Forced Entries: Writing as Penance
Into Gold: Jim Carroll's The Basketball Diaries and Forced Entries
It seems the deeper I allow my
penetrate, the more ruin I leave in my wake.
Following the period of The Basketball Diaries is a hiatus
of five years in Carroll's diaries, after which he returns with Forced
Entries . . . still hooked on heroin and wallowing in excess. After
graduating from Trinity, Carroll worked as Larry Rivers's assistant:
Carroll "stretched canvases and sharpened pencils," and babysat, "at
Rivers's 91st Street apartment." He stayed high on heroin, and "At night
I'd go out and hustle, make some money" to support the habit (Flippo
While the chronology isn't exactly precise, in Forced Entries,
Carroll picks up his story on his twentieth birthday, just as he is entering
New York's hip art scene.
He rubs elbows with dozens of famous poets and artists, is Patti Smith's
beau for a time, works for Andy Warhol and Larry Rivers, and hangs out
at Max's Kansas City, where the Velvet Underground is performing. But
all the while, he is leading a double life: still addicted to heroin,
Carroll attempts to overcome his past and establish himself as an artist
within this society of artists. Yet this quest for authentication combined
with his need for drugs eventually threatens to destroy him. While he
is frantically trying to keep up with the "scene," his addiction overtakes
him and his writing, and he finds that he has become a stranger to himself.
Because of this, Carroll flees to California to successfully conquer his
addiction and learn to see again.
Carroll shows in both Forced Entries and The Basketball
Diaries that, even though he was physically unable to free himself
from the tyranny of heroin addiction in The Basketball Diaries,
through his remarkably controlled poetic prose he was able to transform
and purify his experience, ugliness and all, into art. In the end, Carroll
found purity within himself, not from outside sources. It was not membership
in a "respectable" society, basketball, drugs, sex, or rebellion that
saved him; his ability to see clearly and write about his experience
was his salvation. Carroll was able to address the chaos, horror, and
beauty of his life, make sense of it, order it, and make all of it beautiful
by writing about it. Finally, through writing, Carroll rose above the
prison of his own decadence: the book entitled The Basketball Diaries
stands as physical proof that Carroll achieved the transcendence he
sought in that diary through the diary itself.
Certainly this was not an instant triumph, nor was it a final victory
for Carroll; obviously his quest for transcendence did not end with
writing The Basketball Diaries. With the publication of Organic
Trains, excerpts from The Basketball Diaries, and poems from
Living at the Movies between 1967 and 1971, Carroll established
himself within the hip society of New York artists and writers as a
poet of extraordinary talent and writer to be reckoned with. As Carroll
told Chet Flippo, "I was the young protege. . . . [The established New
York artists] really took me in the way they didn't take in younger
poets who came along later. I came along at the right time" (35). Nevertheless,
Carroll's acceptance into this society was due more to its curious fascination
with his decadent but heroic "character" in the early "Basketball Diaries"
excerpts than for his merits as a writer.
The "street punk" Jim Carroll overshadowed Jim Carroll the artist
almost from the start; to this day, the thieving, heroin addicted hustler
perseveres while Jim Carroll the artist, the man who was able to transform
his experience into art, is overlooked. Ironically, Carroll's misbegotten
image has its genesis in his greatest achievements. The name Carroll had
established for himself as a writer and his marginal acceptance into the
hip New York art scene as of 1971 came at least partly as a result of
events spanning the gap between The Basketball Diaries and Forced
Entries. At the age of 15, Carroll began participating in the St.
Mark's Poetry Project's Wednesday night poetry readings, and by age 17
he was involved in John Giorno's "Dial-A-Poem" project, taping readings
of his works for the Dial-A-Poem telephone service.
Of Carroll's exploits in New York's art scene, by far the most
important was his involvement at St. Mark's Poetry Project. As with
his leaps into various societies in The Basketball Diaries, at
St. Mark's Carroll "kept to himself, absorbing influences and working
on his first volume of poetry, Organic Trains" until he was ready
to make his "presence" known. Says Carroll, "I wanted my work to speak
for itself, just like I let my playing do the talking on the basketball
court" (Milward 170).
In 1967, Carroll made his first literary slam dunk by publishing
Organic Trains, a 15-page booklet of poems, then approached Ted
Berrigan and asked him to read it. As Berrigan recounts their first
Jim Carroll first appeared in my life as a huge white paw
hung purposefully from the near end of a long brown corduroy
arm. It was late one Wednesday evening, in front of Gem's Spa,
the corner at 2nd Avenue & St. Mark's Place, in the Spring
of 1967. A slight grey rectangle blocked my further view. I
stopped short, although none of this is the least bit unusual
at Gem's Spa. But the giant who materialized behind the hand
certainly was unusual. It seemed to be saying, Pay attention,
and I did so. "I'm Jim Carroll," the giant said and
became a very interesting person. "I've just had this book
of poems published, and [I'd] like to give you a copy to read."
"I'd love to read it," I said. (That's what I always say.) So,
I took the small pamphlet of Jim Carroll's poems home to read.
Berrigan describes Organic Trains as "a tremendous experience.
. . . I've never seen anything like it. I can say Rimbaud, but that
doesn't bring in how American Jim Carroll is, and a critic might, and
probably would say, O'Hara; but Frank O'Hara never wrote anywhere near
this well until well into his 20's." Berrigan goes on to say that "If
there is to be another 'New American Poetry', and there is, as the fine
dust settles over the 'New American Poetry 1945-60', Jim Carroll is
the first truly new American poet" (9).
Berrigan's point is that New American Poetry, which encompasses
Frank O'Hara, is no longer new, but Carroll's poetry is. While Carroll's
poetic draws from the basic tenets of New American Poetry and is influenced
to some extent by older poets such as Frank O'Hara and Allen Ginsberg,
Carroll has not merely assimilated himself into the old schools. On
the one hand, the new poetic Carroll forged in Organic Trains
resembles New American Poetry in that it involves the transformation
of ordinary, "unpoetic" experiences and scenes into works of art through
the manipulation of language and poetic forms. But Carroll's poetic
differs from his predecessors' in two significant ways. First, Carroll's
"ordinary" reality is that of the meanest streets of New York City.
Second, especially in his diaries, he describes this scene in street
lingo, thus expressing the scene as it has never before been expressed.
In a sense, the title of his first book, Organic Trains,
best describes the poetic Carroll has defined throughout his career:
through writing, he animates what we might consider inanimate parts
of the city--its machinery, sky scrapers, pollution and so on--and highlights
its darkest profile. Just as Carroll called New York City "the greatest
hero a writer needs" in The Basketball Diaries (159), in his
poetry the city becomes a living, though primordial, organism. In "5th
Train (for L.C.)," for example, he renders a train station in such a
way that even newspapers and telephones come to life:
soot air pervading
and tossing yesterday's daily news
as a sadist makes passes at
I am jumping between cars
and kneeling upright in a tunnel
of skirts, telephones,
and my own attempt at sophistication
among a potential affair
with so many literal rats summoned from the exit feeding (9)
The world Carroll details in his poetry, as in his diaries, is violent
and primal; for him, New York City is a living being as savage as they
come, and its populace is its lifeblood--swarming like rats in its veins
while feigning cosmopolitanism.
In both his poetry and his diaries, Carroll emphasizes the absurdity
of posturing in such a savage world. In "Poem of Arrivals" (OT 7), for
example, Carroll observes that "The pope has arrived in N.Y." (1). Certainly
the Pope is cause for awe; he is, after all, a symbol of religious faith
and authority, and a beacon of hope for the hopeless. But Carroll juxtaposes
the symbol of the Pope against the harsh reality of the
street: "a woman jumps 15 floors in the MARTINIQUE / naked" (10) As
in The Basketball Diaries entry describing a similar dry-dive
scenario (BBD 107-8), an authority figure is there to restore the illusion
of orderliness, but a bit too late: "and a cop rushes to cover" ("Arrivals"
11). Reemphasizing the preposterousness of this illusion of order, and
of the Pope as a mere symbol in this world, Carroll concludes:
and the pope
on the third page of the TIMES
and seeming almost infallible.
By projecting his vision of this street sensibility, Carroll began
making his presence known in the literary world.
