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The Jim Carroll Website Home > Research > Academic Studies > Basketball Diaries as Minor Literature

Cheetah and Chimp:
The Basketball Diaries as Minor Literature

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. Like this house where I got to sometimes tear out a room and make it another size or shape so the rest make sense . . . or no sense at all. And when I'm done I'm stoned as on whatever you got in your pockets right now, dig?
-- Jim Carroll, The Basketball Diaries (159)

Writing has a double function: to translate everything into assemblages and to dismantle the assemblages. The two are the same thing.
-- Deleuze & Guatari, Kafka (47)

While I was reading Jim Carroll's The Basketball Diaries for the first time, I discovered that Carroll was scheduled to read from his work at SDSU's Backdoor. On the day of the show I arrived at the Backdoor four hours early (I wanted a front-row seat) and occupied myself during the wait with The Basketball Diaries. Completely wrapped up in the book, I was only vaguely aware of voices nearby, until an eerie feeling began creeping up my spine. The voices--or one of them--somehow snuck into the text of my book. When I couldn't stand the strangeness any longer, I turned around . . . and Jim Carroll himself was sitting right behind me. It was quite a shock: I had paid to see an author stand on a stage and read his work--you know, words on a page--and was excited about that. But, instead, I saw a character step out of the pages of the book I was reading. There he was, sitting in a wire-mesh chair not more than three feet away from me, suddenly transformed not just into a real, flesh-and-blood person, but also the person who is the author of the character who was sitting in that wire mesh chair.

Jim Carroll's "character" in The Basketball Diaries is something more than a character. (How can I express this without trivializing the effect of my encounter?) He is a young man "becoming more than his . . . nominal self" (Kafka xxiii), essentially creating himself--through writing. Jim Carroll is more than a star basketball player, delinquent teenager, heroin addict, romantic diary-writer, lover, poet, rock star, or a pale, thin, red-haired man sitting in a wire-mesh chair. And Jim Carroll the writer isn't just a guy with a pen and some time to kill; as a writer he is working to break down his own barriers, and those of the art world and society, by exceeding himself through writing, by straddling the line between the "serious" art of poetry and the "popular" arena of rock music, by marginalizing himself to the fringes of "respectable" society.

Because Carroll has crossed the line between poet and rock lyricist, he blurs the distinction between popular artist and "serious" writer; because he can be at the same time a star basketball player, heroin addict, and award-winning author, Carroll is both above established norms of society and beneath them. He is within both major and minor cultures, but also outside of them; he is somewhere in between, on the border of each, caught in the middle, floating above or wallowing below.

In Deleuze and Guattari's terms, Jim Carroll is the makings of a minor literature. (But I think Carroll's marginality--deterritorialization--is something beyond that of Deleuze and Guattari's Kafka, and beyond border writing.) Carroll actually lives on the edge, constructing his "minor literature" from (and along with) his life.

The 13 year old Carroll in The Basketball Diaries seems to be recording his adventures during time-outs; because of this, as Jamie James says,

The Basketball Diaries . . . is a literary miracle; a description of an artistic sensibility written by the artist, not in retrospect, but in the process. It is a portrait of the artist not just as a young man but as a child, written by the child, and thus free of the mature artist's complicated romantic love of himself in pain.

Carroll's writing "begins by expressing itself and doesn't conceptualize until afterward" (Kafka 28). Just the fact that Carroll wrote diaries supports Deleuze a Guattari's belief that writing is not "a solution to the interiorized problems of an individual psychology" because in his diaries Carroll exposes himself on paper and makes his life public and, because he is essentially creating himself in a character named Jim Carroll, his act of writing

stands against psychology, against interiority, by giving [Carroll] a possiblity of becoming more than his . . nominal self, of trading the insistent solidity of the family tree for the whole field of desire and history. The romance of individual life is exceeded, deterritorialized escaped. (Kafka xxiii)

Still, if I may borrow Deleuze and Guattari's opening question in Kafka, how can we enter into Carroll's work? One can't sit around "interpreting" a person's autobiography without trivializing life itself. And one can't toss The Basketball Diaries in a pile with all the other autobiographies floating around. Carroll's work is different. It is a rhizome . . . but what is a rhizome or burrow? What are territories, lines of escape, machines, assemblages? What do Deleuze and Guattari's terms have to do with Jim Carroll?

