The Basketball Diaries

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Sports and Narrative: Looking for the Great Basketball Novel

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During this hoops-rich period, the frenetic Madness of March having transitioned into the more austere months-long slog of the NBA Playoffs, I found myself fruitlessly poking around for a good basketball novel.  I’m both a writer and great fan of the game — my podcast, Fan’s Notes, pairs the discussion of a novel with a discussion of basketball, usually the NBA.  My podcasting partner and I tend to find no shortage of cultural and metaphorical linkage between the two art forms, yet modern literary fiction seems to harbor no special love for this great game.

Football has A Fan’s Notes, End Zone, The Throwback Special, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.  Baseball has The Natural, Shoeless Joe, Underworld, and more recently The Art of Fielding.  For Christ’s sake, hockey yet has another Don DeLillo tome, the pseudonymously written Amazons.  Where, I find myself wondering, is the great basketball novel?

First of all, no, The Basketball Diaries is not a basketball novel. It is a memoir, and it is about heroin — it features precious little actual basketball.  John Updike’s Rabbit and Richard Ford’s Bascombe books both involve hoops to varying degrees, but not as a central concern or dramatic focus.  Under the Frog, by Tibor Fischer, is a very good book about basketball players, but it concerns 1950s Hungary, the titular frog being the regime of Marshal Tito.  What else is there?  Walter Dean Myers wrote several young adult books that revolved around basketball; there’s also Sherman Alexie’s YA novel Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and The Crossover by Kwame Alexander and the Blacktop series by my friend L. J. Alonge — interestingly, most books about basketball that come to mind seem to be YA written by men of color, while Big Sports Lit is very, very white.

There is not, as far as I can tell, a big work of literary fiction for adults that is “about” basketball, in the same sense that Chad Harbach’s Art of Fielding is “about” baseball.

Perhaps this has to do with the particular character of these sports. Baseball, with its mano-a-mano pitcher-hitter duels, is perfectly congenial to narrative — is itself comprised of a series of mini-narratives involving protagonists and antagonists (one way or the other depending on your rooting interests).  There is really no moment of solo heroism in any other major sport comparable to the walk-off home run (or strike out) to end a game; there is likewise no greater sporting scapegoat than Bill Buckner and his ilk.  In less dramatic terms, a baseball game is comprised of hundreds of discrete individual plays:  someone throws a ball, someone hits it, someone fields and throws it, and it is caught again by the first baseman for an out.  This is how traditional narrative is structured, a series of explicable interactions between a cast of characters that mount in importance and conflict until a crucial, deciding act that resolves the plot.  Even the structure of baseball’s gameplay is writerly, with its nine innings constituting nine tidy chapters inside the larger dramatic arc.

Football, too, though tritely metaphorized as violent, armed combat — marching up the field, a war of attrition, a massacre, etc. –is constituted by many clean moments of contest, various plot points interspersed between the interminable commercial breaks.  American football is American in character, pairing a love of mayhem with an equal love of bureaucratic fussiness.  The game’s horrifying ultraviolence is committed within the parameters of a rulebook thicker than a Cheesecake Factory menu, meted out in orderly skirmishes, and broken up by five minute replays to determine the spotting of the ball within a nanometer or two.  We want war, but we want a safe war, a manageable war in which the actors stay within their prescribed roles — in which no one, in effect, goes rogue (few things are more pleasurably disconcerting than a broken play and the ensuing spectacle of a four-hundred-pound lineman hurtling toward the end zone).  Again, this is very compatible with traditional storytelling, placing maximum visceral conflict and chaos within neat scene and a hyperrationalized narrative structure.

In contrast, the narrative possibilities of basketball seem somehow European in character, closer to futból than football (or as a British student of mine liked to call it, handegg).  Inbounds are approximate, as are jump balls.  Except in certain key situations, there are no replays and refereeing occurs on the fly.  Mistakes are routinely made, lamented, forgotten.

