Dimming the Southern Star

So what was Terry Southern really all about? Weighing in on the man from Alvarado.

NOW DIG THIS:The Unspeakable Writings of Terry Southern 1950-1995

First, a little background.

Terry Southern was my first big break. I was 23, living through a year-and-a-half of self-imposed exile in Portland, Oregon and trying to be a journalist of some sort amidst bouts of bartending, when an editor at The New York Times Book Review responded to an unsolicited package of book reviews I’d mailed. Actually called me on the phone. Wanted to know would I be interested in writing a 300-word review for $150? I’d been freelancing for a weekly alternative paper, and I think I thought I was going to be famous. I think I thought, somehow, I was going to get rich. The book was Texas Summer, and had I any familiarity, the editor inquired, with its author, Terry Southern?

I did. I’d read everything. I’d loved everything, from the over-rated The Magic Christian to the under-rated Blue Movie, watched everything from Dr. Strangelove to The Cincinnati Kid to The Loved One, and I worshipped at the feet of the sorta-journalism contained in Red Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes, which collected same with short fiction, and carried a wicked-good title, and a cover shot of Southern clinching with Jane Fonda. I was a stoned Texas boy trying to get out of Texas and into some Jane Fonda’s arms, too. Hell yes I wanted to review that book.

The pity is, Texas Summer was a snore. It was the book of a Texas boy going home. It was, unlike most everything else Southern had written, un-astonishing. A sentimental coming-of-age story. A cobbling-together of previously published and decades-old short stories. It certainly wasn’t a satire–the genre at which Southern excelled–and it wasn’t much in the way of just plain funny, either. Granted, it was his first book in 20 years, and likely his last, but at 300 words, I didn’t have much room to glorify Southern’s career, so I tried to temper disappointment with respect and gave Texas Summer a tepid putdown. The Times ran my review–the last time that would happen–and I traded my advance proof of Texas Summer to a bookseller for a first edition of Red Dirt Marijuana. One night not long after, I had a dream in which I was staying over at a motor-court in Connecticut (where Southern lived), and around barbecue in the courtyard at night, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg snubbed me for dissing their good friend Terry. I guess I felt guilty.

But I got over it. At least until I read A Grand Guy, Canadian journalist Lee Hill’s new biography of Southern, and the first shot in whatever critical post-mortem Southern’s reputation receives. That’s where I found, on page 289, my name, in a parse of Texas Summer’s critical reception:

The New York Times’s Brad Tyer wrote, “From his vantage point as a literary hipster, Mr. Southern used to cast a good-natured sneer at what he called ‘the quality lit game,’ even as his work redefined what literature could include. One is left wishing he had re-entered the game on a more fertile field.”

“Sadly,” Hill wrote, “this was not a minority opinion.”

I grinned, at first, over my phantom promotion, and then I realized that while I had written, apparently, pretty much what everyone else had written, that one accidental coupling of a journalistically ambitious keg jockey and The Gray Lady had turned me into the most authoritatively quoted authority on the failure of the last two decades of Southern’s career (the Times itself had previously quoted the same line, with my name attached, in that newspaper’s 1995 obituary for Southern, wherein I was, inexplicably and uncomfortably, one of only two writers quoted on Southern’s writing, the other being William Styron.)

The moral, I suppose, is that no matter how conscientiously one tries to write, one may sooner or later find oneself quoted effecting a youthfully under-qualified dismissal of one’s heroes and betters. So be careful. Or something.

That’s the injury. The insult is that the book doing the quoting–preserving my queasy authority for acid-free posterity in libraries around the world–is also such a bad book in its own right.

Southern had long fallen out of favor by the time Texas Summer came out, both as a literary player of the Paris Review generation, and as a screenwriter of high farces from Barbarella to Easy Rider. He was piecing together the tail end of a career with teaching and erratic freelance work, his books were mostly out of print, and the tendency amongst the small cult of his fans was to try to re-introduce his work. Grove did re-issue Southern’s novels after his death, which sparked a good number of professional reminiscences in the media, and I joined in myself, with a coffeehouse tribute reading/screening and a long appreciative essay in these pages (see “Jerking America’s Chain: Terry Southern, the Last Great Satirist,” March 14, 1997).