Let's say that Carroll's rhizome is New York. His territory is New York, his lines of escape are New York, his machines and assemblages are New York, his Diaries are New York, Jim Carroll is New York:

Now I got these diaries that have the greatest hero a writer needs, this crazy fucking New York. Soon I'm gonna wake a lot of dudes off their asses and let them know what's really going down in the blind alley out there in the pretty streets with double garages. I got a tap on all your wires, folks. I'm just really a wise ass kid getting wiser, and I'm going to get even for your dumb hatreds and all them war baby dreams you left in my scarred bed with dreams of bombs falling above that cliff I'm hanging steady to. Maybe someday just an eight-page book, that's all, and each time a page gets turned a section of the Pentagon goes blast up in smoke. Solid. (BBD 159-60)

And if Jim Carroll and his diaries are New York, then Jim Carroll and his diaries are also machines and assemblages, lines of escape, territories:

A writer isn't a writer-man; he is a machine-man, and an experimental man (who thereby ceases to be a man in order to become an ape or a beetle, or a dog, or a mouse, [or a heroin addict, or a hustler,] or a becoming-inhuman, since it is actually through voice and through sound and through a style that one becomes an animal, and certainly through the force of sobriety). (Kafka 7)

One diary entry written by a 15 year old boy links "New York," the diary, the diary-writer, the rhizome, territory, line of escape, machine, assemblage, becoming-inhuman: the whole of Deleuze and Guattari's model. We can say that the Diaries are constructed by a minority within a majority: Carroll is an adolescent (not your average author), a heroin addict (not the majority in American culture--especially today when everyone is expected to "Just Say No"), and one might say his language is that of a minority (fucking this, fucking that; the lingo of the drug culture). Also, Carroll and his diaries are "affected with a high coefficient of deterritorialization": although he identifies with New York, and is using it as an extension of himself (as a weapon) and as a paradigm of "America" (Carroll being both a "New Yorker" and an "American"), it is also something "other"--he is using New York as a weapon against the Pentagon, against society, against itself. And everything in Diaries is political: one does innocently not aim an eight page book at the Pentagon (Kafka 16-17).

The "politics" in Carroll's case have to do with "baring it all." He's going to show all us "dudes" what's really going down in our "respectable society." As Perry says, "Carroll . . . tells a mean story both of a young punk searching for a pure high, and of a young man searching for a pure reality" (Perry E6). That "purity" Carroll searches for, I think, is his lost territory--the territory that was lost even before we meet young Jim on page one, the territory a corrupt society stole from him. "Purity" might be his "innocence," as he calls it--but I don't think Carroll really knows what that innocence is. Perhaps he never had it. The territory might be New York, which Carroll names as the hero of his book, that he is simultaneously part of but separate from. It might be freedom fom drugs--but then drugs are also a line of escape. It might be his writing . . . Or it might be the act of deterritorialization itself, where "I guess deep down I think they have the right to boss me around. I've got to break loose" (BBD 26). But in any case, Carroll's individual concern--with writing, drugs, purity--is idespensible, magnified, and political, "because a whole other story is vibrating within it" (Kafka 17). Carroll shows, through his own corruption (the fact that he can't find purity), the dirty underbelly of society. In other words,

what in great literature goes on down below, constituting a not indespensable cellar of the structure, here [in The Basketball_Diaries] takes place in the full light of day, what is there a matter of passing interest for a few, here absorbs everyone no less than a matter of life and death. (Kafka 17)

Carroll's relationships, trials, pleasures, pain, connect with the concerns of the entire society, from the family to government to religion to sex. What he says "already constitutes a common action" and "is political, even if others aren't in agreement" (Kafka 17):