Superstar players — the protagonists of the game, so to speak — are coveted, but the play itself is supremely team-oriented.  Unlike baseball and football, in which individual statistics are iron-clad and fetishized, basketball stats are the subject of endless arguments regarding context.  It is curiously difficult to disentangle the individual moments that contribute to an orange ball falling into a hole.  Yes, someone shoots it, and yes, often someone assists on the shot, but a hundred other smaller actions, essentially unquantifiable — screens, shooting gravity, secondary assists, etc. — go into it as well.  And even the countable stats are the subject of debate.  Scoring twenty-eight points in a game sounds good until you look at how they were scored, with what efficiency, and giving up how much on the defensive end.  Quants — that is, stat nerds — regularly put forth the case that a player like Andrew Bogut, a low-scoring defensive bruiser who sets vicious picks, is as valuable than a shooting threat like Isaiah Thomas.  There is no comparable ambivalence in the record books of, say, baseball:  a homerun is a homerun is a homerun.

All of which is to say that there is, inherent to basketball’s play, an indeterminacy that may not lend itself to conventional narrative.  Moby-Dick versus Heart of Darkness, to throw a strange but perhaps productive analogy at the fridge (and thereby further mix metaphors), are like baseball versus basketball.  One is about a majestic, doomed assertion of individual will; one is about ambiguous forces clashing in a mist of doubt and dread.  Occasionally a basketball player comes along who is great enough to totally clarify the terms of the game:  LeBron James, for example.  But these players are surpassingly rare, generational.

If the orderliness of baseball and football lends itself generally to narrative, it lends itself specifically to retrospective narrative.  In much the same way that we often imagine our lives as a series of cruxes (and model that imagining in our fictions), a football game can be broken down into a series of botched or successful plays, good or bad calls.  These sports are almost built to be post-mortemed, in their perfect state only when finished.  It seems consonant, then, that big literary sports novels are typically about a character looking back at former greatness and lost innocence — either personally or culturally, or both.

And this type of literary sentimentality, in turn, pervades the cultures of football and baseball, which are forever backward-looking, enshrining and nostalgiazing moments, sometimes as they still happen.  Memorable plays are almost immediately assigned names as historically pungent as World War II battles:  “The Immaculate Reception,” “The Shot Heard Round the World,” “The Catch.”  Even the bungled plays have immortal names:  “The Fail Mary,” “The Butt Fumble.”

There aren’t really similarly fetishized moments in basketball.  Its fluid and complex play does not invite the same kind of nostalgic retrospection, and indeed, it is unsentimental about its history to a degree that routinely enrages former greats.  Basketball could never serve as a good metaphor for America’s glorious past, or even its fallen present (football still serves admirably here:  see Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) but it might be just the sport for a more skeptical and circumspect twenty-first century, an era when we need a literature of certainty less than ever.

Image credit: Unsplash/Marius Christensen.

Flossing Your Teeth and Reading Dickens: Resolutions for the New Year

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Every new year, my husband and I quit drinking for the month. Sober January is a healthy and smug time, filled with sparkling water and peppermint tea and discussions about what kind of red wine would have gone well with the lamb shanks. This year, we’ve also given up sugar for the month. We joke that we should also take away bread, dairy, meat, salt. Anything with flavor, anything that makes us happy. Next year we will consume only paper towels soaked in water for 31 days.

A more pleasurable new year’s resolution is one that adds to your life rather than subtracts from it. One year, for instance, I vowed to wear more dresses. I did, and it was a fabulous (and feminine) year. Reading resolutions, if they aren’t too onerous, also fall under this category. For example, vowing to read a poem a week isn’t a huge challenge and, wow, how it can render a Saturday morning more ponderous and magical! A couple of years back I devoted a summer to E.M. Forster, and, aside from the splendor of reading Howards End and Maurice, I loved saying, in my best mid-Atlantic, Gore Vidal-inspired accent, “I find myself on a Forster kick lately.”

This year, I resolve to read James Baldwin’s nonfiction, in particular The Fire Next Time. The desire to read Baldwin emerged from discussions, both in-person and online, about Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I own but haven’t yet read. Beyond the obvious similarities between the two books (the letter writing device and race in America as subject matter), I’m interested in other ways these two texts interact, and where and how they diverge.

