The Cockroach Chronicles
In the 1960's, Andy Warhol helped establish a downtown scene that may surpass
Bloomsbury as a provider of the higher gossip. The supply of memoirs, biographies and oral
histories - these last a substitute for the book of letters, now that letter writing has
yielded to the telephone - is steadily increasing. New York's downtown scene offers tales
of scandal and excess, the romance of burnout and early death among the well-off, and
enough minor figures of note to fill a library. Better still, it's got art. This lends a
high tone to the low doings, helping tinsel pass for taste.
Jim Carroll's Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries 1971-1973 - the follow-up to
his Basketball Diaries , an account of growing up on New York's mean streets - provides
plenty of diverting tinsel. Mr. Carroll, a poet, rock singer and former addict, worked at
odd jobs for the Factory, Warhol's center of operations; he also frequented Max's Kansas
City, the watering hole where the Velvet Underground played. This milieu yields many of
the drug-heightened adventures and brief encounters with the famous that fill his diary.
Mr. Carroll also aspires to something weightier, however -a story of struggle and
redemption. Disgusted by his heroin addiction and the decadent New York life, he began
taking methadone and fled to the hippie enclave of Bolinas, Calif. By the end of the
diary, having liberated himself from heroin, methadone and New York, he has returned to
face the city - a wiser man.
The tinsel is better. In a chatty 60's style, peppered with the customary profanity,
Mr. Carroll jokes around, cuts up, takes a wry view and is quick with the quip. Cocaine is
''just methedrine with a better alibi,'' and speed freaks are ''exclamation points with
shoes.'' A succession of beautiful women makes men's heads turn ''with that urgency
usually reserved for auto accidents.'' Bob Dylan ''had a slumping, camouflaged way of
moving, like an aged and wise chameleon, perfected by years of ducking out of joints
inconspicuously.'' William Burroughs, a hero of the author's, has a voice ''like a low-key
carnival barker. It's like freshly split wood, clear, clean, but loaded with splinters.''
Mr. Carroll's adventures, in turn, reflect the funky mixture of high and low
characteristic of the period. Loaded up with speed prescribed by a fashionable ''Dr.
Feelgood,'' he and a famous (unidentified) artist are ar-rested on Christmas for peculiar
behavior. No problem. The artist calls a man who collects his work - Senator Jacob Javits.
There's much ado about bugs. Mr. Carroll wows an art gathering by releasing a cockroach
and then killing it with a can of Raid. Not taking this ''performance'' seriously, he is
amazed when The East Village Other and The Village Voice refer to the ''keen, trenchant
commentary which the piece made on urban decay'' and praise its ''non-verbal demonstration
on the horrors of Vietnam.''
Mr. Carroll often criticizes the superficial lives of the dilettantes, ''Eurotrash''
and other star-crossed riffraff who mingle in New York. He dislikes the Factory (''boring
as an empty bag'') and acknowledges Warhol's vacuity. He uses words like ''wisdom'' and
''evil'' and ''vision'' and refers to churches as well as cockroaches. Eventually, having
learned something of himself, he says, ''I have moved closer to my heart.'' But his
writing cannot sustain this more serious tone. There is, to begin with, a failure of
craft. In the first paragraph, for example, he observes that the Russians detonated an
atom bomb on the day he was born. ''They detonated it, in fact, only a few hours after I
was pulled from my mother's womb, and the radiation, fear, and the fire's desperate heat
have been there ever since.'' An impressive opening chord - but one cannot help thinking,
''Poor Mom.'' OFTEN the prose is heated to an adolescent purple. In musing on a model's
beauty, he writes: ''I imagine her pubic hair clipped in the shape of some lost continent,
its edges littered with shells and pink and blue anemones. There is the salt-sharp smell
of a civilization there, ruined by heat and flood at its glory, many times over, yet
destined, always, to rise again.'' A large abscess on his needle-scarred arm becomes,
during the course of the diary, a symbol of his relation to drugs. He caresses the abscess
with religious fervor while sleeping; in the diary's culminating scene he pinches it until
it explodes in a suitably disgusting fashion. He writes: ''I didn't see pus; I saw the
petty demons marching out. I saw purification, with new fresh air being sucked into that
cavity, like the cat. The idol was in ruins. Do you understand what I'm telling you?''
Too well. The walk on the wild side - understood as a spiritual passage - is a
commonplace of modern writing. So is the assumption that being down and out and anxious is
a fascinating, even superior condition. Because he asks no questions of these cliches, Mr.
Carroll cannot restore them to life. For a diarist in search of wisdom, moreover, he likes
himself too much. His addiction usually comes across as hip, and he cannot resist the easy
joke at another's expense. In one adventure, for example, a ''peculiar-looking girl''
picks him up at Max's and takes him to her loft. He is shocked to discover she's a
hunchback. While she's bathing, he shoots up, nods off and mistakenly sets her loft on
fire. She's upset and he runs away. It's a wild and woolly time. In drawing closer to his
own heart, however, he might have spared a thought for hers.
Mark Stevens, an art critic for Newsweek and The New Republic, is the author of the
novel Summer in the City.
New York Times Company