When they dropped them A-bombs on Japsville I wasn't even an idea, but I paid for it anyhow all through growing up and I'm still paying. The "war baby" gig ain't no smartass headshrinker's dumb theory, and all the people who grew up when I did can tell you that . . . . The worst is the old buggers can't believe it's real, that it could ever happen to us. Now there's a big peace move growing in this country and my old man and the rest are calling me a creep and saying it's all some commie who brainwashed us all, it's them fucking commies, that's all. Shit I don't give a royal screw what a commie is. It's just the dreams we remember that make us want to end your nuclear games. I think more about a fire truck passing late at night than I do about Karl Marx when I'm out yelling for them to fuck your wars, I don't pay no dues to no commies, that's some dream you dreamed up to take the rap for you. The Russians a re drags too, you're all old men drags, scheming governments of death and blinding white hair. (BBD 127)

Even describing a simple jump in the Harlem river, Carroll's story takes on the quality of a "collective assemblage of enunciation" (Kafka 17); an amusing anecdote envelopes concerns an entire population is afraid to express:

Every crowd of young guys has its little games to prove if you're punk or not . . . . Here in upper Manhattan, guys jump off cliffs into the Harlem River, where the water is literally shitty because right nearby are the giant sewer deposits where about half a million toilets empty their goods daily. You had to time each jump, in fact, with the "shit lines" as they flowed by. That is, there were these lines of water crammed with shit along the surface about five feet long that would come by once every forty seconds. So you had to time your jump in between the lines just like those jitterbugs down in Acapulco got to time their jumps so they hit the water just as the wave is beginning to break. (BBD 47)

This comes up again later in a larger context (regarding Carroll's drug addiction) in an encounter with a therapist:

Like just what is guilty of who is guilty for fuck sake? Big business dudes make billions come out of their ass and they ain't shelling out a reefer's worth of tax. Kids walk throiugh some jungle I don't know how far away and shoot people, and white haired old men in smoking jacket armchairs make laws to keep it all going smoothly. I swim in the river and have to duck huge amounts of shit and grease and "newly discovered miracle fibers" every five feet because these smokestack companies don't give a flying fuck . . . Shit my man, it's so all there that no one's seeing it anymore. And it's dumb ass of me to bring it up even now because it's all so much bull-pap corn and I cut out of that a long time ago, so maybe that's why I don't feel too guilty right now . . . come back later, prof. (BBD 199)

Throughout The Basketball Diaries, Carroll becomes more and more aware of the corruption surrounding him. Even in the first entry, he makes the biddy league basketball team (12 years and under) by means of a fake birth certificate his coach procured for him (also, Carroll suspects the coach is homosexual). Thus Carroll's search for purity is also his desire to "be" something, to do something, almost in spite of the world around him; it is an urgency pushing him to get the system before it gets him, a desire that is part of and is always blocked by the "machine" he is trapped inside of, as in Deleuze and Guattari's notion that:

the machine is desire--but not because desire is desire of the machine but because desire never stops making a machine in the machine and creates a new gear alongside the preceding gear, indefinately, even if the gears seem to be in opposition or seem to be functioning in a discordant fashion. That which makes a machine, to be precise, are connections, all the connections that operate the disassembly. (Kafka 82)

With Carroll,

anything that was worth looking ahead to, well, that's when it always seemed the sirens were gonna start the death chant. But it's not all just something that's past and solved. Not at all. It's just that I can see it a little clearer now, that fear is their tool . . . and it works very well . . and they use it very well. And I am still using it to measure my time, only I don't give a screw about trips to camp anymore, or basketball games two weeks from now. It's just gotten bigger now . . . will I have time to finish the poems breaking loose in my head? Time to find out if I'm the writer I know I can be? How about these diaries? Because it's poetry now . . . and the button is still there, waiting . . . (BBD 151)

Carroll is actually trapped in several machines, all of which make up one gigantic life-threatening machine (perhaps the smaller machines are gears?). On the one hand, Carroll is part of a supposedly respectable machine of society (which is merely one small part of the Big Society machine--the one that incompasses the Pentagon, A-bombs, Big Buisiness, etc.): he has the potential of becoming a star basketball player via his association with a posh private school, as well as the growing potential of a writing career--in many ways he wants to be part of this society machine. On the other hand, on the sidelines of this promising career, is the life Carroll highlights in The Basketball Diaries, the life Carroll "has" to live to separate himself from the society machine.