Between 1967 and 1971, Carroll published a great many poems; in fact,
by 1971 nearly half of Living at the Movies was in print, scattered
in various literary magazines.
Numerous poems appeared in The World (the St. Mark's Poetry Project's
journal), Adventures in Poetry, Angel Hair, and Penumbra,
and Anne Waldman included Carroll's work in her two anthologies for St.
Mark's: The World Anthology (1969) and Another World (1970).
In 1968, "Blue Poles," then titled "Poem (for Linda Canby [sic])," and
"Traffic" appeared in Paris Review (the most prestigious literary
journal in the country); in 1969, Paris Review printed "Heroin"
and "The Birth and Death of the Sun."
Finally, in 1970, Carroll published 4 Ups and 1 Down, an eight-page,
limited edition (300 copies) pamphlet containing five poems: "Blue Poles,"
"Love Rockets," "Styro," "Poem on My Son's Birthday," and "To a Poetess"
(all of these are reprinted in Living at the Movies).
Also, in 1968 Carroll began publishing his basketball diaries.
Excerpts appeared in Adventures in Poetry (1968), the World
(1968, 1969), and in Anne Waldman's two World anthologies. In 1969
he recorded selections from the Diaries for Dial-A-Poem, and Ted
Berrigan's feature article on Carroll in Culture Hero (1969) also
Carroll's prolific output between 1967 and 1971 earned him a place
in the art community, with two publications being the most pivotal. In
1969, his definitive poem "The Distances" appeared in Poetry,
and in 1970, Paris Review published "Prell" and an extensive selection
entitled "The Basketball Diaries." The Paris Review diary excerpts
not only won Carroll the Random House Young Writer's Award for 1970, they
also made an impression on some of the leading members of the New York
art crowd. Ted Berrigan was again instrumental, hitchhiking with Carroll
to Maine to visit Jack Kerouac (Hirschberg 25). After reading about 30
pages of the Diaries, Kerouac stated that "at the age of 13, Jim
Carroll writes better prose than 89 per cent of the novelists working
today" (qtd. in Fissinger 44). Even William S. Burroughs commented that
Carroll "must be a born writer" (qtd. in Infusino).
As Mark Norton observes, "Generally, it is the kiss of death to
be blessed by the gods so quickly" ("Wide World" 46), and in many ways
it was. With the combination of his youthful good looks and "street
punk" image, his pristine poetry and "pornographic" diaries (as John
Giorno called them in the album notes for Dial-A-Poem), Carroll
was clearly an enigma. Hence, he found himself catapulted into the limelight
with the reputation of a handsome and talented young street poet.
And once this reputation was affixed to him, the distinction between
Carroll's biography and his transformation of his life into art became
blurred. As Joyce Caruso notes, "He was immediately cast as the new
Rimbaud: like that 19th-century legend, Carroll wrote prophetic, hallucinatory
poems, lived a decadent life, and achieved fame a few short years after
puberty" (98). And like Rimbaud, Carroll's adolescent biography in many
ways became paramount over his art. Says Carroll, "It got to the point
. . . when people wanted me to stop publishing at 19 the way he did"
Clearly The Basketball Diaries and Carroll's "street punk"
identity and experience therein have determined his artistic "fate"
to a large extent, and this fate is something Carroll has continually
had to struggle against. Speaking of his involvement at St. Mark's,
I wanted to offset my street image, and when I finally introduced
myself to poets like Ted Berrigan and Anne Waldman, they said,
"Yeah, we wondered who the fuck you were, a street punk or some
sort of tough." It's all counterpoint--you use two sides, one
against the other, to develop a presence, an impact. (Milward
Nevertheless, Carroll's primary impact was based almost entirely on
his physical attributes, including both his appearance and his biography.
For example, while in his article Ted Berrigan finds considerable merit
in Carroll's poetry, he is more than equally impressed by Carroll's
good looks: "Jim Carroll is beautiful. . . . He's 20 years old, stands
6'3", and has a body like Nureyev (or would have were Nureyev Clint
Eastwood). At a party . . . one sees . . . Jim Carroll's brilliant red
Prince Valiant cut quietly nodding." Likewise, Anne Waldman ("who should
know," Berrigan notes) says, "Jim Carroll is a born star. He's so tall
and beautiful, and he probably knows a lot. I love the way he talks"
This is the social and "professional" situation in which Carroll
finds himself in the art scene in Forced Entries. In many ways
it parallels his situation in the Biddy League as a teenager, when his
coaches are more interested in his body than his basketball playing.
But the stakes are higher now, and Carroll desperately wants to be part
of the New York art scene. A comment Carroll made in a later interview
reveals the dilemma underlying this desire: "I made a point never to
sleep with any guys in the poetry scene, except, you know, the gay guys,
which were plentiful, you know, in the older generation school of New
York poets. But I'm sure with Frank [O'Hara, if I had known him,] I
would have wound up in bed. He was an idol" (Flippo 35).
In a sense, membership in the art scene almost demands that Carroll
cheapen himself. While in word he refused, he still slept with the "gay
guys, which were plentiful," how plentiful one can only guess at, and
he still felt he would have slept with Frank O'Hara if the opportunity
presented itself. The fact is, even in the art scene, it is his body
and not his writing that is in demand; he is still a commodity.
Nevertheless, as with the Biddy League, Carroll wants to be part
of the hip New York art scene for a number of significant reasons, in
spite of the costs of membership. As in the Biddy League, Carroll's reasons
for wanting in outweigh his reasons for staying out. First, as
an artist Carroll senses a certain kinship with other artists and feels
the community of artists is the only society in which he can comfortably
belong. Second, this community offers both instruction and an audience
for his work. Third, acceptance into this community would validate his
art and raise him from the status of "street punk" to that of Artist.
In Forced Entries, this last motive is most crucial. In
The Basketball Diaries Carroll's quest was aimed primarily at
transcending a corrupt world. In Forced Entries Carroll makes
the same attempt but with an added hurdle: he now must transcend the
"self" he invented in The Basketball Diaries, whose "street punk"
identity is now a stigma barring him from attaining the status of Artist.
Carroll states this emphatically in the first diary of Forced Entries:
"I think of my past as if it were some exquisite antique knife . . .
you can use it to defend yourself or slit your own throat, but you can't
just keep it mounted on some wall. I can no longer allow the past, however,
to interpret my future. Not dying young can be a dilemma . . ." (2).
In essence, Carroll's past is defined by The Basketball Diaries,
but this definition takes two diametrically opposed forms. When Carroll
looks at his past, he sees victory: he descended to the bottom of the
abyss and returned to transform his experience into art, and he is proud
of this. Most outsiders, on the other hand, even those who admired and
sympathized with his work, saw only the decadent young Jim Carroll addicted
to heroin, hustling gay men for money, and mugging passers-by in Central
Park. This second version of Carroll's past is the one which, in Forced
Entries, is the accepted definition of him. But this untransformed
self is not Jim Carroll, and this is the definition of himself
which he must transcend.
Carroll's quest in Forced Entries, then, is very much a
continuation of that of The Basketball Diaries. In the previous
diary, Carroll attempted to transcend a corrupt reality and achieve
"purity" by mirroring and exposing the dirty underbelly of his world;
along the way, he discovered that writing about his world and himself
as a reflection of it was a more direct route to finding that purity,
and that writing allowed him to be a "cheetah." With this recognition,
in Forced Entries Carroll embarks upon the same quest, except
he now attempts to join the often phony society of artists, consciously
seeking the Writer in himself who can create and confirm a "pure high"
and "pure reality" (Perry E6), as well as raise him above the status
of "street punk."
The problem is that, in Forced Entries, Carroll becomes
a victim of his own ambitions. While attempting to transcend his "street
punk" stigma via entry into the art scene, Carroll unwittingly becomes
entangled in the corruption of this society and entirely loses track
of himself and his intentions as an artist. For example, in The Basketball
Diaries Carroll condemns the false facades people don in the name
of respectability, but in Forced Entries, he gets caught in this
same trap. Carroll becomes obsessed with devising a respectable appearance
for himself; his obsession takes form as he frets over his manner of
dress and goes to great lengths to conceal his "double life." Hence,
he faces the dilemma of keeping up a respectable appearance while not
becoming phoney himself; he must simultaneously force his entry into
the art scene while still maintaining contact with the street world
upon which his art is based.