I also resolve to read David Copperfield. I’d already planned to read it this year after spending 2015 with one contemporary novel or another, and then I read Meaghan O’Connell’s Year in Reading, wherein she not only recommended many of the same books I had read and loved in 2015, but also mentioned that she was waiting for the Charles Dickens to arrive in the mail. This seemed fated. We have agreed to tackle the book together, in a kind of two-lady book club, this February.

In figuring out my own reading resolutions, I realized how much fun it is to hear about what others plan to read this year. In this spirit, I asked some people I admire to share their 2016 bookish resolutions.

The Essayist
David Ulin, former critic for the Los Angeles Times and the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, always writes about books with such perspicacity and grace. He told me he generally doesn’t believe in resolutions since he almost never follows through with them. He went on:

But when it comes to reading in 2016, my main goal is to relax. To step back from the treadmill, and to read in a more integrated way. In part, this will mean as a critic, since I plan to continue writing about books; in part, as a writer, reading books that connect to, or address, various projects; and (perhaps most importantly) in part, as a reader, reading for no agenda other than my own. I’ve long believed that reading as a writer (and certainly as a critic) condemns one never to read for pure pleasure again. What I mean is that we are reading, inevitably, from within our own processes, with an eye toward how the sausage is made. I don’t imagine that will change for me, but I want to read recklessly this year, to put books down in the middle, to start and stop and start again. I want to read old books, new books, books by friends and books by strangers, books from all across the globe. Next to my bed, where I am writing at this moment, there are two piles of books, each about a foot and a half high. I’d like to read down those stacks, which include memoir, poetry, short story collections, detective fiction, books I wasn’t able to get to until now. Will I be able to read all of them, or even most of them, this year? Unlikely. And yet, they perch there like a promise or a dare.

The Poet
My friend Tess Taylor, who is the poetry critic for NPR’s All Things Considered, and who will publish her second collection Work & Days this April, also plans to follow her bookish desires, wherever they may take her:

My biggest goals in 2016 are to read deeply, to read works as a whole, and to read off the grid. I think in the whole buzzy Facebook news-cycle thing, we get caught in a book-of-the-moment phenomenon. That is totally fine for the engine of selling books but maybe not as great for the part of us that makes us hungry to write them. Wearing my book reviewer hat, I am often reading for deadline or for money. I’m glad I get the to write things, truly, but this can be far from the wayward, unplugged feeling that made me a bookworm as a kid. So this year I want to get lost more.  It can be very sustaining to engage one artist deeply, for pleasure, to get the measure of the craft and the life. Right now I’m reading all of Ted Hughes. I admit that this started out of a journalistic assignment, but the poems and the letters and the mind caught my attention and suddenly I’ve been ploughing through them almost obsessively. It’s a big private enterprise, and I mostly do it late at night or first thing in the morning. For now it’s not for sale. It feels really dreamy, like it feeds the writer in me. I want to do more of that.

The Debut Novelist
Would this desire to “get lost more,” as Tess puts it, extend to someone just stepping into the publication game? The year I published my first novel, I bought and read so many other recently released first novels because I was curious about what my colleagues were writing, and because I  wanted to feel like I was in solidarity with my fellow debut novelists. (Class of 2014 in the house!) I asked fellow staff writer Hannah Gersen if the impending publication of her first novel, Home Field (out in July, y’all!), was affecting her reading resolutions. Yes, she said, but in a different way. She told me she’s planning to read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time:

Or maybe it’s better to say I’m planning to finally read the whole thing from start to finish without skipping sections. I’m not sure how much this impulse is related to being a debut novelist, but Proust is definitely comfort reading for me because I’ve read and reread certain passages at different points in my life. The idea of reading the entire novel, knitting together all those favorite scenes, a little each day, feels very grounding. Maybe I also need a break from thinking about contemporary literature, to have a kind of cork-lined reading experience.

The Book Editor
I envy Hannah’s plan and the break she will get from the now-now-now! of our contemporary book-making machine (even as she gets to be a part of it.) It also made me wonder about those working within the industry. Do you make reading resolutions if you read and edit manuscripts for a living? Turns out, you do — or at least Laura Tisdel, executive editor at Viking, does. Every year, she told me, she attempts such a resolution.

