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Approaching the "Speed of Death":

Jim Carroll and the Voice of a Dark Poetics

The subject matter is often brutal. The content often reeks of the grotesque. And the language sometimes assumes the air of an over-confident, bullish, teenager hell-bent on destruction. Nonetheless, something compelling exists, and at times a strong, visceral beauty emerges from the works of Jim Carroll.

The author of The Basketball Diaries, Carroll is known also as a poet and a musician, having started the Jim Carroll Band. But it is his work as a diarist, a chronicler of the turbulent sixties, that has gained him his fame--or some would say "notoriety."

Certainly, it would be amusing to hear a critique of Jim Carroll's work by Newt Gingrich. Senator Jesse Helms probably would also find enough evidence to place Carroll in that same category of other "non-artists", such as Mapplethorpe, whose crime is an offense to mainstream sensibilities. Regardless of the opinion, Carroll's work evokes a response.

His work does not provide the luxury of cool detachment. It provokes; it enrages; often it hits with an overwhelming sense of sadness and loneliness. At other times, Carroll is playfully cocky like an athlete out on the floor. Instead of a super-cool slam dunk, he tries to amaze with a witty phrase or clever metaphor. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.

Born in New York City, Carroll grew up in a working-class neighborhood, the son of Irish-Catholic parents. He soon exhibited talent as a basketball player and received a scholarship to Trinity High School in Manhattan. There he played as an All-City basketball star and began to pursue his love of writing. After he graduated, he spent one semester at Columbia University before dropping out to concentrate fully on his writing.

Recently made into a movie, The Basketball Diaries focuses on Carroll's experiences during 1963-1966 as a teenager growing up in a hard-edged world of drugs, sex, and rock-n-roll. It is a world where experimentation leads to addiction, and violence and alienation coexist in a sinister union. As Carroll relates,

. . . one morning you wake up, suddenly your nose is running and your eyes are tearing and the leg and back muscles start feeling tight and heavy.

The laugh's on you, finally, no matter how long you think you got it "under control."

In his diary, Carroll talks about looking for something pure.

The mood of these years is one of anger and a fear of imminent destruction. The youth culture has become a counter-culture, reacting in opposition to phony facades, corrupt institutions, and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Searching for an alternative to the hypocrisy of Cold-War society, Carroll and many of his friends turn to drugs. Trying to escape the "horrible dreams of goblins in tiny planes circling my room and bombing my bed," Carroll finds a temporary solace in getting high.

Marijuana, heroin, cocaine, poppers, LSD . . . The list continues as Carroll becomes a slave to a new master, unable to free himself from the shackles of addiction. He had sought to become pure. Instead he becomes trapped by a darker craving, a craving which reaches toward destruction.

And perhaps this quality is the irony in much of Carroll's work. In trying to break free from a society of hypocrisy where priests denounce homosexuality only to molest young boys, where God allows one's best friend to die of leukemia, where urban life grows increasingly menacing, Carroll--and so many of his generation--embark on a path that spirals back toward the same destruction they hope to escape.

This "dark poetics" finds a certain lyrical beauty in Forced Entries--The Downtown Diaries: 1971-1973. This work, in fact, may be one of Carroll's finest, for there surfaces a distinct richness in language. In reporting the somewhat cryptic suicide of a beautiful girl named Andrea, who equates the speed of light with the speed of death, Carroll explores this search for the pure, the perfect--what ultimately becomes the unattainable. And it is only in a hyper-language of dreams and the fantastic that Carroll can express this race (toward) self-destruction."

As one reviewer has noted, Carroll has come to represent a "postpunk icon." As a diarist, Carroll's autobiographical writings have detailed a world grappling with transition--the world of Jack Kerouac, Andy Warhol, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Bob Dylan. And Carroll became part of this inner circle. He worked for Warhol, running errands and searching for a place in the pecking order of the iconoclast. He went to all the big parties where he met the big people--the cultural avant-garde who shaped the direction of the sixties. Carroll lived in the center of a maelstrom of new ideas, new sensation, and a new sense of freedom that came from rejecting the false security of the fifties.

The strident turbulence also emerges in his music. In addition to being an accomplished writer, Carroll has explored his personal experiences in his role as leader of The Jim Carroll Band. Songs such as "People Who Died," "Catholic Boy," and "Wicked Gravity" are played on alternative rock radio and show the influences of one of Carroll's favorite groups, The Velvet Underground.

Although his diaries are probably his best-known works, Carroll has also published Living at the Movies, The Book of Nods, and Fear of Dreaming: The Selected Poems of Jim Carroll. Yet in all of his works, Carroll returns to the themes of searching and loss. As diarist, musician, and poet, he crosses the boundaries of several art forms, exposing the hypocrisy of limits while simultaneously revealing the perils of going too far.

He never preaches. A brutal honesty reveals his innermost emotions. At the same time, nonetheless, one cannot help but agree with Anatole France, whom Carroll quotes, that "all writers of confessions, from Augustine on down, have always remained a little in love with their sins."

Fans of Jim Carroll will not want to miss his appearance on the campus at the University of Kentucky. Carroll appears at Memorial Hall on January 29, 1996, 8pm. The performance includes a reading from his works, a discussion about the impact of the film The Basketball Diaries, and a book signing following the program. Admission is free and open to the public.



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