me. There were some nights I did not want to get out there,’’ he says.

He moved back to New York in 1986, and split amicably with Rosemary (two years later, she married Danny Goldberg, who is now chairman of Warner Bros. Records). He published a collection of poems, The Book of Nods, which even Carroll admits wasn’t totally successful. ‘‘Rock and roll kind of screwed up my voice, poetically. I found myself having this ‘Beat’ voice in my poems. It was like this self-fulfilled prophecy, because everybody was calling me this rock poet, this Beat poet.’’

Carroll moved back to Inwood, two blocks from his old building. His mother had died, and he had made peace with his father, who was reduced to visiting her grave every day. He also wrote a sequel to The Basketball Diaries, which he called Forced Entries. The book was a journal of tawdry, Warholian downtown New York in the early seventies.

Carroll arrives at Rosemary’s office. He’s there to view a short film by a worshipful NYU student based on the final, cathartic passage of Forced Entries. Carroll’s got a headache, so he asks a secretary for some Tylenol. He takes four, then wanders into a nearby conference room.

Cyril Connolly once said, ‘‘Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising.’’ Carroll sums it up a little differently: ‘‘I was always the young guy. And when you’re successful when you’re young, it leads to an arrested adolescence or something, y’know. And there’s that ecstasy period in your life as an artist. Every artist goes through this. I tried to get it back at first with music, and got, y’know, that adrenaline. But,’’ he says cautiously, ‘‘there’s a time when you switch into a more sober period.’’

Carroll knows that after the film hype fades, he’ll finally have time to work on two novels that he says ‘‘just came to me three or four years ago. Like a gift.’’ One is about a miracle, two priests, and an investigation by the Vatican. (He’s been brushing up on the Gnostics.) The other is about a young star painter who walks away from art in a spiritual crisis. There are no drugs, and the painter is a virgin. ‘‘These are straight, linear novels in the third person. My editor was shocked. He was like, ‘Jim! These are money books.’ But if I don’t get to work on these things, boy, I am betraying a gift; I mean, that’s what I would define as a sin.’’

It helps that Carroll has finally achieved a quiet writer’s ritual. ‘‘It’s like I’ve been so jubilant, I just eliminated that need.’’ Carroll rises every morning around 4:30 A.M., when he does his best writing. And he’s shaken a nasty TV habit: ‘‘After that afternoon nap, it was always Oprah time. . . . So I got rid of cable and my VCR, but I found I was watching, like, infomercials instead of movies. But these days—’’ He pauses, indignant. ‘‘To me, latenight movies are old black-and-white movies with Cagney and Bogart, but today, old movies are like The Sting II with Jackie Gleason.’’

During the summer, he often teaches at Allen Ginsberg’s Naropa Institute. He lectures and reads at colleges, maintaining little contact with the downtown New York he helped define, although he recently went to a viewing of Diaries at Rosemary’s place with Lou Reed and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon. ‘‘It moves well,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s hard for me to really register on it because of the personal attachment.’’

Carroll has been clean of heroin since the early seventies. He still has an occasional margarita, although he has never liked drinking. ‘‘I can’t go for that complete-abstinence thing. I mean, I obviously have an addictive personality, especially for heroin. But I haven’t smoked grass in like eight or nine years. I mean, I wish I could still smoke grass. But New York is just so speedy, it’s so fast-paced. I mean, the phone’s going to ring any minute and someone’s going to lay a big trip on me, and I’ll spend the first hour paranoid.’’

Source: Alex Williams, ‘‘Lord Jim,’’ in New York, Vol. 28, No. 17, April 24, 1995, pp. 64–66.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Previous

Critical Overview