Thus, in Forced Entries, Carroll explores, regrets, loses,
regains and accepts his "street" identity as well as his poetic vision.
Furthermore, while his primary goal is to gain control over his past
and determine his own future, a more powerful force still wields a greater
power over him. As Carroll puts it:
I've tried in these writings to put a lid on the seamier side
of the double life I've continued to lead--I am speaking, of
course, of the street life as opposed to the art scene. The
need for heroin has never allowed me to sever these ties. Besides,
after all these years, there is a certain comfort in the familiarity
of the streets . . . a fascination, even some perverse safety
in its danger and lies. (FE 113)
The force holding him back is much larger than his heroin addiction.
In a sense, heroin addiction is the badge which binds Carroll to the
streets and to his Basketball Diaries persona. To sever his ties
to the streets and this persona is to disown the nucleus of his art
and leap into the unknown.
Even more importantly, for Carroll, the "danger and lies" of the
streets are the harsh reality concealed beneath the facade of an orderly
world. In his writing, it is the discrepancy between the reality of
the street and the facade which conceals it that fascinates him; it
is his pleasure and his duty to strip away the veneer and reveal the
chaos hidden beneath. Hence, there is an even more terrifying implication
in disowning the street and his street past. Should he do so, he would
be denying his own chaotic reality, and he would lower himself to the
level of his coaches, teachers, and the businessmen in Brooks Brothers
suits in The Basketball Diaries. In other words, to deny his
past is to become one of the hypocrites he despises. Thus, the basic
paradox underlying Carroll's "forced entry" into the New York art scene,
and his quest to be a Writer, is that to be a respected member of the
society of Great Artists he must "put a lid on" his street past and
behave like a Great Artist. But to "behave" like a Great Artist is to
renounce the code of honesty, integrity, and self-awareness defined
by that past.
Furthermore, as Carroll moves through the art scene, he receives
conflicting messages from its members as to how a Great Artist should
behave. Essentially there are two opposing definitions of Artist, neither
of which has much to do with art. As Carroll put it in a later interview:
In a personal one-to-one sense . . . it was "Jim, you should
get off [drugs] and clean yourself up." But in an overall abstract
sense, the poetry scene fostered the life-style on me. People
were living vicariously off my street life, their attitude saying,
"I admire you for this, for the fact that you have the balls
to live out the image of the drugged-out poet." (Milward 172)
In many ways, Carroll's membership in the society of artists is based
upon that society's fascination with his "double life" as portrayed
in The Basketball Diaries, counterbalanced with his poetry, and
as he lives it out during this period. In a sense, his decadent lifestyle
is viewed as a sort of drama performed for the entertainment of others.
The problem, aside from the havoc wreaked upon Carroll's body, is that
the community of artists is a "respectable" society, and while this
society lives "vicariously" off of Carroll's vices, it certainly doesn't
want him in its own living room.
These are the paradoxes Carroll must somehow resolve. Because the
writer that he is grows out of his experiencing and transforming his
double life, Carroll must embrace his past and write about it.
Hence, as Tony Perry notes: "The title of 'Forced Entries' suggests
both the way the writer forced himself to enter, at least part way,
into respectable society, and his feeling that he had to continue the
story, both to vindicate himself of his past and to work through the
restlessness of his youth" (E6). In many ways, then, Carroll's becoming
a Writer depends first upon accepting the character identity of The
Basketball Diaries then overcoming and transcending that identity
to legitimize himself as an Artist. Also, he must come to terms with
his addiction: he must retain enough personal control to continue writing
while still "hooked."
In the "Downtown Diaries: 1971-1973" of Forced Entries,
Carroll attempts to elide the first step of this process, hoping that
his membership in the art scene will hurl him straight to transcendence;
it doesn't work. So long as he remains obsessed with his acceptance
(or non-acceptance) in the art scene, he is unable to maintain control
over his addiction; hence, his writing suffers. The fact is, only when
he comes to terms with his past can he begin to rise above it, and only
when he overcomes his heroin addiction can he regain personal control.
These things are what he attempts, following the "Downtown Diaries,"
in "The Move to California" and "Back to New York."
"The Downtown Diaries: 1971-1973"
In the first diary of Forced Entries, "A Birthday," Carroll
introduces his headlong leap into legitimacy by identifying and defining
himself, as if to justify his existence, in terms of what he always
has been, what he is now, and what he has the potential of becoming:
This is the day I was born, twenty years ago in Bellevue hospital,
New York City, at three minutes past midnight. It's the birthday
of Herman Melville, the Emperor Claudius, and Mr. Jerry Garcia
of the Grateful Dead. This is also the day the Russians scattered
the remnants of their first bomb into the atmosphere. 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. (1)
This is the antithesis of the first entry in The Basketball Diaries
in that, in the first book, Carroll makes a point of illegitimizing
himself, and here he makes a point of legitimizing himself, both by
virtue of his birth date. Clearly, this is the beginning of a new chapter
in Carroll's life (so to speak); he is no longer a teenager and, "The
fact is, I hadn't planned to make it to this age." Hence, Carroll faces
a new dilemma of experiencing and describing his situation and struggle
for transcendence as an adult.
While he is older, the Jim Carroll we meet at the beginning of
Forced Entries is essentially the same Jim Carroll we knew in
The Basketball Diaries: he is the same New York street punk who
was born in New York City's Bellevue hospital "at three minutes past
midnight." Also, "the bad Russia bowman" from The Basketball Diaries
still threatens with "atomic arrows," and Carroll is still in the center
of the archer's target (BBD 114). In this passage, however, Carroll
does something unique to and pervasive in Forced Entries: he
makes personal and literary references. If there is anything which has
consistently irritated reviewers of Forced Entries it is Carroll's
"name-dropping," but reviewers have missed the point. In essence, Carroll
is authenticating himself by allusion and association. Of course he
doesn't say "I was born on August first"; he says he was born on the
same day as a Great American Writer, a Roman Emperor, and a Rock Star.
In many ways, these are the possibilities Carroll sees in himself, and
the references in themselves reveal Carroll's attempts to identify himself
The "Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead" association reveals another
aspect of Carroll's identity: the Dead have always been icons of the drug
culture, and Carroll has certainly established himself as a contender
for that position
Thus, after associating himself with Great Names, Carroll continues his
birthday diary with a trip to his dealer:
I celebrated with a birthday gift from my aunt, twenty dollars
which conveniently arrived in the morning's mail. I tipped over
to Spanish Hector's to score, and Hector, knowing it was my
birthday (since I took the pains to tell him in both English
and Spanish), gave me an extra five-dollar bag for my money.
This sounds like the old, familiar Basketball Diaries Jim Carroll,
and when Spanish Hector offers "to throw a few party lines of coke into
the cooker," Carroll notes that "When it comes to heroin, I'm as strict
a purist as those ersatz folkies who booed Dylan off the stage at Newport
for using an electric guitar" (1).
With the exception of the name-dropping, it seems nothing has changed
since The Basketball Diaries. He ended that diary, in the throes
of heroin abuse, with "I just want to be pure"; yet his "purity" five
years later lies simply in not mixing heroin and cocaine. But there
is a subtle difference, and that is in Carroll's self-criticism: at
the beginning of Forced Entries, he is quite aware that, as a
person, he has gotten nowhere in the last five years. In many ways,
when Carroll calls himself a "purist" in the matter of drugs, he is
both reemphasizing the code of integrity he developed in The Basketball
Diaries as well as poking fun at his ineptness in carrying it out.
In The Basketball Diaries, Carroll was an idealistic kid thrown
into a corrupt world, and because he did devise a code of honor for himself,
he was able to see, analyze, and write about his own corruption as a reflection
of his world, and he was able to purify himself through writing. But now
he looks at himself more evaluatively, and his finger is more often pointed
towards himself than at the world. Carroll feels that, especially in the
personal arena, he has failed himself and violated his own code. Because
of this, Carroll is much less self-righteous than in the previous diary,
and Forced Entries takes the tone of a confessional 
That is, while he "confessed" to some extent in The Basketball Diaries,
throughout the "Downtown Diaries" Carroll perpetually confesses his sins
and repents of his violations of his own code, attempting to absolve himself
by writing about these things. This time it is not the world that is to
blame for his corruption, but Carroll himself.
