Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Basketball Diaries (1978)

Here's a good one for the shelf where you keep your disaffected beatnik literature. Based on diary entries Jim Carroll made from 1963 to 1966, it chronicles the life of a ne'er-do-well midcentury juvenile delinquent living off the streets of New York City. He was age 13 to 16 at the time of all these adventures, and even if they have been heavily edited he is still obviously a precociously gifted youth. I was figuratively still picking my nose and rubbing it on my pants leg at the same age he was doing heroin, making it with chicks, and winning basketball championships. Sometimes the callow youth you would expect shows up—in the early sections he's still not clear on whether it's heroin or marijuana that is dangerously addictive (that's all straightened out by the end of the book). I was struck by how there is no mention of either the JFK assassination or the coming of the Beatles, though Malcolm X (and his assassination) comes up more than once. It sprawls across great swaths of the city, starting on the Lower East Side and moving north, to the Bronx and environs. Carroll and his comrades live wild and free, laughing and winning basketball games and taking what they please. Not without consequence. Late in the book Carroll serves 31 days in jail, about which he says little, but seems to be brooding over a bad experience. Even later than that he is living the life of a heroin addict. The literary ambitions are there; he talks about them in places, mostly in terms of poetry. In some ways I'm sorry I came to him so late. He died in 2009 at the age of 60. At some point, in the late '70s, I acquired the single "People Who Died" by his Jim Carroll Band. I loved it for the nervous way it surged and spat out the name-checking. But I was never moved to go further than that (I don't even remember the B-side) until I thought of him again and was happy to find that my paperback edition of this (with Leonardo DiCaprio on the cover) had survived the purges of the past 10 years. Is it essential? I don't know. It's a memoir with great anecdotal storytelling and vivid detail of a most unusual life in a time and place that holds a good deal of interest for me. The language has little to recommend it beyond its clarity, but I'll take clarity on a bet over beauty any day—it just surprises me a little, given he evidently considered himself a poet more than any of the many other roles he played: sports star, rock star, and heroin addict. Not bad.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. I really liked his spoken word collection, Praying Mantis.