The Basketball Diaries

by Jim Carroll

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A diary details the events in one’s life as a series of periodic entries. The Basketball Diaries is composed of ten sections, one for each season—in some cases two seasons—from Fall 1963 to Summer 1966. Each section is composed of five to twenty-six separate entries. Most diaries are kept for personal reasons and are not intended for publication. As a result, the diarist may jump around and discuss many topics, instead of developing one major plot, as other kinds of storytellers do. At first glance, The Basketball Diaries appears to follow this episodic format, since each short entry describes a separate event. However, collectively, these entries describe Carroll’s coming-of-age transformation— from a healthy, relatively naïve juvenile delinquent into a strung-out, culturally aware, heroin-addicted criminal.

The events take place in the 1960s in New York City, primarily Manhattan, a small island that contains within its small area some of the world’s richest and poorest people. Carroll, a boy from the poor section of New York, is able to use his basketball talent to get into a local, rich private school. He also dates rich young girls, something that he says his friends from the poor part of the city would not believe. ‘‘I’m gonna bring all the dirt heads from old Madison Square Boy’s Club up here some night: they’ll freak out in one second.’’ If he were living in some other U.S. cities, where the physical distance between rich and poor is often greater, it would be harder for him to do this. In addition, New York is notorious for its high crime rate and its drug abusers. In fact, as Carroll notes, his diaries ‘‘have the greatest hero a writer needs, this crazy . . . New York.’’ Finally, as the largest American city and one which contained a significant number of landmarks and economic centers, New York—especially Manhattan—was thought to be a prime target for a nuclear warhead during the Cold War, a fear that Carroll expresses on several occasions.

LanguageThe Basketball Diaries is conspicuous for its graphic profanity. Many entries include at least one profane word, and in some cases, Carroll uses several. These profane words are used to describe sexual acts—in which case he uses many—and are often used for emphasis, even when describing relatively normal events. Carroll also includes a lot of slang—a type of language used in everyday life by common men and women, typically those in the lower or working classes. Slang words are often established words that have been given different meanings. For example, in the English language, a ‘‘spade’’ is a gardening tool. However, in street slang, a spade is an African American. This term is derogatory, which is another common characteristic of slang words. Sex, drugs, and alcohol are three areas in which slang is often used. For example, Carroll refers to sexual intercourse as ‘‘nooky,’’ calls condoms ‘‘scumbags,’’ and refers to breasts as ‘‘knocks.’’ Marijuana is ‘‘weed’’ or ‘‘grass,’’ while heroin is ‘‘scag.’’ A ‘‘spiller’’ is someone who acts like he has drunk more than he has, and someone who is drunk is ‘‘smashed.’’ These are just some of the countless examples of slang in the book.

The imagery in the diaries is also graphic. For example, Carroll and his friends come across a woman who has committed suicide by jumping out of a window. Says Carroll: ‘‘I spot a long deep gorge in her ankle and it’s oozing blood in slowmotion spurts.’’ Besides violent images, Carroll also uses graphic imagery to describe his sexual experiences. For example, as he is about to say goodbye...

(This entire section contains 718 words.)

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to his girlfriend before basketball practice one day, he states that she ‘‘socks her tongue in my mouth and grinds her sweet bottom up against me.’’ Since Carroll has forgotten to wear a jock strap that day, his resulting erection makes it look ‘‘like [he] was shoplifting bananas.’’ Drug imagery is also graphic, particularly the images associated with shooting up heroin. On one occasion, Carroll describes what it looks like when he shoots up: ‘‘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.’’