Three years ago I read nonfiction titles to bone up on an area of reading, and general knowledge, I was woefully uneducated about (I tackled mostly history stuff, including Operation Jedburgh by Colin Beavan and The American Revolution by Gordon Wood). Two years ago, I focused on classics I hadn’t read as a student (Middlemarch and Giovanni’s Room? Check and check!). Last year, I had a baby (*crickets*). As a relatively new mother, one with just enough sleep to begin regaining some self-awareness, I’ve found myself missing the conversations I used to have with my friends catching up over a beer or even just disappearing down the rabbit hole of a text message thread. So this year, I’m going to read books that my friends recommend to me. I know darn well I don’t have the time in my schedule or the capacity to be a book club participant, but I’m going to make a sort of book club of one: I’m going to ask the people I care about and respect to recommend a book they loved, and then I’m going to read that book and write to them about it. I’m starting the year with Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object by Laurie Colwin, which a dear friend recommended to me just before the holidays when we grabbed a long overdue coffee date together. I’m thinking of this project as a way to commune with my friends, and to discover stories and writers that might never have surfaced in my nightstand pile otherwise.

(I now have strong motivation to start texting recommendations to her!)

The Bookseller
I get the sense that Tisdel, like the others I asked, wants to step back from the machine. Not with a beloved classic, like Gersen, and not by reading “recklessly” as Ulin suggests, or associatively, like Taylor. But by reading a particular book for, and with, and because of, a particular person. It’s reading, and talking about reading, as intimacy.

Mary Williams, the general manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, is another integral member of the book-making machine, and her resolution echoes those of the others:

Free books are one of the perks of being a bookseller. But they are also a curse; there are just so many of them. I have never been able to keep up with all the books coming out each season that I want to read. Cue desperate feelings of inadequacy. Also, the world is full of great books that came out before I became a bookseller and my professional obligation to stay current began. So my resolution is to forgive myself for the new books I can’t get to (wish me luck), and to make some time for the aging heroes lodged in the middles of stacks of unread books in my apartment. Already Dead by Denis Johnson. Stoner by John Williams. More short stories: especially Lorrie Moore and George Saunders and Lydia Davis. Basically, more reading without deadlines.

Reigning Authoress
While Mary is tossing off the shackles of professional obligation to read Stoner in the break room (Oh, how I envy her! I’d love to read that for the first time all over again!), Dana Spiotta’s next book, Innocent and Others, will be released. It comes out in March, which is motivation for me to finish that stupid Dickens as fast as I can — and for Mary to put those shackles back on. While every smart person is reading her novel, what books will Spiotta herself turn to? She told me, “When I was in my teens, I loved to read any kind of novel about growing up. he Bildungsroman(s), the sentimental educations, the coming-of-age/loss-of-innocence stories. It was the job at hand, and I needed help.” She continued:

This year, since I am reaching the milestone of what is optimistically referred to as “middle age,” I want to return to those books that I read so long ago. From The Red and the Black and Jane Eyre to Manchild in the Promised Land and The Basketball Diaries. And many more books that I remember loving. Will I still love them? They are the same of course, but maybe it will be a measure of how much I have changed. What I now think is engaging and moving and beautiful. What I think is funny. What I think is true (with all my experience as a person and a reader). Or maybe not, maybe my connection to these books of my youth will be exactly the same. I wonder if my young self will be in those pages, waiting for me.

Spiotta, too, is stepping away from the publishing hoopla. She will re-read; she will look backward as a way, perhaps, to look forward.

I’m sure that all of us will succumb to diving into the latest hot new book, because it’s fun to join those conversations, and because who doesn’t want to experience what promises to amaze and rearrange us? But I hope we also fulfill our personal reading goals, too, even if it’s to not have a goal: to read for pleasure, for comfort, for connection, for knowledge about the world and ourselves.

What’s your reading resolution for 2016?

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Posthumous Jim Carroll: What Do We Owe a Dead Writer?

