Books of the Times
The Basketball Diaries & Forced Entries
JIM CARROLL is a poet and rock
musician in his mid-30's who grew up in several poor sections of Manhattan, the son and
grandson of Irish Catholic bartenders. In the fall of 1963, when he was all of 13 years
old, he began keeping a diary: ''Today was my first Biddy League game and my first day in
any organized basketball league. I'm enthused about life due to this exciting event. The
Biddy League is a league for anyone 12 yrs. old or under. I'm actually 13 but my coach
Lefty gave me a fake birth certificate.''
The diary project proved successful. He kept at it for at least three years, later
published excerpts of it in The Paris Review and other magazines, and eventually brought
out a version of it in book form, The Basketball Diaries (1978), which created
something of a sensation for its hair-raising portrait of adolescent street life in New
It was not a book that
seemed likely to produce a sequel. Filled with a kind of vitality, though clearly
exaggerated in its boastful accounts of drinking, drugs, sex and every sort of crime from
stealing cars to hustling homosexuals in Times Square, the diary's final entry leaves its
author on the brink of the abyss:
"Totally zonked, and all the dope scraped or sniffed clean from the tiny cellophane bags.
Four days of temporary death gone by, no more bread, with its hundreds of nods and casual
theories, soaky nostalgia (I could have got that for free walking along Fifth Avenue at
noon), at any rate, a thousand goofs, some still hazy in my noodle . . . Nice June day out
today, lots of people probably graduating. I can see the Cloisters with its million in
medieval art out the bedroom window. I got to go in and puke. I just want to be pure."
behold, a sequel has now been published, Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries,
1971-1973 , which appears along with a new edition of The Basketball Diaries . Jim
Carroll is 20 as it opens. He regrets having thrown away his basketball career - ''I'm
sitting here watching the N.B.A. All-Star Game on TV and I'm watching guys I used to
seriously abuse on the court scoring in double figures now against the best in the game.''
he's embraced the life he's leading - hanging out at Max's Kansas City, working for Andy
Warhol at the Factory, publishing occasional poems, socializing with the likes of Allen
Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, George Balanchine and William S. Burroughs, and doing drugs even more
intensely, if possible.
voice is grown up now. There are occasional vestiges of its origins (''That was it for
Anne and Ted and I . . .,'' but the whine and the adolescent strutting are gone. The
author now admits that the entries are ''embellished and fictionalized to some extent . .
. mainly for the sake of humor,'' which, he has found, ''has an uncanny ability to create
its own energy and push on a writer against his will.''
is reaching for something deeper now. Instead of hip talk, he's trying for poetry. Of a
stately Times Square prostitute he writes, ''The whole effect . . . was as if someone had
placed a Rubens portrait at the bottom of a cesspool, and after centuries of strangeness
and decay among the stillness of vile things and vile notions, some chance lightning hit
of teen-age bravado, he writes of violent suicide, of ''evil as a pervasive entity,'' and
of the emptiness of adolescent fantasies. ''And what is it you want?'' he asks of his
desire for a fashion model he sees on an elevator. ''It is not sexual, though you do want
her. You want her because, in some unfathomed way, she is the proof, the proof of those
things you always knew existed but could not define. Yet you've had women like this in the
past, and in the end they proved nothing. They solved nothing. They were usually not too
bright and were terribly self-indulgent. They were, as this one is, only another emblem of
your own vanity, and the vanity of your Art.''
the maturing voice of Forced Entries , the two diaries remain similar in their quest
for extreme sensations and their eagerness to shock the reader. One is aware almost
throughout that the author is more intelligent than he appears and that he takes a certain
pride in dissipating his gifts.
yet the diarist finally gains control of himself. The image with which he dramatizes his
victory over drugs will disgust many readers, just as many of his effects will seem
excessively overwrought. But readers who can stomach the ending of Forced Entries will
find it both effective and convincing. And beside the description of his cure there is the
external evidence of the poetry collections he has published since 1973 -- Living at the
Movies (1973) and The Book of Nods (1986) -- as well as the three music albums he has
released -- Catholic Boy, Dry Dreams and I Write Your Name .
whether or not one believes Jim Carroll's redemption, his two diaries constitute a
remarkable account of New York City's lower depths. At the very least, they should serve
further to demystify the usefulness of drugs to writers. Finally, the main reason that Mr.
Carroll decides to kick his habit is for the sake of his art. ''It's my only choice for my
work. I need a consistency of my moods if there is to be any consistency in my style. I
can't attempt to write always in the hollow flux of desperation and incipient terror. I
try to cover this up, cower behind some facade of humor, hoping that old Aristotle was
right -- that humor will act as a catalyst to purify the tragic. But it can't go on. My body
is broke.'' He has to mend himself, unpleasant though the purging proves to be.
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