At the beginning of the book, Carroll feels trapped in a cage of
his own design, swaying between total apathy and exhilaration:
I inhabit a different body now. Each day, it seems, another
self wakes up and heats the coffee. I can distinguish, even
gauge, the passage from a disturbed youth to a disturbed adult
by the subtle aggressiveness in my anxiety. Sometimes I catch
myself sitting on the edge of the sofa, staring into the flickering
glare of the television, like a deer on some highway transfixed
by the headlights of a car. As these images pass, I can feel
them feeding on my own inertia. Other times, I am overloaded
with a smooth, graceful energy, filled with an almost incomprehensible
In essence, Carroll is "transfixed" by his own lack of accomplishment.
It is his twentieth birthday, five years have passed since that last
Basketball Diaries entry, and he has progressed only from "a
disturbed youth to a disturbed adult."
As he puts it, "The fact is, in many ways, I hadn't planned to
make it to this age." Theoretically, had Carroll died young, the transcendence
he achieved in The Basketball Diaries would be eternal; he would
be another James Dean, cut off just as his potential was about to be
fulfilled. Since Carroll did not die young, however, he has nothing
but potential before him, and he now faces the task of exceeding
his own transcendence. As Carroll completes his birthday diary:
So, having lived, it seems only proper to begin keeping track
again, to record the flux of each self, and weigh the shifting
landscape of this city. I've given much of myself to feed its
insatiable, tick-ridden underbelly, and I expect the use of
its character in return. If you haven't died by an age thought
predetermined through the timing of your abuses and excesses,
then what else is left but to begin another diary? (2)
If writing was his means of transcendence in The Basketball Diaries,
Carroll is willing to believe it will be again; hence, the first step
in rising above his present state of stagnation and The Basketball
Diaries is to begin another diary, this time as an adult rather than
a self-destructive adolescent.
But first, in the next few diaries, Carroll further explores his
state of intense boredom and languor, idly appraising and attempting
to justify his condition, as if deciding whether he wants to
rise above his present situation. In "Jenny Ann, Like a Cat," for example,
Carroll vindicates his inability to carry on a normal relationship,
echoing his critiques of hypocrisy in The Basketball Diaries:
All the women always assure me at first how they don't care
if I'm using junk, probably thinking they'll be the one with
the power to transform me back to wholesome life. And, just
as certain, within a week . . . two at the most, they're bitching
about how they can't handle it anymore, how the shit is erecting
a larger barrier and larger barrier between us, and, speaking
of "erecting," how they're not getting laid since I'm on the
continual nod half the time, and writing all that crazy bullshit
the other half. Besides the hypocrisy involved here, it is all
quite inelegant, to say the least. I mean, they made the assurances,
not I. And to cast such aspersions on my work ("crazy bullshit,"
indeed), is simply the bitter fruit of sexual frustration revealing
Carroll goes on to compare this antagonistic sort of relationship
to the intimacy he has found with Jenny Ann (aka Patti Smith): "Ah,
but Jenny Ann, none of this for her. She is as clear with her destiny
as I with mine. And that destiny is, like her energy (which I sadly
lack), unlimited. All that is needed for her is time, and judgment.
Meanwhile, we touch each other." For Carroll, Jenny Ann is a sort of
ideal, both as a lover and as an artist. In a sense, she is what he
wishes to be: "She possesses something else which causes me great envy,
it being another quality I am in too short supply of--ambition. . .
. ambition totally integral to her vision, and the work which is manifested
in that vision." As an artist, Jenny Ann is living on the edge, but
she's in control; she is true to herself and her art, where Carroll
feels he is not. While he may rationalize his excesses and deficiencies,
he feels he has somehow failed himself and his art; he is stagnating,
and he is not in control.
Importantly, however, Jenny Ann accepts and allows Carroll to accept
the reality of his experience unconditionally, and she shows
Sometimes I open my eyes out of a deep nod and see her staring
down at me as if, by some vicarious means, by some force built
out of an overwhelming will, she herself had penetrated the
flux of my drug dreams and shared them in each vivid detail.
It is as if I were riding a raft through rapids and, by a supernatural
sense of timing and dexterity, she jumped onto it from a bridge
as I passed beneath it, having followed it from above a long
time before, as it first came into view around a great curve.
And she lands feet first, upright, like a cat. (4)
Jenny Ann is a source of security against the harsh reality of Carroll's
"street" life, and a means of escape. She is a woman who can create
beauty out of ugliness, and "who can turn an ailment into a viable recreation."
Together they are infected with crabs, and they spend "A Day at the
Races" racing the crabs across a sheet of drawing paper (5-6). She also
leads Carroll safely through his old stomping ground, as when, in "The
Cancer Hall of Fame," they visit Times Square, "proud to still elicit,
in our post-teen years, the lurid howls of chickenhawks as we pass on
by"; with Jenny Ann, "We're not working, but we enjoy playing the part"
Finally, Carroll and Jenny Ann feed off of each other, as when
they visit an "exhibition" of "various plastic molds of life-sized human
bodies," each of which "showed the spreading of tumors, cancerous tumors,
upon certain vital organs." Their friend Roger, who has taken them to
this "exhibition," is obsessed with the spectacle. Jenny Ann and Carroll
flee, as horrified at Roger's fixation as they are at the diseased "representations."
"We didn't say a word all the way downtown, and wound up at my place
instead of hers. She didn't want to see Roger when he returned. We fucked
with the slow, long strokes that shut away fear" (8-9).
However, Jenny Ann quickly disappears from Forced Entries
(she appears again, only in name, later in the diary, notably in "Rock
and Roll" ), and Carroll is on his own. He continues to prowl the
streets, immersed in its decadence, visiting a dealer and two drag queens
(10-12), and reliving "the first night I spent in Times Square" tailing
a prostitute (12). As Carroll notes, "You must be alone to achieve this
wonderment, as the others, passing by you, must be anonymous. That is
the key word. . . . Here nobody calls your name; they only point their
finger, then move it, slowly but without caution, toward its own end"
(13-14). But this anonymity and independence also abolishes Carroll's
sense of security. Anonymity means that his finger must move
to its own end, and that he must see himself as clearly as he sees his
world. As he realized in The Basketball Diaries in his "end of
L.S.D. era" entry, such close scrutiny finds him entirely "ALONE" (BBD
185). This realization is terrifying because, in a sense, his "freedom"
and the "wonderment" of anonymity are closing in on him.
When Carroll compares poetry, drugs, and basketball in "The Price
You Pay," he is reflecting directly upon the choices he made in The
Basketball Diaries; choices which opened up the world to him but
which now leave him flailing in the face of his own boundless freedom
and potential. In The Basketball Diaries, Carroll looked equally
to basketball, drugs, and writing, all of which offered alternative
realms of experience from the "street scene," allowed him to explore
different aspects of himself and enjoy new experiences, and all of which
provided an aesthetic sense of value and order. But during the course
of that book, basketball fell by the wayside, leaving Carroll with a
choice between drugs and writing, the two least absolute members of
Grasping for a sense of security, Carroll realizes that poetry
has, in many ways, become his new drug, and that it's perhaps even more
dangerous than heroin. That is, while heroin opens up new vistas of
perception for him, it also acts as a source of security, slowing down
and clarifying his visions for him. On the other hand, while poetry
gives him a "high" similar to heroin, broadens his perceptions, and
imposes a sense of order upon these perceptions, it also forces Carroll
to look closely and critically into himself; poetry is a "forced entry"
into his deepest needs, fears, and weaknesses. Hence, if he looks too
closely, he threatens to shatter the comfortable sense of self which
imposes coherence on his chaotic existence.
Because of this threat, Carroll describes the ravages of poetry
in the paradoxical terms of drug use and abuse:
I fucked up. I sit here with my liver and kidneys vibrating
from uncertainty in every direction. Poetry can unleash a terrible
fear. I suppose it is the fear of possibilities, too many possibilities,
each with its own endless set of variations. It's like looking
too closely and too long into a mirror; soon your features distort,
then erupt. You look too closely into your poems, or listen
too closely to them as they arrive in whispers, and the features
inside you--call it heart, call it mind, call it soul--accelerate
out of control. They distort and they erupt, and it is one strange
pain. You realize, then, that you can't attempt breaking down
too many barriers in too short a time, because there are as
many horrors waiting to get in at you as there are parts of
yourself pushing to break out, and with the same, or more, fevered
While both drugs and poetry are capable of producing beautiful visions,
both also have the potential to destroy him should he overindulge himself.
