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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Jerking Americds Chain Terry Southern, the Last Great Satirist BY BRAD TYER rilir owards the end of last summer, at a coffeehouse in Houston, I organized a small homage to my favorite dead Texas writer, and got a hard lesson in the fleeting nature of liter , ary reputation. Terry Southern died on October 29, 1995, age 71, of respiratory failure, in a Manhattan hospital. He had been born in 1924, in Alvarado, Texas, south of Fort Worth. Between these two events he composed a career and a body of worknovels, short stories, journalism, and screenplays unmatched in Texas letters. If Southern’s workand the particular, biting flavor of his geniusis not confined to that regional pantheon, neither has it been properly recognized, here or elsewhere. We tried to make amends. Over the course of three nights, we screened video versions of the films carrying Southern’s coscriptwriting creditsEasy Rider, Barbarella, The Loved One, The Cincinnati Kid, The Magic Christian, and Dr. Strangelove \(Candy and local journalists, writers, and fans read selections from Southern’s published work. In his ’50s’60s heyday, Southern had been the last American writer except perhaps for Allen Ginsberg to hold the post of Culture Hero. But when it came time to celebrate his work in Houston, almost nobody showed up. The few who did seemed drawn by the movies, which, for the most part, they had never attached to Southern’s name. That there existed a novelist by the name Terry Southern, born and raised in Texas, seemed a mere footnote, if not an outright mystery. Ginsberg has rightly retained and even shamelessly consolidated his status as a countercultural figurehead. But Southern, it seemed, had almost disappeared from cultural memory. Granted, Southern hadn’t been much seen on the battlefield in two decades. In his last days, he had been teaching screenwrit ing at Columbia University, and only after his death had Grove Press re-issued his long out-of-print satirical classics, Flash and Filigree, Candy, The Magic Christian, and Blue Movie. On the occasion of Southern’s death, he had been memorialized in the pages of The New York Times and the Washington .Post, but there’d been nary a whisper of his passing in his native Texas. It was a shame, I thoughtthat one of the finest writers yet produced by the state, one of its most inimitably comic, and the one who most thoroughly transcended the regional boundaries of the standard Texas Lit canon, should pass unnoticed. A shame because the lance remains good for the boil, and Terry Southern’s work is a lance, no duller today for its age, puncturing conventional American wisdoms and spraying American fiction with the imprisoned hilarities like spit from a laughing mouth. Southern’s work is alsoand given Southern’s dearth of imitators, no less importantlythe clearest image contemporary American letters may have of what a good sharp needle looks like. And though he left Texas as a young man and seems to have had little interest in returning for the rest of his life, both his earliest stories and his final novel concern Texas. And Texas, for all of Southern’s long middle-career distance from it, gave him much of what he needed for the impact he made. THE HIPSTER OF HIP There is, as yet, no biography of Southern \(the Times obituary reported one in the the best available information comes from Southern’s own autobiographical book proposal for the never-published “Making It Hot For Them” \(which phrase encapsulated the self-styled mission of malevolent billionaire Guy Grand in The Magic Christian; the proposal was published in the Spring 1996 issue of the Southern was born \(in 1926 according to the Grove re-issues, in 1924 according to in the cotton-farming community of Alvarado, where he was raised by a pharmacist father, and a mother who read to him when he was sick. Asked by interviewer Mike Golden, “How did growing up in Texas shape you as a writer?” Southern responded, “Well, Texas is probably a good place for a boy to grow up, in a Huck Finn sort of way, like one big outdoor playground with a lot of hunting and fishing, Dad-and-Lad stuff going on. But, as Liz Taylor said, ‘It’s hell on horses and women.’ Because it’s a cultural desert.” Whether Southern considered himself TERRY SOUTHERN’S WORK IS A LANCE, NO DULLER TODAY FOR ITS AGE, PUNCTURING CONVENTIONAL AMERICAN WISDOMS AND SPRAYING AMERICAN FICTION WITH THE IMPRIS-ONED HILARITIES LIKE SPIT FROM A LAUGHING MOUTH. horse or woman is a matter of debate, but his urge to emerge from the desert quickly became evident. “At an early age,” he wrote of his decidedly non-Dad-and-Lad pursuits, “[I] began reading some of the more freaky short stories of E.A. Poe, then rewriting them using classmates and teachers in outlandish roles.” One of Southern’s earliest stories, “The Sun and the Still-born Stars,” collected in Red Dirt Marijuana, seems to spring from this exercise. It’s a supernatural horror story, not terribly sympathetic, built around a Texas-coast melon farmer whose only connection to the larger world comes in the form of the “reel-less” \(the character’s haybeen introduced to in his service overseas during the war. The isolation of an upbringing in rural Texas seems to have engendered a vivid fantasy life that Southern would later exploit to great effect. Red Dirt’s first two stories, revisited and re-worked in the 1992 novel Texas Sum 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MARCH 14, 1997