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I can’t rationalize my teenage obsession with Jim Carroll in any really satisfying way. From where I stand now, it looks predictable in a way that makes me cringe. I was about 13 when I saw the Leonardo DiCaprio movie of The Basketball Diaries, and while it’s not exactly cool to admit that this adaptation—in retrospect, pretty middling—is what got me into Carroll’s actual diaries and poems, there it is. It didn’t take long after that for me to make him into my morose teen idol. I scrawled his name in the margins of my notebooks and in Sharpie on the wall inside my closet. I Xeroxed his author photo from Fear of Dreaming—his face looking beatific and ageless, his chin scruffy but cheeks dreamily smooth—and taped it up by my bed, near a copy of his prose poem “Reaching France” (“When I reach France, every promise will be kept,” he wrote, sounding both prophetic and world-weary). I kept another copy of the author photo folded up in sixths in my wallet, getting worn and creased into precise little squares.

It was the kind of fixation lots of people depend on at that age: an intense fandom that becomes a way of identifying, a lust for someone real but half-imagined who you can cling to, idealize, and stubbornly call your own. This elusive, impossible love was the definition of romance to me back then. I coveted the raw, hard-won knowledge that appeared to come from a life of passion and danger and drug addiction. As a relatively sheltered teenager who idealized all sorts of trouble I couldn’t quite bring myself to actually get into, there was nothing more alluring than the survival Jim Carroll seemed to represent.

As I got older, I figured out that he was a writer, not a sage. (One definition of maturity, perhaps?) His words resonated even without my adolescent mania to inflate them. Reading him felt less urgent, which was a kind of loss, but it also felt less fraught. Still, when Carroll died in 2009, the news gave me a weird jolt, my reaction tangled up with the way I knew I would have received it at age 15. I felt like I should light a candle, wear black, do some sort of ritualized mourning—memorializing not just Carroll, no doubt, but the version of myself for whom poetry and its writers were simply beautiful and true. Instead, I made dinner and watched TV before going to bed, wishing I could get myself to feel more stricken.

It was both fitting and terrible to learn that Carroll had died at his writing desk. Not long after his death, I was pleased to hear that Viking would be publishing The Petting Zoo, the novel Carroll had been working on for about two decades. Apparently he’d been “putting the finishing touches” on it, and the book was close enough to completion that it would be an indignity to leave it unpublished and unread. This was reassuring. Carroll may have been gone, but in the comforting, ghostly way that artists do, he would endure.

I got a galley of The Petting Zoo in the mail at some point last summer, and expected to tear through it right away. Instead, I picked it up and flipped through it a few times. I read the first chapter while standing on the subway. I put it down again. I picked it back up and sighed a lot. I was worried about separating my anticipation of the book as an event and a symbol from its actual substance—that I wouldn’t be able to, and also that I would.

In light of its author’s death, it was hard to approach The Petting Zoo on its own terms, or to arrive at a judgment of it separate from Carroll’s overall legacy. The novel focuses on 38-year-old art star Billy Wolfram as he grapples with fame, lack of inspiration and a pained sort of asceticism in New York City, Carroll’s lifelong home. (“[T]he prime despair came from the realization that my work was totally bereft of the ethereal, or what I call ‘the inner register,’ that ambiguous quality that enables the viewer to approach the painting more from the heart than the intellect,” Billy rambles to a doctor in the mental ward where he does a brief stint early in the book.) Though Carroll was a writer and Billy (mostly) a painter, they share not just a hometown but a precociousness that started to betray them as they got older and more well-known. Where Carroll’s early work grew out of his experiences with drugs and sex, though, Billy “attributed his artistic edge” to his all-around abstinence.

As a New York novel, The Petting Zoo is a many-layered thing, calling attention to the fact that Carroll’s glory days and death played out on the same streets as his protagonist’s artistic crisis, in a city Billy considers “an appendage of his body.” Set in a place that’s been claimed by countless writers in the creation of their own myths, the book raises the question of what Carroll’s fictional New York has in common with his memoiristic and poetic versions, and whether it even matters.