That is, just as an overdose of heroin could kill him, it is equally
possible that, should he look too closely into himself through poetry,
he will find a "street punk" and an unfulfilled, "disturbed adult" staring
back at him.
Furthermore, he is equally addicted to drugs and poetry: where
he is dependent physically upon heroin, he is dependent mentally and
spiritually upon writing. The fact is, in Forced Entries, Carroll
has chosen to be a poet and must commit himself to that identity. He
must accept the responsibility of this decision, which is to both fulfill
the potential he has defined for himself as well as risk seeing the
horrors inside himself. This implies that, in many ways, Carroll must
master the "presence of a cheetah" in his writing, just as he did with
basketball, in the face of chaos. This requires self-consciousness,
grace, an intensity of vision capable of breaking though its own barriers,
the courage to accept and explore all of the possibilities poetry opens
up, and above all else, control.
The problem is that Carroll is in no position to accept this challenge:
he has no control and he is afraid of what awaits him should he break
down too many barriers. The intensity of vision poetry requires must,
by definition, create endless possibilities, all of which must be explored;
furthermore, this vision is bound to reveal aspects of Carroll which
are embarrassing, painful, and ugly. Finally, Carroll's poetic vision
creates so much freedom that it removes all the comfortable boundaries,
whether they be physical, mental, or spiritual, leaving nothing but
infinite potential for him to fulfill and chaos to make sense of.
Carroll's only means of control are drugs: they are his comfortable
routine, his security blanket, and his "wife," to use Lou Reed's motif
in "Heroin." Without drugs, Carroll is left flailing in the void. Drugs
have become his only source of security against the uncertainty poetry
creates; the two are inseparable. As he continues the entry, however,
it becomes clear that, at least on some level, he wants and needs to
look into himself. In spite of the dangers, he wants to force an entry
So you take what the muse gives, and try not to force it.
You knock down one barricade at a time, making sure no more
is behind them than you can handle, making sure they don't double
up on you. You take drugs, perhaps, to calm things down but
all the while you know that whatever poetry gives out, you must
pay back eventually, with an incredible interest added on. Take
my word for it, the muse, in one form or another, will be around
to collect. The price you pay for drugs is a small pink simian
who enjoys interlocking his twenty digits around your spine
in a slowly tightening grip. But at least you are dealing with
a pain fierce enough for you to understand, to endure. The subtle
art of poetry carries a more subtle pain.
The fact is, Carroll knows it is his duty to break down barriers, and
that the horrors he finds behind them are the price he must pay to abide
by his own "punk" code of honesty, integrity, courage, and self-awareness.
Because his code is at stake, the price is somehow worth it. In
spite of the negative imagery permeating Carroll's analysis, he clearly
indicates that "the muse" has something valuable to offer, and that
is the poetic vision itself. He is, after all, willing to "take what
the muse gives," and to pay the price the muse demands in return, which
comes in increments of possibilities to fulfill as well as the negative
aspects of himself he undoubtedly will uncover. But the irony is that,
throughout "The Downtown Diaries," Carroll is unable to pay the price.
Rather than breaking down barriers with his own art and looking closely
(forcing his entry) into himself, he tries to "force it" through his
forced entry into the art scene. As a result, his attempts to authenticate
his artistic vision alienate his muse and blind him to himself; he is,
therefore, left unable to fulfill his potential.
For Carroll, this is where his decision to be a poet becomes a
matter of doubt. Is it better to fulfill his potential as an artist
in obscurity, or to slight his vision and become an authentic, officially
sanctioned Artist? The one thing of which he is certain is that, no
matter which route he chooses, it would have been much easier to have
stuck to basketball:
I shouldn't complain. When I say I "fucked up," what I mean
is that I'm sitting here watching the NBA All-Star Game on TV
and I'm watching guys I used to seriously abuse on the court
scoring double figures now against the best in the game. Ergo,
I fucked it up. I should have stayed an athlete, body well-tuned,
cruising around with my accountant in a Porsche, maroon and
chrome. More important, with basketball there's always only
one direction: to the cylinder on the fiberglass rectangle.
And you don't have to aim. If you do, you're off.
Poetry has too many variations. Mr. Frost was right about
one thing: there are always promises to keep, and variations
on that theme. With basketball you can correct your own mistakes,
immediately and beautifully, in midair. (15-16)
While Carroll specifically refers to Frost's "Stopping by Woods on
a Snowy Evening," he is by extension alluding to "The Road Not Taken."
In The Basketball Diaries, he played basketball with Lew Alcindor,
aka Kareem Abdul Jabbar (BBD 115); in fact, Carroll claims he taught
Kareem the "sky hook" (Graustark 81). Carroll was an all-star
basketball player: he could make a basket with his eyes closed. The
fact is, basketball might have been an easy route to stardom, yet Carroll
opted for the road less traveled, choosing poetry over basketball. Now
he must accept the uncertainty, as well as the obligations and endless
possibilities of that choice.
"The Price You Pay" leads directly into a series of diaries describing
Carroll's involvement in the art scene, hinting that he has decided
to validate himself as member of the art community, rather than begin
satisfying his responsibilities as an artist. The most salient characteristics
of these diaries are that, first, Carroll nearly forgets about the responsibilities
he has toward his poetry. Second, in his rendezvous with members of
the art scene, he is simultaneously compliant--he "plays the game,"
as he is expected to do, and absorbs everything he can--yet he also
views the experience in terms of his own street sensibility. Similarly,
while he is star struck by all the Great Names he meets, he also feels
somewhat threatened by them and put off by their "respectable" facades;
thus, he tries to bring these people (Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg,
for example) down to earth.
In the first "art scene" entry, "Invitation to the Dance," Carroll
meets Edwin Denby, who is "considered by many to be the greatest living
critic of dance, both classical and modern. . . . But what impresses
me is that he has the most generous intellect I've ever come in contact
with" (15). Most importantly, Carroll's conversation with Denby is a
prime example of Carroll's humor: as he illustrates their nearly opposite
ways of looking at the world, he pokes fun at the notion of intellectual
analysis and at his own street sensibility. Carroll asks Denby about
"the story concerning the time he and Willem de Kooning were attacked
by a butterfly in broad daylight on the streets of New York City." The
idea amuses Carroll: "'It would have been a strange ending to de Kooning's
career,' I said, sort of giggling, 'being blinded by a vicious butterfly.'"
Denby, on the other hand, sees the situation differently: "It would
have been a horrible tragedy!"
Denby goes on to explain, in detail, the exact nature of the vicious
butterfly, including its species, diet, habitat and so on. Denby concludes,
"So you see, if these butterflies can take on a crocodile, then why
not a poor poet and a painter on Seventh Avenue?" Such intellectual
analysis catches Carroll's street sense off guard; as he puts it, "I
was astounded by the rap; so much so, that it prevented me from asking
if the little pest has escaped unharmed, or if it was swatted down and
squashed underfoot by a furious Dutch abstract expressionist."
While Carroll jokes about such scenarios, he realizes his practical,
street-wise view lacks Denby's intellectual angle, a definite necessity
in the elite society of artists. Hence, Carroll is compliant and eager
to absorb all he can from Denby. Likewise, Denby, as a representative
of the intellectual-art scene, is eager to bestow some of his intellect
upon Carroll and invites him to the ballet. As Carroll remarks, "I knew
that this jaunt to the ballet was Edwin's way of instilling some culture
into my street sensibilities." Clearly, Carroll is aware that he is
being "trained," and is at least somewhat willing to comply. He also
knows he's being used to a certain extent, just as he was used by coaches
and basketball scouts in The Basketball Diaries, to feed other
people's egos. As in the cases of Coach Lefty and Benny Greenbaum, Denby
is gay, and Carroll "knew that [Denby] enjoyed being seen at these events
with good-looking young men"; but unlike the Diaries, "for these
reasons, I didn't want to embarrass him by showing up like some dirtbag."
