“Writing As Penance”

Forced Entries is the sequel to The Basketball Diaries

I’ve been on something of a break while attending to other matters which has included catching up on (re)reading some favorite books to recharge my creative batteries. I rarely check out new publications, not out of some form of “they don’t make them like they use to” snobbery, just that when pinched for time I’ll gladly opt for the familiar over rolling the dice on the latest “must read” whose publication was probably facilitated by some back end nepotism or an inside favor granted to a former sorority sister. Sorry, but I’m recovering from the bitter sting of rejection as my essay on Southside Atlanta crime apparently lost out to a “Top Ten Botox Docs” style article which, by the way, was a huge smash. When I stare daggers at the person who just cut me off in the around-the-clock traffic jam that Atlanta has become, I really like it that the face shining back at me will be smooth and wrinkle free. Where was I ? Oh, yea. So I ran across a copy Jim Carrol’s “Forced Entries” when looking for a lost debit card (which is still missing). I’m a pushover for my favorite books. I’ll stop whatever I’m doing, sit down, and start reading. Oh and this isn’t a book review. I’m not sure I’m capable of that. It’s more of a recommendation and some brief comments.

Sordid Tales or Catholic Sojourn ?

On one level, Forced Entries is a book of observational tales set in 1970s New York where Jim Carroll (of “The Basketball Diaries” fame) handles life as a young poet with a clingy drug habit (is there any other kind ?) And, taken superficially, it does provide plenty of entertaining anecdotes on topics such as Warhol, the shame of being a poet, and the realization that 60s style activism smelled funny in the sunlight of the new decade. Certain icons (Leary, Hoffman for starters) might have just been as full of it as any corporate leader or politician they ever demonized. This is where a real book critic might use the word irreverent though Carroll is anything but that. He earns the right to sarcasm by laying out a careful analysis of almost every situation with the (eventual) ability to see his own role in the scene. Most of us will detail the behavior of everyone else, few talk about how we might have contributed to any emerging controversy. Don’t get me wrong, Carroll is no saint, though he does make appeals to them – even the lower tier ones:

I light a candle midway down the right aisle, in front of the statue of an obscure saint named Dustan, who I find out later is the patron saint of lighthouse keepers… I don’t know if I should take it as an omen, but the fresh wooden taper will not catch on the flame I am using to get a light… I take my seat under the plaster blue eyes of St. Dustan, who it turns out was also heavy into politics and writing hymns, one of which was quite a hit on the Gregorian charts.

There are lots of way to board the train with this book meaning you can start reading anywhere although, as with most books, it’s better to start at the beginning. I treat it like a literary “8 Ball” where you shake the ball containing the answer wheel suspended in some form of murky ink from which answers creepily emerge. Except with Forced Entries I tend to get confirmation in some strange sense that I’m either full of it or am living more honestly than before. The capacity to deceive oneself is quite significant and something about reading this book counteracts my tendencies towards that behavior. It’s not a morality thing, more of spiritual investigation. I mean, is it an accident that Carroll keeps winding up in cathedrals, sometimes sitting through “4 funerals” of people he doesn’t even know ?

The Ritual Within The SpiRitual

Continuing with this line of thinking, the book is a sojourn of a lapsed Catholic whose connections with the Cool and Hip (The Velvet Underground Warhol, Ginsberg, Burroughs et al) provide no insulation against life’s bad weather or even the tedium of daily existence which can be as hard to handle, if not more so, than any crisis.

There is no cool left in me. The only resources I retain are a minimum of rage and controlled madness, barely enough to offset the bullshit paraphernalia of art and the city. I thought I could deal with, perhaps even come to understand, my obsessions through some strained eloquence.

I can’t keep a steady style in my writing standing on these shifting platforms of artifice and quick change. I try to fuse my life and my work, to keep up with the tiresome dodging of cars and drugs. Bur when you are walking such a thin wire above such a chic and sleazy cosmopolitan abyss, you don’t stop to think. 

His view on the Church:

I was this Catholic kid, and I never really lost that. I loved the rituals of Catholicism. The mass is a magic ritual; it’s a transubstantiation, and the stations of the cross – I mean, a crown of thorns? Getting whipped? It’s punk rock.

He tries a proverbial geographical cure to Bolinas, California where life improves yet, his path to redemption inevitably requires a return to (rematch with) NYC where he rids himself of literal and figurative corruption. His comeback does involve a couple of harrowing temptations that invite a return to the bullshit artifice and manufactured hipness inherent to the city experience but he he experiences relief which, at a minimum, allows him to function in a much less anguished fashion.

I’m like a boxer making a comeback out in the sticks, where I was sent by too many knockouts in the big city.

The Downside

The only problem with this book is how, like its predecessor, it has been hijacked by would-be hipsters as evidence of drug use for creativity enhancement. It didn’t help that the movie version of The Basketball Dairies pandered to this idea while promoting second string ideas into major movie components (the classroom violence scene). However, if you pay the least bit of attention, such activity is unambiguously represented as a dead end street. Collections of impressions rarely translate well to cinema as they will be reworked in service to lowest-common-denominator audience sensibilities or, in the case of the Art-House circuit, desired critical acclaim at an upcoming film festival (no matter how obscure). “Winner Of The Coveted Frowning Pygmy Award for Best New Film In An Unknown (And Unwanted) Genre”.

I understand that some enjoy reading the “look what I did to support my drug habit” type of story which might be part (a small one) of a larger arc but it’s not really about that. Anyone interested, or cursed, with a thirsty spirit for what lies beyond will probably pursue any number of activities that will not make any sense when viewed through the lens of practicality. But there is little hope in discouraging the true pilgrim from what is most assuredly a Mission that will involve some sordid side trips now and then. In terms of the title of this entry, “Writing as Penance“, that is a phrase associated with Forced Entries as well as some other publications though I don’t know who first coined it. However, to me, it makes perfect sense as forcing oneself to put down words that capture ideas and experiences in a way that is honest and reasonably intelligible is not only difficult but does purify the author or at least validate the workman-like nature of the effort. It clears the books if only for a while.

4 responses

  1. That was a book review!

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    1. ha ha, guess it was after all – despite my claims to the contrary. It’s not something I can do on a regular basis.

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    2. the review, it was okay, he does seem to have a way concepts and words, easily identifiable to an addict, but always love your slant on subjects; but who am I to be critical, just a Crow from the hills of Sylvan

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  2. My approximation of the book is just that – some comments which are probably going to be flawed, at best, and highly subjective. Any failings here, then, are mine.It can be like recommending a movie, a restaurant, or a doctor to someone. What works for one, fails for another or winds up being “meh”. The book, for me, transcends the usual, (and quite boring), drug talk into something else altogether. Amazingly, Carroll wrote BB Diaries and Forced Entries in his teens and twenties, respectively. Quite an accomplishment. Don’t let my narrow view prevent you from checking out the book.

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