All of this could make for some pretty captivating reading. As a novel, though, The Petting Zoo just doesn’t work. The characters are wooden and the writing is ponderous; the whole thing feels overstuffed but ultimately lifeless and stagy. Oh no, I thought to myself when I finally started reading in earnest. This was not what I wanted to find, critically or sentimentally. That the novel was so disappointing only compounded the heartbreak of Carroll’s untimely death, because it wouldn’t offer the hoped for (and frankly, expected) chance to bolster his reputation. Instead, the book basically contradicts it.

Reviewers had the unenviable task of considering this respected writer in light of what most agreed to be his less-than-inspiring final effort. Many loaded their pieces with biographical information, taking care to mention Carroll’s great earlier work, his influence on other writers, and their own admiration for him. They noted that the novel had been highly anticipated and that ardent fans will love it simply for existing. Actual critical verdicts—which mostly ranged from vague disappointment to outright dismay—were a sort of footnote to wistful considerations of Carroll’s legacy, pre- and post-Petting Zoo.

“With such a burden of context, the novel must show true, great purpose, something Carroll didn’t have time to oversee,” wrote Susanna Sonnenberg in the San Francisco Chronicle. “I wished Carroll was still here to tighten up these bubbling pages, to wrestle all that aching talent under control.” In Bookforum, Brandon Stosuy allowed, “this farewell fits well on the bookshelf with a bunch of other uneven, ‘edgy’ ’80s New York novels. Just pretend it didn’t come out in 2010.” Writing for the New York Times Book Review, Carroll’s compatriot Richard Hell couldn’t find much to praise. The novel’s “strongest discernible structure is in its correspondence to Carroll’s being, to his history and sensibility and psychology,” he reflected. “That’s irrelevant and unfair as literary assessment, but it seems more meaningful to read the novel that way than from any critical standpoint.”

Even the rare complements came off as a little disingenuous, like gestures of deference to a writer who deserved some, maybe especially in death. The book “has its discrete pleasures,” noted Sonnenberg in her Chronicle review. “If The Petting Zoo does not succeed as a novel, as the archeology of the artist, it is fascinating,” wrote Nancy Rommelmann in The Oregonian . And in Bookforum, Stosuy threw the author a bone: “Carroll clearly put a lot of himself into it via loving descriptions of the urban landscape and evocative life-story details.” It’s worth wondering (and impossible to know) whether there would be even this thin generosity had the author lived to stand up to it—or whether the published book might have looked different in that case, and provoked other reactions.

Writing in the New Yorker, Thomas Mallon’s take on the book he calls “depressingly unnecessary” was particularly incisive, if almost painful to read. The book’s protagonist, he writes, is “Jim Carroll methodically stripped of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The willful absence of all three elements makes for a hero who is not so much pure—in the yearning way of The Basketball Diaries—as weirdly bleached.” In his brutal last line, Mallon imagines “Carroll was at his desk, ransacking the exhausted imagination inside his vanishing body, surely knowing that its very real gifts had long since been spent.”

It’s true that writers rarely get a meaningful say in responding to their reviews (that’s not the point of them, after all), and that readers don’t need an embodied author to make a story come alive. But in the most straightforward way, an author’s existence in the wake of publication is it’s own statement: a plain yet significant “I’m still here.” He can give readings, do interviews, make statements about his work that—even if not in response to specific criticisms—can offer a different entry point. He can write other books. As long as he’s alive, a writer stays part of the conversation about his work, even if he chooses not to participate in it. Without him, things can get a little strange, as fans and critics jockey to have their say—to speak for a writer as much as about him.

In November, to celebrate The Petting Zoo’s publication, Carroll’s old friends Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye hosted a reading and performance at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square. It happened to be the night after Smith won the National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids, which (though focused on her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe) contained a short and poignant section about Carroll, whom she met in the early 70s when both were in their twenties and mostly unknown. The allegiance of the several hundred fans of varying ages in attendance, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on white plastic folding chairs in the sprawling fourth floor events space, was mixed. Many were holding copies of Smith’s book, not Carroll’s.