As in The Basketball Diaries, Carroll accepts his position
in the art society and learns its protocol very quickly, but still plays
the game on his own terms. Upon his arrival at the New York State Theater,
he "surveyed the complex of carefully lit buildings comprising Lincoln
Center," and in an appropriately intellectual manner observes: "Mussolini-style
architecture, like the Tombs down on Center Street." He describes the
outfit he dons to avoid looking like a "dirtbag" in similar terms: "I
was wearing my well-cut dress-up corduroy trousers (if they cost more
than fifty dollars, I refuse to call them pants), and a matching velvet
jacket. . . . Very spiffy, if I do say so myself" (17). Carroll further
explains that it was Bill Berkson's "charitable gesture" of giving these
clothes to him that "made it possible for me to look so resplendent
as Edwin and I were escorted to our box" (18).
Carroll accepts his marginality, and his status as an adornment,
as a matter of course, simply choosing to make himself as presentable
as possible and absorb all the "culture" and intellect he can. Nevertheless,
Carroll is uncultured and "street," and he enjoys that identity; the
major problem lies in merging the two halves of his double life. After
the ballet, he "made it over to the East Side to see what was happening
at Max's," where he finds Jackie Curtis, who gives him a blow job in
the back alley. Thus, in this same diary entry, Carroll has one foot
in high culture and one in low. He gets a blow job from a transvestite
while fantasizing about a prima ballerina. He praises
George Balanchine, "the maestro himself," and sees "the ballet through
his eyes as well as Edwin's," but also observes that
Jackie is underrated at everything she does. I suppose she's
best known as an actress and a playwright, but she's got endless
talents in other areas as well. Some people have this bias against
her, thinking everything she does is just a gimmick, just because
Jackie is actually a man in drag. . . . I've spent many wonderful
nights with her at Max's, as she's talked of her dreams of Scandinavia
and a sex change.
In his surreal juxtaposition of Jackie's male and female identities,
Carroll reveals his ability to accept and find beauty in both "halves"
of his double life. While this humanizes his experience, it does nothing
to gain him acceptance in the respectable world; he is still on the
outside looking in. (After all, it is Jackie Curtis and not Patricia
McBride giving him the blow job.) This discrepancy is the primary source
of his humor, which is by and large aimed at himself. Carroll pokes
fun at the most serious of situations, and finds (usually absurd) meaning
in the most meaningless situations at his own expense. For example,
the Patricia McBride fantasy ends abruptly as Carroll looks down and
Jackie had a monstrous cock! . . . . I made myself as presentable
as possible and returned through the rear door. Jackie followed
me, asking what was wrong. Ha! As if she had to ask. Didn't
she know how outright embarrassing it is for a man to get a
blow job from a woman whose cock is bigger than his own? (20)
In "A Vicious Nod," Carroll carries this a step further. Awaking
from "a rather baroque nod . . . something about a furious priest in
one of those sack-like miniskirts chasing after me with a wooden stake
and a sledgehammer," he discovers he is bleeding profusely--from where
he doesn't know: "It was running down my chest, running rapidly, when
I first saw it, through the damp crevices of cotton, breaking off across
my thighs in all directions." Horrified, he wonders, "Is it my eye?
Oh god, blood from the ears? My nose?" Since the blood won't quit on
its own, Carroll continues,
I move quickly to the bathroom, holding a copy of Rilke's
Duino Elegies under my chin to prevent red lines from
forming on the plush, white carpeting. . . . By the time I reach
the tile floor of the bathroom, I have riddled Rilke's third
Elegy with six violent stains. I blot it with toilet tissue
and slide it back across the carpet. (20-21).
Here we find Carroll's version of a literary allusion, as Rilke's "Third
Elegy" begins: "It is one thing to sing the beloved. Another, alas,
/ that obscure, guilty river-god of the blood" (Rilke 43). As if all
of this were merely a bad joke, at a horrifying moment when Carroll
fears he may be dying, he playfully takes Rilke's metaphorical "river-god"
and covers it with his own, real blood . . . and blots it with toilet
Carroll's tendency to "humanize" situations, to bring the lofty
down to earth through humor, is also the means by which he excuses his
entrance into the art scene. In the next diary, Carroll receives a message
reading: "Hope you have not forgotten that the big 'G' is in town for
the night. . ." Carroll drops everything; "I even forgot about the connection
arriving with my goods . . . who cares about drugs when THE poet is
waiting at your doorstep?" (24). "THE poet" is Allen Ginsberg, and though
Carroll is obviously star-struck, Ginsberg will not appear as some minor
god in Carroll's diary:
I turn the corner of 10th and Third to a comical scene: on
an otherwise vacant street, darting glances left and right with
the alacrity of petty crime paranoia, is the hirsute master
himself, the leader of the pack, tossing pebbles from the window
on the ground floor. "It's the window around back, you fucking
juvenile delinquent," I whisper, having snuck up on his back
with felony feet. "By the way," I add, "anyone ever tell you
throw like a girl?" (25)
Carroll doesn't stop here:
After heating up some tea and playing Allen The Who's new L.P.,
I show him a new poem of mine in the recent issue of Poetry
Mag. He keeps mumbling things like, "You've got some great
lines here, some really great 'haikus' within the overall work,
but what are you going to write when they throw us in the concentration
camps?" Terrific. Real solid literary criticism. I could have
gotten better poetic advice from Leon Trotsky.
The point for Carroll is not to demean or degrade Ginsberg, but
to show that Ginsberg, the Great Writer and "leader of the pack" of
Great Artists, is not a god, and that Ginsberg's sophisticated demeanor
is merely the respectable veneer of a Great Artist. In essence, by bringing
Ginsberg down to Earth, Carroll humanizes the entire art scene for himself.
That is, Carroll must pierce the art scene's facade and reveal the reality
hidden beneath in order to retain his own authenticity as an artist;
he cannot join the scene for the sake of its glitzy appearance. As he
says before going on to the ultimate clincher in "humanizing" Ginsberg,
Carroll says, "I like Allen; I like to break down the solemn facade
and reach the goof heart."
But the clincher does come, so to speak. At bedtime, relieved to
find Ginsberg doesn't have "plans" for him, Carroll leads Ginsberg to
the master bedroom:
As I'm setting the alarm clock for Allen's early wake-up to
get out to the airport, I hear his voice behind me asking, "Hey,
what's this thing?" I turn around and gasp. In his hands the
poet is holding Bill B.'s heavy-duty, plug-directly-into-wall-socket-because-batteries-are-not-enough-to-power-this-mother
Carroll goes on to "explain to Allen its functions. As I detail the
matter, a great expression of sheer awe grows across Allen's face. 'You
think I might try it?' he asks, eyes bulging at the intricacy of its
engineering." Thus we have the title of the entry, "The Poet and the
Vibrator." Ginsberg tries out the gadget and,
as I lay down to read I hear the familiar hum of the machine
at its number one setting. Within minutes, numero dos . . .
then the full roar of high speed. I hear a yell from the bedroom,
a big loud yell. "Holy shit," I jump up, " his heart couldn't
take it." I dash back. It's not a pretty sight. Apparently his
scream was one of the ecstatic variety. There was jism everywhere
. . . he hit the bottom of the sleeping loft above him, for
God's sake. It was hanging from a beam like a mini-stalactite.
"Pretty good, boss," I looked down, "that's what I call thrust."
But The Poet had a look of horror on his face . . . he was wrestling
with the vibrator like it was a fucking bobcat. . . . (28)
Appropriately, Carroll refers to Ginsberg as "The Poet" in this most
"Invitation to the Dance" and "The Poet and the Vibrator" are representative
of a number of diaries in which Carroll discusses the art scene, with
Andy Warhol, the Factory, and AWT BAG (Andy Warhol's Theater: Boys to
Adore Galore) being among his favorite subjects.