Lee Hill seems to be just such a fan (“He first interviewed Terry Southern in 1990,” jacket copy informs, “beginning a friendship that led to his book.”). There’s no hard and fast rule that says biographers shouldn’t be friends with their subjects, or even that biographies can’t play key roles in the rehabilitation of their subjects’ reputation. But when a book is so clearly written by a fan–with a fan’s squeamishness over ugly details, desire to please, and inclination to play apologist–and when that book so baldly pleads for someone to save its subject a seat in the pantheon, it’s hard not to wish that the biography had been written by an enemy instead.

But according to Hill, Southern had no enemies. Huge chunks of the book are taken up with lists of all the cool people Terry Southern hung around with. The Beatles, Peter Sellers, Stanley Kubrick, the Rolling Stones, Larry Rivers, etc., ad nauseum. Readers are supposed to understand that Southern was a key fixture in successive generations of the artistically happening, the missing link between the post-war France crowd of George Plimpton and Maurice Girodias and the swinging London scene of Anita Pallenberg and Mick Jagger and the decayed hippie-dom of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. Hill’s Southern is a proto-beat and über-beatnik, the man on the scene, no matter what the scene, and always the life of the party.

“For his part,” Hill writes, “[playwright Jack] Gelber found Southern a delightful source of laughter whether in person or in countless letters or over the telephone.” We get it: Everybody liked the guy. One hardly thinks that nail would require as many hammers as Hill swings at it.

But the desire to make Southern likable and sympathetic–and I’m in no position to doubt the point’s veracity–is symptomatic of Hill’s entire endeavor, which is to cast the guy as a lovable mutt and demi-saint. The married Southern’s apparent womanizing is glossed with “rumors” of other women on the side. His apparent financial ineptitude and lifelong money troubles are excused as chivalrous generosity and an honorable trust in handshake deals. His successes are invariably solo, and his many failures–especially in the film stage of his career–are ascribed to the faults of Southern’s multitude of collaborators.

Hill also spends a fair amount of time over-reaching for a handhold on Southern’s lasting influence: “Southern’s novels, Flash and Filigree and The Magic Christian, possessed a cinematic structure that anticipated such great films of the sixties as Blow-Up, Jules & Jim, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and Belle de Jour.”

And: “Certainly the Coen brothers, Jim Jarmusch, Steven Soderbergh, and other independent filmmakers owed Southern a few aesthetic debts.” Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Hill figures, “had flashes of Southern-like weirdness,” but the “hot young director” might have “benefitted from Southern’s depth….”

Too bad none of those directors are quoted as acknowledging any debt to Southern.

When Hill isn’t making sure we know that people liked Southern, and when he isn’t making laundry lists of all the movers that Southern bumped into at one time or another, and when he isn’t grasping at some way to get Southern and his sketchily defined script contributions credit for the innovations of an entirely new generation of filmmakers, he’s attempting, as all biographers must, to draw a portrait of what makes the subject tick, and of the times in which he ticked. And on these points, Hill writes–there’s no nice way to say this–like a journalist. Readers are given insight into Southern’s psyche of the used-humor-to-break-through-shyness and living-abroad-made-it-easier-to-write-about-home variety. And the decade of the 1960s–that over-memoirized bane of summarizers everywhere–leaves Hill so stumped he can do no better than write “The world seemed to be going mad.”

But then again, too much detail would have been suspect anyhow. Especially since Hill defines Southern’s south-of- Dallas boyhood home of Alvarado as “west Texas,” misprints the title of Southern’s “greatest novel” as “The Magical Christian,” and refers to one of Southern’s later jobs as “at least a paying pig.” (I suspect he meant “gig,” which is also an inexcusable word, unless spoken by a working musician, and usually even then.) I wasn’t paid to fact-check Hill’s book, so I can’t say what-all may be factually wrong with it, but paying pigs and Magical Christians inspire little confidence.

