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A Poet Half-Devoured

Jim Carroll survives junk, rock and roll, middle age,
and a flimsy screen version of The Basketball Diaries.

Most of us are lucky to be born with half a talent, or a quarter of one, and then to not squander it utterly. Jim Carroll was born, in 1950, in New York City, with two extraordinary talents: for writing and for athletics, especially basketball. The second talent he threw away, and the first he spent much of his youth trying to destroy.

These are the words of a man who poisoned
his own faith. Who made the tree a leper,
where no season begins or ends. Vanity. Pride.
A heart, once wild,
now half

--Jim Carroll, "California Variations"

Yet somehow he has survived both his environment and his own efforts at self-annihilation and has made it into middle age as a cult hero, one of a handful of American poets who lives off his work. Living at the Movies, his first collection of poems, is still in print after 23 years, and his 1980 rock album Catholic Boy (which produced the hit single "People Who Died"), the highlight of his brief sojourn as a singer and lyricist, remains a post-punk touchstone.

Carroll's middle age may not be everything he wished for; meet him in person, as I did two weekends ago at Manhattan's Regency Hotel, and you see a shaken, pallid, chain-smoking ghost of a man. For that matter, the nature of his fame is also pretty peculiar. While Carroll sees himself above all else as a serious poet--acolyte of a symbolist-surrealist literary tradition that stretches from John Donne through Rilke and Gerard Manley Hopkins to Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery--he's best know to his primary audience in the rock and roll subculture as America's second Most Famous Literary Junkie.

This notoriety is largely based on The Basketball Diaries, Carroll's now-legendary memoir of growing up wild in the downscale Manhattan of the 1960s. Composed of edited excerpts from an actual diary Carroll kept between the ages of 12 and 16, the book--not published in full until 1978--chronicles three main trajectories: the end of Carroll's promising basketball career, the emergence of his remarkable literary intelligence, and his descent into heroin addiction.

Alternately harrowing and hilarious, the Diaries mix a blase worldliness toward a life of mugging old ladies, jonesing on frozen evenings, and hustling men in public bathrooms with an achingly tender naivete. It offers an unforgettable innocent's-eye view of New York's Needle Park untouchables, written by a true-life Holden Caulfield gone bad, whose burgeoning talent never grants him enough willpower to stay out of trouble. As you read, a consciousness and a voice are born--and very nearly obliterated. Although Carroll was already a published poet, the appearance of the Diaries made him a counterculture star--and imprisoned him, perhaps for life.

Now The Basketball Diaries is a movie, starring the fast-rising Leonardo DiCaprio (What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and This Boy's Life) as the young Carroll. (Several previous efforts to film the book were abandoned, with the rumored leads including Anthony Michael Hall, Matt Dillon, and--altogether too ironically--River Phoenix.) That's why Carroll--along with DiCaprio, fellow cast member Marky Mark Wahlberg (yes, he of Calvin Klein underwear fame), and director Scott Kalvert--has been summoned to this midtown hotel early on a chilly Sunday to meet an assortment of national film journalists.

While The Basketball Diaries is an earnest and well-intentioned effort, and DiCaprio is a compelling presence even at its weakest moments, the film encounters numerous difficulties and can't solve most of them. Carroll's diaries, of course, offer no coherent narrative and no uplifting resolution; instead they paint a subtly shifting psychological landscape from the inside and describe the beginnings of an unusually difficult life. From this, Kalvert and screenwriter Bryan Goluboff have crafted a two-dimensional, almost Gingrichian morality tale: a boy blows his hoop dreams on junk, hits bottom, is scared straight (after a prison term), and becomes a famous writer.

Faced with a relatively low budget (described as less than $4 million) and a tight shooting schedule, Kalvert had to decide whether to set the film in the '60s or the '90s. He's basically done neither; DiCaprio's all-white basketball team wears dorky uniforms, Converse All-Stars, and period haircuts, but the Manhattan locations, cars, and character mannerisms are wholly contemporary.

Such a gambit might have worked as a self-conscious gesture in the hands of a more skillful filmmaker. But Kalvert, primarily a rock-video director, was evidently determined not to make Diaries sophisticated enough for Carroll's core hipster audience. "Sure, we could have made this as an art film," he says with a telling mixture of condescension and calculation. "But I don't think any kids would have come to see it."

Kalvert's efforts to create a cautionary fable for the MTV generation nonetheless comes off as both too trivial and too prudish, despite fine work by the undeniably magnetic DiCaprio and the rest of the youthful cast. No one in the film is ever seen shooting up, and Carroll's first heroin experience is actually depicted with the hoariest of drug-movie cliches: DiCaprio is handed a syringe and next we see him running, in distorted slow motion, through a hallucinatory field of flowers.

Worse yet, the Diaries film pulls what you might call a Less Than Zero (in memory of the immortally bad screen adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's L.A. dissipation novel): male prostitution as the absolute nadir of horror and decay. We see DiCaprio weep in abject despair as some businessman blows him for bucks in Grand Central Station; that, it appears, is far lower than stealing from your best friend or throwing a drug dealer off the roof.