As Bart Platenga puts it, "The Diaries are a real Jekyll & Hyde affair. Has his public life of 'great potential' he's college material by day but lowlifer by night. Loves basketball for its grace, finesse, and sweat, plus all the girls he meets through his playing . . . Basketball and heroin serve as ways IN as well as a way OUT." To the public, Carroll is a promising basketball star, but behind the scenes he describes his growing heroin addiction, experimentation with LSD, his adventures hustling gay men and mugging passers-by in Central Park. Carroll's machines are connections--they all go together, they rub against each other; they can all be lines of escape, or suicide machines, or both.

Society and the private school (Trinity) offer respectability, but the options are impossible. Even though "Being a big time basketball star and all around hip motherfucker at a private school, I get to meet a lot of out of sight private school chicks, all of them action and plenty rich to boot" (138), Carroll feels "like farting and blowing up the 257 years of fine tradition of this place" (65). After all, this private school, though it lends him an air of prestige, is hypocrisy made concrete:

Today at school we had our annual Thanksgiving fast for the benefit of the poor and hungry blacks we hear of scattered throughout the South . . . I'm sure it interests a starving black in Mississippi that I am not eating my lunch today . . . Symbolic gestures are certainly self-satisfying but they are not too nourishing for anyone anywhere. Somebody is conning everyone else and themselves with plain dumb ideas as performed here today. What happens to the food prepared today? All that turkey and mashed potatoes would probably seem pretty dried out if we shipped it down South, even by air mail. It would have been interesting to point out that there are a lot of hungry dudes walking down Columbus Ave. that could have dug a free meal. But some of them might be drug addicts and shit and they'd no doubt make a big mess of the lunch room that all the black cleaning women would have a hard time cleaning up. I suggest that tomorrow somebody symbolically stick a stale drum stick of today's lunch up the ass of whoever was humane enough to organize this farce. (BBD 71)

When forced to go to confession (it's a Catholic school), Carroll refuses, but:

No good, the dumb bastard don't even listen and at that moment let me tell you I hated that fucking school and that whole religion worse than anything before with their tiny dark boxes you enter like they were phone booths to God. They should gun off the whole bunch, they're fucking up minds they do not own. (BBD 25)

Even basketball, the one territory Carroll feels he can claim as his own, marginalized him, or else Carroll deterritorializes himself:

We're waiting for the birdie to click when the photog calls over the SUGAR BOWL coach and whispers something to him who then walks over to me and mumbles, "Dig, my man, don't know how to say this but for, well, . . ." I cut him short and told him I got the message and stepped out of the pix. I guess I would have messed up the texture of the shot or something. Or maybe they didn't want to let the readers get to see that the high scorer was a fucking white boy. (BBD 117)

It is common knowledge around the entire school that Marc Clutcher, Anton Neutron and myself are fucking up our basketball team by taking every drug we can get our hands on before games. It's common knowledge to the rest of the teams in the league too, mainly because we wear our hair about ten time the normal length . . . (BBD 163)

Still, "If a writer is in the margins or completely outside his or her fragile community, he or she has all the more possibility to express another possible community and forge the means for another consciousness and another sensibility" (Kafka 17). As Carroll says, "People are always branding junkies the slob wastes of society. Not so, chumps. The real junkies should be raised up for saying fuck you to all this shit city jive, for going on with all the risks and hassles and con, willing to face the rap"(BBD 189). If Carroll has some control over his own deterritorialization, over his lines of escape, then he can use his decadence to rise above the corruption of society, to take his mind, and himself "somewhere all you bald headed generals and wheelchair senators could never imagine" (BBD 197). If it's true that, for Carroll,

If you never do anything to make yourself seen . . . like really seen, the type that makes people point, then you don't deserve to be seen at all. That's my theory, and not only on a basketball court, to look good while you're doing it is just as important as doing it good, and combine both and you've got it made. Presence is where it's at, but not the going out of your way to be noticed presence, but sneaky, shy presence (though it's all a part, you're still always aware). Presence like a cheetah rather than a chimp. They've both got it, but chimpy gotta jump his nuts around all day to get it, shy cheetah just sits in total nonchalance or moves a sec or two in his sexy strut. (BBD 89)

then he has a choice between being a cheetah or a chimp. One possibility is to be a willing victim:

It's always been the same, growing up in Manhattan, especially when I was a little younger, the idea of living within a giant archers target . . . for use by the bad Russia bowman with the atomic arrows. Today I was hustling around Times Sq. and thought about it and got a strange rush of unknown sex giddiness off the idea of leaning here and now against a wall in leather pants throwing pouting eyes at customers strolling by dead in the center of the target . . . ground zero in one beg fireball Island. I thought of the explosion's eye as one giant plutonium red cunt that would suck me up and in and just totally devour and melt me into its raw wet walls of white heat in pure orgasm . . . I think by now I'd feel very left out if they dropped the bomb and it didn't get me. (BBD 114)

Or he can become part of the victimizing machine:

But, bullshit aside, some weird sensation did shoot a blood rocket up my zone as an incredible rush of power shook me with all those faces staring at my body fucking a mouth on its knees . . . Hordes of different faces, I scan each. Some so nasty, some total femmes in drag, S&M freaks with their hard butch crewcut stares . . . then there's the inevitable old grey genial chaps, no other sex for them anymore but to look on and remember . . . I've seen then all & I see them now, slobbering fat heroes . . . some jacking off right open, others just clutching it inside, sometimes swapping feels off each other. I begin to fantasize on each as I start getting hotter and hotter: I see all the teachers I've ever had, fat principals, basketball coaches, an old superintendent from 6th Street age seven, famous poets from all times down . . . a giggling drag queen unshaven in the corner, he's all the girls I've ever fucked; I see cops who busted me, judges, oh yes, all the judges, drooling . . . (BBS 189)

He can just give up:

I just refuse to give the slightest fuck anymore and o.k. if I'm all fucked up and, yes, every other race, creed & color sucks and the war in Nam is sanctioned by the Pope who is flawless of course and if I could just bend in half I could suck myself off all day and load up on some good scag and live in a closet because you can't beat them but you can ignore and induce ulcers and heart pangs and give them grey hair so to drive them stone bust on beauty parlor tint-up jobs and then you begin to cry in the closet because your veins are sore and you can't get over the fact that you love them somehow more or at least always. (BBD 145)

Or revolt:

I think today was about the last peace march I'm gonna make, fucking things are just one big bore. Like they got these "Marshalls" telling you how you gotta keep in straight lines and all and that's the shit that we're marching against in the first place. Who needs leaders? Leaders should be kicked in the ass and packaged airmail to some confield in Kansas . . . they are not needed. If I'm not on my own in something I'm doing, it's time to split. Have a goof on these marches says me, grab an ass or rollerskate or piss on Macy's corner stone. All this serious rap, stone faces and crap are a drag. Most of the cats marching are only there to get laid anyway, and nobody in that fucking Pentagon is getting the hint, so maybe it's time to fling a few bricks around instead of boring speeches, we need more street people kicking and biting instead of a bunch of walking boots. Time to change the way of getting the message across, it's all such a drag anyway. (BBD 145-46)

Each of these actions, if only in Carroll's writing them down, allow him to exceed the romance of individual life. Whether he becomes a cheetah or a chimp, however, kind of leads to the same effect. Carroll can never escape "the machine"--whether it's society's machine, or the machine he's made for himself through writing, basketball, sex, addiction, hustling. As with Deleuze and Guattari's idea that writing/speaking and eating are incompatible (Kafka 19-20), so are Carroll's lines of escape. Although Carroll uses everything he does--basketball, drugs, hustling, etc.--as "ways IN as well as ways OUT," in the end he can't juggle all of these things at once:

"It's been hard, the writing, lately. Just all comes in beautiful fragments, like nods now . . . so high . . .guess I'd rather sleep forever this sleep and forget . . . but the gnats, they keep buzzing in my ear and the heat and the dreams . . ." (BBD 162).