The underlying principles are the same: the "art crowd" attempts to "train"
Carroll to proper artistic etiquette; conversely, Carroll admires members
of the art crowd to a certain extent, but attempts to undermine
Everyone thinks The Factory is constant orgies and Marlon
Brando coming in just to say hello, but the truth is it's boring
as an empty bag and the only celebrity I've seen in the past
two weeks has been fucking Donovan, for Christ's sake. Of course,
everyone who graces these portals is a "star," but their fifteen
minutes were up long ago. (33)
When Carroll began working odd jobs at The Factory in 1969, it
had essentially passed its heyday, having become a sterile fortress
of sorts. Carroll notes that:
The old Factory up in the West Forties was actually a wild
scene, but since Andy took a bulldyke bullet in the rib this
place has about seventeen doors on the elevator, a receptionist
who was no doubt an abused child and takes every opportunity
to even it up, and security cameras running up the ass. (33-34)
On June 3, 1968, Valerie Solanas entered the original "Silver Factory"
(located on the fifth floor of an ex-hat factory at 231 East 47th Street),
pulled a gun and shot Warhol several times, nearly killing him (Bockris
188, 298). After that, the Factory was never the same. Warhol relocated
the Factory to 33 Union Square, which was more like an office than an
atelier (290). Furthermore, because of his near-assassination, Warhol
became paranoid, increasingly secluding himself. The result was that
he degenerated into a mere figurehead, delegating his "authority" to
assistants Paul Morrissey and Gerard Malanga (316).
To Carroll, Warhol's detachment from his art and his obsession
with security seems hypocritical, and Gloria Excelsior (aka Brigid Polk),
"one of Andy Warhol's superstars," is yet another example of Warholdom.
"Gloria is a speed freak, in the true sense of the word," and has endeavored
to cure Carroll of his heroin addiction. Carroll brings her to earth
quickly, noting that, whereas "You'd think she'd have wasted into one
of those arcane, babbling exclamation points with shoes by this time,"
in fact, Gloria "has to be, let's not mince words, the fattest speed
junkie in the history of pharmaceuticals" (FE 29). Carroll likes Gloria
but will not allow her to be "better" than him. He goes on to critique
her "artistic endeavor, which consists of taping her telephone calls,
[which] I might mention that Warhol does as well. When I say 'as well,'
I do not mean it in a qualitative sense, since it is difficult to distinguish
merit when using such a medium" (31).
While Carroll's critiques of the Warhol scene are often unkind,
they also enable Carroll to analyze the phoniness of the scene and his
position within it. For example, Warhol telephones,
and realizing I wasn't stoned on that bullshit drug, he didn't
have a word to say. Usually he won't allow me to consider getting
off the line for half an hour, but I'm not of any use to him
in my natural sublimity. . . . I feel like a fucking handkerchief
just back from the laundry--nobody's interested in you if you're
not filled with snot. (32-33)
Carroll is useful to Warhol only when "filled with snot"; conversely,
at The Factory he is acceptable only when his decadence is well-concealed:
"Despite Paul Morrissey's
strict anti-drug edicts, I'm kept on as long as I wear long-sleeved shirts"
(34). In other words, Carroll lives two separate roles: private and public.
The excesses of his "underground" life are fascinating so long as Warhol
can use them, and so long as Carroll doesn't get too close.
Carroll sets up an intriguing comparison in "The Art of Using,"
between artists like Jackson Pollock and Frank O'Hara versus Andy Warhol,
showing the basic hypocrisy of the latter. As Carroll explains:
The distinction is simple. With Pollock or Frank, it was the
private struggle from within which created that incredible tension,
the drama of their human voices overlapping, the force of their
wills conflicting . . . with grace or complete vulgarity. With
phone-tapping the "art" is dictated by the merits of the conversation.
Sure, it can be funny or interesting for a while, but eventually
it's always going to be boring. That's because it is, by the
nature of the medium, bereft of the privacy which is essential
for that conflict, that struggle of forces to ignite into something
beyond itself. (31)
Unlike Pollock and O'Hara, the energy driving Warhol's art derives
entirely from the subject's suffering, not from a "private struggle
from within" on the part of the artist. Warhol remains loftily above,
feeding vicariously on others' pain and decadence rather than experiencing
it for himself. Carroll summarizes the situation in "Currency":
It's all so on the surface that everything just slides along.
It's like rain on a tin roof, or air raising up one of Andy's
silver pillows. The feelings are so shallow that there never
is time for drifts to accumulate and slow things down. Even
the boredom has no depth; it's just a stamped impression of
the continuously subdued. The poles are greased so thoroughly
with bullshit and artifice that depth hasn't a chance. (34-35)
While Carroll is aware of the Factory's, and by extension the entire
New York City art scene's, superficiality, he nevertheless immerses
himself in it and, in doing so, loses track of himself. This "losing
track" is comprised of Carroll's blindly following the "scene" and descending
deeper and deeper into drug abuse. In this sense, Carroll's obsession
with the laser beam mirrors his adventures within the glitzy art scene,
and the title of the entry in which the laser beam is introduced is
quite telling: "Robert Smithson Does Some Impressive Talking To an Idiot
Who Just Trailed a Beam of Light." The "idiot" is Carroll, and after
blindly chasing his dream (the ephemeral beam of light) in the art scene,
Carroll approaches a vague awareness that this venture is not only futile,
but hypocritical as well.
The laser beam, which "runs seven blocks in every odd direction,
winding up, finally, on the wall in the backroom of Max's itself," has
Carroll running around the vicinity of Max's Kansas City and St. Mark's
with his nose in the air:
I resolved to trace it to its source, something which no one
has been able to do. . . . I picked up the beam, red and beautiful
as a tube of liquid roses, in the usual spot and began to backtrack
from there. On 23rd Street I noticed that it turned, heading
off a mirror five flights up a building facade on the southwest
corner, in the direction of Lexington Avenue. (41-42)
He continues to follow the beam as it reflects off more mirrors, splitting
in opposite directions. Says Carroll, "I was ready, however, to match
my determination with its creator's considerable wit, and I ran back down
to 23rd to follow the downtown light from where it had originally split
in two." In the end, the beam "went right back over to Park Avenue South
at 21st Street, reuniting with the original beam . . . one block from
where I started this glamour-filled quest."
Likewise, after all his frantic running through the labyrinth of
the art scene and Andy Warhol's Factory on a "glamor-filled quest" to
become part of the scene, Carroll finds himself right back where he
started. Like the laser beam, the art scene looks beautiful on the outside,
and seems to emanate from some omnipotent source and hold great secrets.
In the end, the glamor of the art scene is merely a complex, glossy
facade set up as a front to conceal and to prevent anyone from discovering
that its source is one ordinary, solitary human artist.
Perhaps most significant in this respect is the conversation which
ensues between Carroll and Robert Smithson, who warns Carroll of the
folly in trailing a beam of light. Importantly, Smithson is an earthworks
artist whose "reputation was growing lately by leaps and bounds" (42),
in spite of the fact that he did not rely upon the "establishment's"
sanction of his art. Smithson's advice regarding the laser beam, and
by extension the art scene, is simple: "It's just a labyrinth, . . .
and like those libraries in medieval cloistered abbeys, it is a labyrinth
which is not supposed to be penetrated. So give it up." With uncharacteristic
naivete, Carroll explores the implications of this analogy:
those libraries were constructed . . . as labyrinths because
the abbots in those times were in genuine fear of the wrong
kind of knowledge reaching the novices or, for that matter,
anyone beside the abbot himself and his librarian. What, then,
was the analogy he was making? After all, all one would find
at the other end of the laser was some artist's studio with
a contraption filled with various gases--most likely, since
it was a red beam, krypton.
"That's it," says Smithson, "[picking] up on the cheap pun, 'krypton
. . . why it must lead to Superman and his fortress of solitude'" (42-43).
While the two laugh about this, the joke is on Carroll; Smithson's
point is quite serious. The fact is, the art scene is set up in such
a way as to exclude undesirables such as Jim Carroll. However, while
Carroll perhaps already knows there is nothing behind the elaborate
facade other than "some artist's studio," the maze of glitter prevents
him from seeing that reality for himself. The laser beam, and all art,
exudes from the solitary efforts of ordinary (though visionary) individuals.
Yet because Carroll is blinded by the glitter, the gem hidden inside
the maze may just as well be Superman in his fortress of solitude.
Appropriately, immediately following this diary is an entry entitled
I've been playing constantly with the conversation I had with
Smithson the other night, and I realize the analogy of an artist's
loft as a medieval abbey fits Andy's Factory like white on rice.
. . . These are cloistered walls, secure from all except, perhaps,
those who might increase the coffers with gold or art.