The only similar scene in Carroll's book is immeasurably different in tone, and offers a striking example of his quicksilver self-consciousness at work. Carroll becomes unexpectedly aroused but a "naughty act of perversion for profit" in a 14th Street porn house: "But, bullshit aside, some weird sensation did shoot a blood rocket up my zone as an incredible rush of power shoot me with all those faces staring at my body fucking a mouth on its knees." In a fantasy he transforms the watchers into "all the teachers I've ever had . . . all the girls I've ever fucked . . . cops who busted me, judges, oh yes, all the judges, drooling . . ." before the illusion vanishes moments later and "the faces change back to black and white cartoon old men, obscure members of the cosmopolitan night."

Jim Carroll is assuredly not to blame for the slipshod movie based on his own youth, but his relationship to his own mythologizing is a bit more complicated. On one level he has outlived the well-rehearsed script for poetic heroes in Western culture. He could so easily have died young, a tragic sacrifice to art like so many other prodigies, from Catullus to Rimbaud to Byron and Shelley, Bird and Trane, Morrison and Cobain.

Instead he has upset our expectations by living and by visibly struggling with both addiction and art. Ever since The Basketball Diaries and Living at the Movies--published when he was 22--Carroll's writing has appeared fitfully and sporadically. While some of his allusive and often difficult verse had been very good, much of it also feels mannered and overly literary, the work of a studied amateur still searching for a natural voice. His early promise of brilliance has never quite been realized. And all of his most honest writing carries the tinge of regret and loss--loss of time, loss of so many friends, loss of what he could have been.

Someone asks him at an interview session if he still plays basketball. "I can't," he says. "It's too frustrating. I used to be able to get up there for rebounds, and now . . ." His distinctive high-tenor Manhattan vibrato trails off, and he smiles wanly down at himself, at his gaunt, ruined frame.

"How much time has been wasted, waiting on bences / in the greying of light near water?" Carroll asks in "California Variations," a long and cryptic series of untitled poems that reads like a deeply coded confession. When I ask him, effectively, that same question, he begins to talk in that remarkable voice, his sentences winding around in big indirect circles, larded compulsively with "I means" and "you knows."

"I wasn't like a lot of friends of min--especially those who had just gotten back from 'Nam--who just wanted to get blotto out of their mind, basically be dead," he says, drawing deeply from his ever-present cigarette. "They usually would be dead within a few years. They wouldn't just shoot up heroin but, you know, eat eight barbiturates. When I did drugs I'd usually get work done. I'd filter out whether it was good or bad. I mean, smoking grass you can write something and it's terrible the next day, but with heroin it just slows down the landscape. Your writing is OK."

He pauses for a moment, ignoring another question, reconsidering. "I mean, it's OK at first. Then after a while it allows you not to work. It says, 'You don't have to work today. You know, I mean, it's perfectly fine that you're stoned, you won't feel guilty at all, you know, I'm with you.'" His voice breaks into an unamused crackle, a laughter cold as an ice machine.

Carroll says he has been off junk for several years, but he speaks of heroin as a tangible, almost animate presence in his life. He has lived to see it come back into fashion two or three times; now, of course, it is once again the hipster drug of choice.

"Apparently it's amazingly strong now," he says with disinct interest. "And that's dangerous. Still, whenever I hear stories about how it's 70 percent pure, as opposed to the old days when the best was 12 percent, my first reaction is--'Well, where is it?'" That crackle again, this time quieter. "'Just one time, I promise,' you know."

Despite his ghetto-kid demeanor and his continuing flirtation with rock and roll (he sings "Catholic Boy" wiht Pearl Jam on the Basketball Diaries sound track), Carroll insists, "I hate when I get referred to as a street poet or a beat poet. I'm more influenced by Rilke and Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery and James Schuyler, poets like that, you know, surrealists. I mean, I have the stree thing down, you know, I like reading it, I like Allen [Ginsberg] and all of those poets very much. But it didn't affect my style. I wanted to have poetry take me out of my quotidian life, you know. I wanted it to be evocative, like a verbal movie."

The ravages of Jim Carrol's life are all too clearly visible, on his body as in his body of work, but he admits to no self-pity, no sense of failure. The unquenchable yearning and alert self-awareness of The Basketball Diaries' narrator are very much alive. "I probably did waste a lot of time on heroin," he says reflectively. The film publicists are trying to shepherd him out of the hotel ballroom, but he's still thinking: "But what's more important to me now is the idea of moving out of the ecstasy period of an artist's life, when he's young, into the more sober period later on. You're always hanging on to those electrons from that ecstasy period, that inspiration."

Carroll stops near the door, considering those electrons spinning in the air. He turns back for a minute; he can't resist another anecdote, in tribute to one of his poetic forebears. "Someone who couldn't make that transition was, you know, Hart Crane, who was so prolific. He finally killed himself--it's funny in a way--he ate 12 sandwiches and jumped off a steamship! Eating 12 sandwiches first! What a genius, you know! When his mother said, 'Don't go in the water for an hour after you eat lunch,' it must have really registered with the guy!"

When the infamous drunk and former prodigy Hart Crane drowned in the Caribbean in 1932, he was 12 years younger than Jim Carroll is now. This time the crackling laughter doesn't sound so icy.


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