Sunday, June 23, 2013

Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me (Richard Fariña)

Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me, Richard Fariña
Read: 6 December to 15 December 2012
4 / 5 stars

There are two big things this book had working in its favor before I even cracked open Richard Fariña's under-appreciated final gem: The Pynchon connection (which is was what nudged me in the direction of this novel in the first place, albeit more than a year after Gravity's Rainbow mournfully introduced me to Fariña) and my own probably-over-romanticized-at-this-point affinity for my college experience, with Pynchon's intro (which includes an obligatory kazoo-choir reference!) being, of course, a voyeuristic delight of the highest order right until the moment it crashed back to heartbreaking reality and the novel's not-entirely-fictitious collegiate antics serving as a not-entirely-unpleasant reminder of why I was so reluctant to let go of college life.

I am so glad that I read this book now, rather than as a starry-eyed undergrad with dreams of running the NYT and writing The Greatest American Novel of My Generation on the side. I have a better sense of how life is not something that can be planned for, that growing up is fucking hard even with a willingness to let one's inner child have a say every now and again, that death is always lurking around every corner, and coming to this novel without even one of those hard lessons under my belt would have reduced this from a poignantly frenzied love song of youth's last discoveries to an instruction manual for college kids who just want to shake things up (not that there's anything inherently wrong with living in the moment and taking inconsequentially stupid chances, for those are the backbone of the best Hey, Remember When...? tales). I absolutely would have embraced any opportunity to cause a scene at a formal frathouse dinner like Gnossos Pappadopoulis (Fariña's thinly veiled stand-in for himself) did, just as I had also proclaimed myself in love with wrong guy after wrong guy based on a series of limited-engagement liaisons, as Gnossos did with Kristin, his obsession in green knee-socks and loafers.

My tendency to relate too personally with literary characters came out to play for keeps as Gnossos became a clearer and clearer picture; save for a few lapses into first-person narration, this is a story told mostly in third-person with a focus on GP, so it takes some time to get a sense of his motivation and how others perceive him (it takes a little longer to reconcile the two seemingly at-odds realities). And perhaps I was imposing my own inner workings on Gnossos but I left this book with a sense of awed kinship inspired by his mostly successful attempts to hide his soft heart under an ornery facade. He wants to feel, he wants to live, he wants to be earnest in his devil-may-care approach to throwing himself into living but he is woefully, painfully afraid of doing so because fully embracing life means also acknowledging that death is the inevitable end game.

Gnossos seems like the kind of maniac ringleader whose enthusiasm and passion attract unresisting friends and followers in droves but his attitude obscures a desperate desire to fall in love rather than indulge in a series of unemotional physical encounters, which is what it seems will finally help him stop fighting thanathos with an unequivocally driving life force. Had I not read Pynchon's "Entropy" in college, I would have probably missed the significance of how Gnossos has hermetically sealed himself inside every room he occupies in an attempt to artificially preserve life against the natural encroachment of death -- until his night with Kristin has him throwing open windows with the zeal of a man possessed. He is a character who fights the unpleasant reality with the much more pleasing act of losing oneself in the moment and clinging to that happiness as if that's all it takes to preserve that joy for eternity. As his attempts at pleasant stasis become more desperate and he loses control over situations that initially plopped him on top of the world, it becomes more obvious that this is a guy who wants freedom without responsibility -- and, in the end, isn't that what college is all about?

It's Bukowski once you've swapped the booze for drugs. It's Hunter S. Thompson with an overt awareness that death is nipping at his heels. It's Kerouac as a college kid. It's Pynchon with narrative restraint. But most of all, it's both proof that Fariña's early death was a huge loss to the literary world and a tribute to a screamingly talented artist who knew how to find the biggest truths in the smallest moments while laughing and kicking death in the ass. Because as much as Gnossos (and, presumably, Fariña) feared death, his ability to suck the marrow from every moment is the ultimate victory of life.

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