None of this is to say that Hill’s book is without certain gems of previously unsuspected trivia. Did anyone know that scruffy Southern lived near and occasionally collaborated with The New Yorker’s super-genteel Brendan Gill? Did anyone know (and does anyone really believe?) that young Southern hunted deer–with a .22 no less–and drank their hot blood in what Hill calls a “quintessentially Texan” ritual? And there is something undeniably charming in the revelation that Southern, upon moving to Connecticut from Switzerland with his first wife Carol, sent away to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for informational pamphlets on irrigation, seeding and animal husbandry. It seems the writer had an itch to become something of a gentleman farmer, and here, at long last, is established an unexpected connective tissue stretched from Southern to that other, exceedingly different, Texas-born talent: John Graves.

Gem-wise, that is all.

The mining doesn’t get any more rewarding in Now Dig This, a thin vein of (mostly) previously unpublished material compiled and edited from the Southern archives by Southern’s son Nile and buddy Josh Alan Friedman. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this one on the theory that the less said the better (and knowing that my criticisms of Terry Southern’s published writings have a tendency to follow me around for about 10 years and then bite me on the ass).

Let’s just say that it seems unwise to saddle a collection of works by a sometime-screenwriter and widely acknowledged master of comic dialogue with the subtitle “The Unspeakable Writings of Terry Southern.”

Let’s just say that without exception, these previously unpublished (except, occasionally, in magazines) scraps were previously unpublished for reasons that most any competent editor could explain.

Let’s just say: What’s the point of publishing an outline of a published novel (Blue Movie)?

Now Dig This collects no less than six letters written by Southern, and I am pained to report that half of them are to editors. Yes, one of them (to Ms. magazine) is a riot, but the fact remains, these selections–stock dinner party bits (literally) and twice-baked fancies–document the piddling away of a talent.

They certainly don’t shore up a dead writer’s flagging reputation. Neither does a collection of still more photocopied clips of uncollected writings sent to me independently by Nile Southern. It is very important, Nile e-mailed me, to place Terry in context as politically progressive, which one gathers is how Nile defines himself. But these reveal only that as a straightforward political partisan, Terry Southern was a fish out of water. Earnestness suits him not, however much one might sympathize with his appalled protest of the Gulf War and his generally libertine leanings. Southern was an equal opportunity puncturer of hypocrisies: Candy, after all, was a fresh-faced liberal spirit, and in Southern’s hands, her naivete left her skewered in more ways than one. When the author of that book (“Above them the lightning bolt opened a sizable hole at the top of the roof and the summer rain was pouring in on them now in torrents. It had wetted the tip of the Buddha’s nose, which did seem, thus lubricated, to be undeniable as it moved slowly into Candy’s coyly arched tooky–the warm wet nose of Buddha, the beloved spot of her meditation!”) starts writing not one but two impassioned editorial pleas for the implementation of a nationwide system of high-speed trains, one begins to fear, in earnest, the onset of a crankdom that hardly need be preserved.

If Now Dig This smacks of barrel-scraping, the hard lesson is that pretty much everything Terry Southern wrote of any real value has already been published.

A Grand Guy–with its emphasis on who Southern knew over what, and why Southern wrote–has a different lesson, and the cold ugly fact of that one is that Southern’s work, especially as a writer of fiction, is not surviving him. The way things look, in 100 years, maybe Dr. Strangelove will be his only clinging claim to fame, and a murky one at that. Fans like biographer Hill would address that injustice (and I, for one, believe that it is an injustice) by dressing Southern up in the finery of his acquaintances. Son Nile would help by diluting the impact of his best work with odds and ends and recasting his dad as some sort of proto-porno Jim Hightower.

And I would humbly suggest that the best arguments for anyone ever again bothering to read Terry Southern are contained entirely within his early books: The Magic Christian, Flash and Filigree, Candy, Blue Movie, and Red Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes. If you want to know what was cool about Terry Southern, don’t read his biography, or the contents of his file cabinet. Read the books.

Brad Tyer lives in Houston, where he works as-there’s no nice way to say this-a journalist.

Houston native Brad Tyer has contributed to the Observer since the mid-1990s as a critic, reporter, copy editor and managing editor. His first book, Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape, was published by Beacon Press in 2013. Brad is currently enjoying a periodic out-of-state sojourn and working as an independent writer and editor.

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