Smith proclaimed that Carroll was “universally hailed as the best poet of his generation,” surely a bit of an overstatement, if a forgivable one. Reading from her brief note that prefaces the novel, she declared, “Jim’s mythic energy is at once laconic and vibrating.” Lenny Kaye pointed out that “Jim’s journey through space and time formed a perfect circle,” because he was born and died in the same neighborhood, “where he was and always will be.” They both read sections of the novel; aloud and out of context, they were even trickier to find a foothold in.

Sitting there, my mind wandering, I wondered what this was like for Smith and Kaye. They looked unruffled, posing for the requisite photos before heading onstage and making their way through an hour-long program that included a few songs along with sections of the novel and the bit from Just Kids in which Carroll makes an appearance. But I figured it had to be surreal for them, no matter how many tributes they’d fronted for dead friends over the decades. Their presence seemed like the execution of some sort of unspoken contract. If you die first, is it the responsibility of your famous friends to help sustain your myth? To read your words to a large crowd in a chain bookstore, and sign their own names in copies of your book?

As the event came to a close, Smith held up a copy of The Petting Zoo and urged the audience to buy one. She was sure, she said, that Carroll had left various scribblings in his notebooks that will come to light, and so she didn’t want to call this book his final words. But “this is what was on his mind,” she told us. “This is what he wanted to give us the most.” If we loved or admired Jim Carroll for any reason, it follows, we have something of a responsibility to receive the book graciously, even gratefully.

A photo of Carroll on the poster promoting the night’s event was the same ageless image I kept in my wallet as a teenager. It sent a pretty clear message about how to best remember him: as beautiful and resilient and full of promise, not the ailing, struggling writer who last read publicly in 2007. While the man in the photograph is Jim Carroll, tellingly, he’s not the author of The Petting Zoo.

Image credit: Pamela Glenn, Jacket photo from Fear of Dreaming.

Jim Carroll, 1950 – 2009

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In Jim Carroll’s first collection of poems, published when he was in his early twenties, there’s a couplet about a beach “where on the puzzled reef dwarves either / fish or drown in the abandoned ships.” It’s a typical Carroll image: hallucinatory at first blush but grounded, upon closer inspection, in commonplace America. Carroll is talking, I think, about the tankers moored out in Lower New York Harbor. From where he stands on the shore, distance makes the people moving around on them seem like dwarves.

Obituary has a similar distorting effect: it tends to make its subjects giant in certain regards, dwarfish in most others. Carroll died of a heart attack this weekend, at age 60, and it may be that, in the popular mind, his name will forever be attached to the image of a young Leonardo DiCaprio shooting up a high-school classroom in the film version of The Basketball Diaries. But in the subculture of which Jim Carroll was a sort of poet laureate – one of them, anyway – the movie of The Basketball Diaries registers only as a minor souvenir. Before he was a screenwriter, Carroll was a diarist, a frontman, an addict, and a poet, and he left behind at least a couple of very good books.

The Basketball Diaries still feels like being jumped in an alley – in a good way – but Fear of Dreaming: Selected Poems may be a more enduring portrait of the artist. Reading the poems chronologically, you can see Carroll working off his debts to the Romantics, the Symbolists, and especially to first- and second-generation New York Schoolers Frank O’Hara and Ted Berrigan. In the process, he perfects a certain kind of American vernacular, at once iconoclastic and direct. In my favorite of his poems, “The Narrows,” he writes,

I’d like to watch myself holding you
above the cool shore of something really vast
like a vast sea, or ocean.
and when I was through watching, I’d become someone else.

Jim Carroll’s reckless self-discovery cleared space for a generation of Downtown artists who followed, from Kathy Acker to Patti Smith, from David Wojnarowicz to Sonic Youth. That Downtown is largely gone now, it seems, its scuzzy bohemia auctioned off to real estate developers. And nobody writes like that anymore: like it’s possible to invent new forms out of one’s own burning, rather than out of gamesmanship of the mind or the marketplace. But with Jim Carroll, legacy never seemed to be the point. His poems are ecstatic encounters with the here and now. In an early poem, he wrote, “it’s just a feeling I have at times / I want to live until I want to die.” One hopes he got his wish.

Surprise Me!