Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Ben Tanzer Recommends The Basketball Diaries

And so we continue our Writers Recommend - a new series where we'll be asking writers to, well, you know.. recommend things. Like the books that they've enjoyed. To you. Because who doesn't like being recommended new and interesting books, right?! Think of it as a PSA. Only it's more like a LSA -Literary Service Announcement. Your welcome. 

Ben Tanzer Recommends The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll

I am hunkered down at a long table at The Bottom Line in Greenwich Village. I am in my early twenties and I am waiting patiently for it to happen.
            What is it?
            I will tell you in a minute, because this part is about the thing before the thing.
            The thing before the thing is that as I sit there milking my watery Gin & Tonic, tracing the sweaty trickles of condensation with my finger as it slides down the side of my glass, and as I try to be patient, or at least not a stalkerish freak, I feel someone place their hands on my shoulders and then lean over me to get a better look at the still empty stage.
            I look up to see who it is, not that I expect I will know.
            And yet as it turns out, I do know who it is. Not personally, but I do know, and how couldn’t I, with his clunky glass, beard, crazy Jew hair, and bemused grin.
            It’s Allen Ginsberg, yes that Allen Ginsberg.
            He smiles at me and then he walks away.
            Why is this important?
            For one, because I am terrible starfucker and Allen fucking Ginsberg has just touched me, then smiled.
            But that’s not the most important thing.
            No, what’s important is that Allen Ginsberg is at The Bottom Line to read that night and I had no idea that was the case.
            How couldn’t I know that?   
            Because I am there to see Jim Carroll, he is the thing before the thing, and I had no idea, because no writer is more important to me than Jim Carroll.
            I love him.
            I love him like women my age love John Cusack. And why is that, because he speaks to them, and yes, Jim Carroll speaks to me in much the same way John Cusack speaks to them.
            They don’t know John Cusack, but through watching him in Say Anything, certainly, The Sure Thing, possibly, and Serendipity, maybe, fuck, Christ, John Cusack inhabits something, an ideal of some kind, funny, passionate, tall, and crazed about the women he loves, and everyone wants crazed, until they get it anyway.
            Like them, I don’t know Jim Carroll, technically I now know Allen Ginsberg better than Jim Carroll, but Jim Carroll wrote The Basketball Diaries, and nothing before The Basketball Diaries ever spoke to me like The Basketball Diaries did.
            I re-read books as a boy, I was ravenous for words and the escape and balm they provided, and some books filled the chasm for me again, and again, Carrie, The Catcher in the Rye, The Outsiders, Flowers in the Attic, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, The Chocolate War, and so many others, but none of them was The Basketball Diaries.
            It was electric, and real time, all live wire, and nerve endings, a mash-up of masturbation, drugs, sports, underage sex, predators, crime, writing, hustle, art, New York City in the mid-sixties, and people love to talk about cities, especially New York City as characters in stories, but usually they don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about, here though New York City was oozing and fresh, and another breathing slice of a book, that was so graphic, vivid, and fraught with gunk and stickiness, it was like watching a documentary.
            To this day I remember when he jerks-off on the roof of his building under the stars.
            The college scout Bennie who wants to blow him.
            The twins Winkie and Binkie who he wants to fuck, and how he worries that he chose the wrong one after one sister strips for another guy, before realizing they must look the same.
            The date that won’t sleep with him, and keeps insisting there’s a time and place for everything, until it actually is the time and place.
            How they would cliff dive into the Harlem River while dodging the shit and scumbags floating by.
            The girlfriend who gets him hard during gym class in Central Park, which leads him to picture an old woman’s varicose veins because he isn’t wearing underwear.
            Playing basketball with Lew Alcindor.
            The drugs, the uppers and downers, the endless marijuana, and the heroin.
            Carroll at his most haunting and prescient, as he describes his fantasies of gunning down everyone in his classroom out of pure boredom.
            And then there is the language, fluid, poetic and crass, a twisty mix of slang and detail, all piling-up on itself, until it becomes something more than language, something visual, a fever dream, or overture, filled with spiky notes, and jazz beats.
“After silly hash goofs with other loony heads, Brian and I split and taxi to 168th for the junk juice, but to no avail because the place we hit turns us down because the man’s been bugging him about selling it to minors (you’re supposed to be twenty-one to cop this stuff). After two more turnaways we almost give up hope when Brian decides to call old Johnny Murray, whose been drinking six bottles a day since he was fifteen (p. 81).
            I imagine it would have been impossible not to be taken with all of this when I was twelve and first got the book from my friend Adam, but looking back I must have wondered if this was what the future could hold, girls and sports and grit and hustle and living in New York City, and the idea that like Icarus, Jim Carroll may have flown too close to the sun, wings melting, and fraught with plummet, yet somehow he landed on his feet.
