Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me by Richard Farina


Let me tell you, man, you can't move in this country without catching your heel in a hangup. Mousetails in your root beer, grubs in your Hershey bar, always some kind of worm in the image, muching away.

A dazzling, fizzling, appalling, and tragic book. Farina, a classmate and sometimes-pal of Thomas Pynchon's (Gravity's Rainbow is dedicated to Farina) at Cornell, also enjoyed a career as a folk-rocker, married to Joan Baez's sister Mimi, and recorded several seminal folk-rock albums with her, including the stunning Celebrations for a Grey Day. (In David Hajdu's provocative cultural memoir Positively 4th Street, Farina even gets credited with creating the knowing, enigmatic, American artiste-as-provocateur persona that no less than Bob Dylan steals and makes his own.)

In 1966, he slipped out of a publication party for Been Down So Long to ride with a friend on his new motorcycle, and died off a hairpin turn in the Carmel hills.

Haven't read it in years, but remember parts so clearly. The prose is heavily written and re-written, there is a cannabis smell to it, too worked over, an emphasis on sensation and re-representation, rather than versimilitude. Too many words. Too many descriptions. Many bad trips and sensations of bad things coming. But there is marvelous stuff, too: Gnossos dancing on the ice packs covering the local river at the beginning of the spring thaw, urging Spring on, some incredible character thumbnails, his red-gummed Indian neighbors forever drunk on grenadine and gin, slipping prophecies under his door, the lists, the lists! Wish I had the nerve (or the typing skill) to recreate them here.

It received bad reviews when it appeared, but critical opinion over the years has changed as the novel's place in the canon of 60s literature has grown more assured.

The plot is ridiculous and campus-bound, but enhanced by intercut scenes of what Gnossos was doing before returning to campus, when he roamed the West and witnessed a nucelar test detonation in the desert, stoned on mescaline, marijuana (his beloved "panegyric") and drunk on boozed (his beloved "lush.").

The problem is motivation: why is Gnossos so quest- and darkness-obsessed? I hate to sound like a wrtng instrctr, but... back story?

The lists are dense and telling: American plastic culture at its best and most dizzying. I tell you, I think it's a better book than Pynchon's initial sally The Crying of Lot 49.

It's pre-hippie, pre Summer of Love. The only music is some jazz (Brubeck is dissed, Miles is adored), some Mose Allison, some soul references, some Indian raga music.

The president is Eisenhower. The year is 1958. The setting is a college campus in upstate New York positively pulled with Greek-sounded streets and buildings. The narrator, Gnossos Papadopoulis, is clearly Greek. The scene on campus is seething: the administration is cracking down on sex, and the students are rising up against curfew hours and restrictions.

There is (without doubt) an immaturity to the book, a misogyny: Gnossoes is self-conscious to the point of paralysis, Hamletian. But Farina was all of 29 when he finished it. If anything, what doomed it at the time is that it was a 1969 book published in 1966, way ahead of its time.

Farina had an Irish father and a Cuban mother, allegedly fought in Cuba with Castro.

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