He can't escape the fact that, "You just got to see that junk is just another nine to five gig in the end, only the hours are a bit more inclined toward shadows" (199). Drugs slowly tighten their grip as,

I'm gonna be fifteen soon and the summer's "Pepsi'Cola" heroin habit is tightening more and more around me. I'm getting that feeling for the first time since I lost my virgin veins at thirteen that I gotta start getting my ass together 'cause schools's coming mighty quick and no way of doing that scene with a habit . . . . And I used to laugh at the corny monkey phrase too, I had it under "control" all the way to sitting and sneezing a lot on this fucking lice sofa wanting to scream my balls off. (BBD 121-122)

What were once pleasant escapes, dreamy nods, transform into nightmares:

End of L.S.D. era last night . . . very bad scene, like getting gulped up in a dream. Gulped by the big city. Ate my blue tab in the "A" train but, on arrival, none of the Friday night prep school acid eaters' club to be seen in the aprk. "Fuck 'em," say I, "I'll go solo," and I popped another tab. And I went so, so low. Reach the Museum of Modern Art and I began to feel my oats. Those flowers they leap right off that canvas at me. Thsoe flowers, they choke. And it is right then that I realize something is happening that has never happened before: I AM ALONE . . . and not just me doctor, WE'RE alone. Alone forever and who's at the end of that forever tunnel I run through up Fifth with wallpaper of skyscrapers? And I'm thinking, after all those beautiful trips, that this is one of those bad ones . . . and, shit, they are bad indeed. Alone. (BBD 185)

until eventually he winds up as chimpy jumping his nuts around all day:

Yep, I'm good and sick without that fix now and my rap of being the one who can keep it all under control is in that breeze cluttered with the same raps a million times run down by a million other genius wise ass cats walking like each other's ghosts around these same sick streets in my same sick shoes . . . . So after two or three years of control, I wind up . . . strung out and nothing to do but spend all day chasing dope. (BBD 187-190)

But as Deleuze and Guattari say,

The problem is not that of being free but of finding a way out, or even a way in, another side, a hallway, an adjacency. Maybe there are several factors that we must take into account: the purely superficial unity of the machine, the position of desire (man or animal) in relation to the machine . . . . the machine seems to have a strong degree of unity and the man enters completely into it. Maybe this is what leads to the final explosion and the crumbling of the machine. (Kafka 7-8)

When we find Carroll at the end of The Basketball Diaries curled up in the fetal position, near death from heroin withdrawals, he has exploded the machine:

I can feel the window light hurting my eyes: it's like shooting pickle juice. What does that mean? 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 . . . (BBD 210)

In his total entry into the hustling scene, into drugs, into writing--though each action may defeat the other--he breaks down one aspect of the machine at a time until nothing is left; he even approaches destroying himself while doing it. But still, just in time, he escapes. He pulls himself out of his self-made reality of drugs, hustling, and the rest, to look out again at the real world. He escapes from the book in this way, opening up a whole new series of "ways in" and "ways out" simply by leaving us with, "I just want to be pure."

All along the way Carroll has been blowing up machines; indeed, I think his book of diaries is a pretty fair shot at the Pentagon. As Platenga reminds us,

Here's a guy barely in his teens getting right to the heart of the matter . . . It's a truly anarchistic view stated in a clear non-euphemistic and uncompromising way . . . . His is a world of action. Bragging about action. Action becomes epiphany .. . To see clearly one has to DO. The only way to DO is to SEE clearly . . . His irreverent veracity cuts right to the smegmatized genitals of the whole adult technocratic dildo. Genuine contempt for real world recruitment--the college-suburb route. Their version just won't do."

The desire is still--always--there, he still hasn't found "purity," and there are many other sides, hallways, and adjacencies left for him to explore.


Works Cited

Carroll, Jim. The Basketball Diaries. 1978. New York: Penguin, 1987.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Trans. Dana Polan. Theory and History of Literature 30. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.

James, Jamie. Rev. of The Basketball Diaries. American Book Review 2.3 (1980): 9.

Perry, Tony. "2 Sets of 'Diaries' Show Off New York City's Seediness." (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) Patriot 26 July 1987. Newsbank, Literature Index, 1987, fiche 15, grid E5-6.

Platenga, Bart. "Jim Carroll's Basketball Diaries: Street Cool Huck Finn Dope Diary." Overthrow 14.2 (1980): 19.

   

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