            Jim Carroll was real, he was punk, and he was legend.
            I also think that over the years I must have somehow overlooked the second half of the book, where it’s all junk, and desperation, and nodding out, and Rykers Island.
            I imagine that it didn’t fit my narrative for Jim Carroll, or at least the Jim Carroll life I might have almost aspired to if I had any idea how anyone aspires to such a life.
            And I know this because I recently re-read the book for the first time in twenty years.
            I wanted to know if it still spoke to me.
            I should say here, that when I saw Jim Carroll at The Bottom Line I was there with Adam who had been the one to introduce me to The Basketball Diaries all those years ago.
            I was at work, in New York City thank you very much, when the phone rang.
            “Yo, meet me at The Bottom Line at 7:00, Jim Carroll is performing,” Adam said.
            Not reading mind you, performing.
            As I have mentioned, we didn’t even know Allen Ginsberg was going to be there, Allen fucking Ginsberg, but that was because we loved Jim Carroll, and everything else was ephemera, beautiful, and raging, but ephemera none-the-less.
            On stage he was as Jim Carroll as you could ever want him to be, loose-limbed, and gaunt, all vibrato, and stalking the stage like a punk junkie spider, as he read some piece about his father, maybe, and a scorpion, definitely, and if it is true that this piece couldn’t possibly touch the sacred text that is The Basketball Diaries, it didn’t matter, he didn’t really have to do anything but show-up.
            Which for the most part is what he did for years, though not for much longer, because somewhere along the way, he stopped showing-up, and at the end, it was him living as a shut-in, and a memory, primarily kept alive, by his primary, not only, but primary legacy, The Basketball Diaries.
            So, given that, how does it hang now?
            Brilliant, and beautiful, as lyrical and raucous as ever, mostly, totally, I don’t know. I still love it, and all those memories I had, they were all there, which made me happy.
            It’s funny though, reading it again now I’m amazed at how young he was, and so close to my age when I first read it, when he seemed so old, or worldly, or something.
            The druggy stretches near the end get somewhat draggy and repetitive, even if they remain at times both sad and funny.
            But there are still the girls and the basketball, and the hustling, though I had forgotten just how far he was willing to go to make a buck. I remembered the stick-ups and the purse snatching, but I’m not sure I recalled his working as a john.
            The pages are still alive and humming though like few things I’ve read since, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Cruddy, We The Animals, Hairstyles of the Damned, and Bastard Out of Carolina, come close, very, but they’re not like this, not like a movie wrapping itself around my brain, first as a hug, and then as a bruise.
            The book is also something else though, because there is one piece of The Basketball Diaries I somehow forgot about entirely: it’s when he writes about becoming a writer.
The more I read the more I know it now, heavier each day, that I need to write. I think of poetry and how I see it as just a raw block of stone ready to be shaped, that way words are never a horrible limit to me, just tools to shape. I just get the images from the upstairs vault (it all comes in images) and fling ‘em around like bricks, sometimes clean and smooth and then sloppy and ready to fall on top of you later (p. 159).”
            It’s impossible to read it now, and not think, there, right there, thirty-five years ago, something was set in motion for me, something started there, and I’m not even remotely sure that I knew it was.
            Later, and when I was now living in Chicago, Jim Carroll came to perform at Lounge Axe. He was older than when I saw him at The Bottom Line, still lanky and gaunt, and still Jim Carroll, but barely anyone was there, and I didn’t see Allen Ginsberg anywhere.
            He read the same piece he read when I saw him read in New York City and I felt sad.
            He seemed stuck in place, and after many years of being stuck myself, I was finally not, not really, I was writing, and it wasn’t clear that he still was.
            Then one day he was dead, a sickly, skeletal, shut-in, who never quite finished his final book.
            Maybe it couldn’t end any other way for him, not when he had flown so high and so bright, and maybe it doesn’t matter, he was a poet, and he was a punk god, he survived the junk, and the hustle, and the streets of New York City, he changes lives, he wrote The Basketball Diaries, and what more do we need from him?
            I don’t know, but I do know that he had once made us feel like more was possible, that the hustle was beautiful, and that a poet can emerge from the streets, and isn’t that enough for any one life time?

Ben Tanzer is the author of the books My Father’s House, You Can Make Him Like You, Orphans, which won the 24th Annual Midwest Book Award in Fantasy/SciFi/Horror/Paranormal, and Lost in Space, which received an Honorable Mention in the Chicago Writers Association 2014 Book Awards Traditional Non-Fiction category, among others. He also contributes to Men's Health, directs Publicity and Content Strategy for Curbside Splendor, and can be found online at This Blog Will Change Your Life, the center of his vast, albeit faux, lifestyle empire.

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