Since Carroll works at The Factory, he innocently feels he is part
of this abbey: "like any young monk in any given abbey, I feel its continual
sense of intrigue, and confess to the pleasures therein" (43-46). The
question is, in what capacity does he belong, if admittance is based
upon the ability to "increase the coffers"? And what, exactly, makes
him believe he has been accepted inside the cloistered walls in more
than the capacity of, say, a janitor?
Ironically, soon after this, the seedier side of Carroll's double
life comes to light, and he becomes even less acceptable. However, he
has been so busy wandering through the labyrinth of the art scene and
seeking the secrets it conceals that he failed to notice. Just as JuJu
in The Basketball Dairies informs Carroll that he's got the "junk
halo" (BBD 206), in "A Situation Worsens," D.M.Z. (aka Larry Rivers)
"mentioned that my normal iridescent paleness is gradually taking on
a greenish tint." Says D.M.Z., "It's a bit like one of those radium-laced
bulbs that hang on a string from the light fixture in the bathroom;
you know, they sort of glow in the dark" (FE 50).
When an observation like this comes from Larry Rivers (D.M.Z.),
Carroll must take heed. As Carroll remarked in a later interview, "I
loved Larry. . . . If there was anybody from around the art scene who
had an influence on me, it was Larry. This was a real cool dude. I even
started to imitate his walk. He's the only guy who ever had an effect
on me in the art world" (Flippo 35). For Carroll, Larry Rivers is the
epitome of "cool," and when Rivers points out that Carroll is not
cool, Carroll decides that "Seriously, something has got to be done
about this situation. Tomorrow I start to consider variations on this
theme. I don't know how much longer I can hold my sanity above sea level
with my life these days nothing but one long, unyielding comic interlude"
All along, Carroll has been laughing it up, poking fun at his own
marginality, corruption, and hypocrisy, but his situation simply is
not funny anymore. Yet the art scene still has a firm grip on him, and
his obsession with it has obscured the clarity of vision which might
otherwise free him from it. So long as he remains caught in the maze,
he is unable to face himself, and so long as he doesn't face himself
he will remain a prisoner of his own obsessions. Hence, "tomorrow" doesn't
arrive. Instead of doing something to pull himself out of the pit he
has dug for himself, Carroll falls deeper into his own trap until he
is forced to confront the monster he has become.
In "Meeting Andrea," the laser beam again comes into play. Carroll
is sitting in the back room of Max's "holding my hand up to the laser
beam, letting the light pass through. . . ," when Andrea Warhol "comes
up to me and leans into my ear, 'Wouldn't it be nice if we could pass
through the light, instead of the opposite, such as you are now experiencing?'"
(51). Carroll doesn't think "Andrea [has] it in her. She is the newest
of Andy's stable of wacked-out superstars."
Carroll replies, in the intellectually affected manner in which he has
"Then we would have to move at the speed of light, and the
first rule of the law of relativity is that, although one can
move at 99.9 percent of that speed, it is impossible to equal
the speed itself, since that is the point of relativity itself."
I was quite pleased with myself for spitting this out with such
alacrity, as ripped-out-of-my-brain as I was, and slyly peered
around hoping someone at a nearby table had picked up the drift
and was as impressed as I was with myself. Nothing happening
there--they were all busy impressing someone else themselves.
Carroll is entirely caught up in his own pretentious rap and stoned
as well; hence, he is caught off guard when Andrea says, "I know a faster
speed." But Carroll can't see her; she is merely an object, "amazingly
sexy, with a body that would fit balanced in your hands like a boxed
edition of Proust," and he certainly isn't going to let her outdo him.
Thus, he tries his old trick of bringing his "opponent" down to his
level: "'What would that be?' I asked. I was switching gears . . . forget
about being a conceited asshole . . . I was trying to get over on her."
Andrea replies, "The speed of death." As Andrea goes on to explain,
however, Carroll stoops to his lowest depths: "How would you like to
continue this later, come home with me, I mean . . .?" "Not tonight,"
she replies, "Why don't you come see me tomorrow night . . . I live
right on Park South, right up the street, about eight . . . no, five-to-eight
. . p.m., natch. You'll see something special" (51-52).
Getting ready for his big date with Andrea in "Meeting Andrea Again,"
Carroll's approach is similar to his date with Edwin Denby at the ballet,
but he emphasizes his own hypocrisy and pretentiousness. He exaggerates
his obsession with proper appearances: "I'm frantically overturning
piles of clothing, trying to find something worthy of a subtle pose
as I enter Andrea's place tonight for our coming hours of good times,
lust, defiance, high hi-jinx, sex-approaching-a-new-decade." And once
he has found an appropriate outfit, Carroll heads for Andrea's apartment,
again following the laser beam he has "grown obsessed with":
I want to stick my hand in its path like I do in the back room
of Max's . . . but it's five flights up and beyond my reach.
The higher it gets the more it obsesses me. I notice it passes
right by the address which Andrea gave me. And now, looking
down on pavement level for the first time since I turned
onto the street, I notice something else. It's not reassuring.
Andrea has committed suicide. "She's dead. She jumped and she's lying
there naked and dead and covered with a blanket that had been leaning
a few minutes before against a spare tire in some cop car" (54).
As if to remind him of the dry dive cases in The Basketball
Diaries and "Poem of Arrivals," Andrea's suicide immediately jolts
Carroll back to reality: she has shown him, through her suicide,
the reality he has been neglecting. While he was pretentiously trailing
the ephemeral laser beam, his vision became distorted and his ability
to transform life into art atrophied. The fact is, real life happened
without him, and Andrea's bloody body lying lifeless on the street is
a grim reminder of his priorities. Emilio, "a Factory sycophant and
quasi-aristocratic-utility-man" also on the scene, "asks me if I had
a date with her and I tell him I did. Then he goes on that he too was
supposed to meet her at eight, and he points out seven or nine other
Max's habitues who are hovering around and explains that she had made
dates with all of them for the same time."
With this event, Carroll slowly recognizes that he has become a
hypocrite himself, as shallow and unauthentic as the rest:
Why did she ask me to come five minutes before the others?
I imagine that she thought I was such an asshole, with my absolute
and overwhelming love of my own bullshit rap, that she wanted
to show me, before the others got there, something about a genuine
absolute--the absolute in action. I could talk all night
about relativity and the speed of light, but she was going to
prove her point, in complete and enduring terms, about
her notion--that crazed, yet beautiful, phrase, "the speed of
death." And why did she decide to jump before I or the rest
of the boys . . . had arrived? Was it charity for me . . . sparing
me the sight? More likely it was just disregard. Why should
she think of me at all in the face of her trip into the passing
of light? Why did she ask me at all? A laugh? I'm laughing so
hard it's becoming very difficult to breathe. I go home and
stare in the big mirror. I see too much of myself there. (55)
Again, Carroll's situation simply is not funny anymore; after this
his finger remains unfailingly directed at himself, and he becomes progressively
more horrified at what he has become. In "Ending the Spell," Gloria
takes a Polaroid photograph of him as he sleeps: "'You look like a Modigliani,'
she said. . . . 'I feel like shit with bad teeth,' I muttered." Carroll
watches the Polaroid image
slowly surface over sixty seconds with a sober scrutiny that
made it suddenly unique. In that literal minute, all these strange
emotions unclogged like fat-laden arteries and rushed to my
vision. . . . Then the features of my naked body began to appear.
It seemed to take longer than usual for the picture to reach
a finished clarity, as if its subject's pulse had barely existed.
I could hardly stand to look. The ribs stuck out like the inner
shell of a toy boat. The cheeks were sunken deep enough to hide
pins within the crevices. The eyes had the look of a pathologist's
wet dream. I was not going to allow that person to continue
as me any longer. (56-57)
This is the last straw. Carroll realizes that, because of drugs,
he is nearly dead. Hence, he breaks the "cycle of speed and downers
I've been running on with Gloria the past summer" (57), and begins to
face the reality he has overlooked for so long. However, Carroll still
has more of himself to face, and some of it is good. That is, as Carroll
continues to move within the art world's society, he begins to regain
his sense of purpose as an artist. Furthermore, he begins to recognize
the posturing he has perpetrated through his obsessive desire to be
part of the art scene.
With this recognition, in "Tiny Tortures" he looks back on his
day as a performance artist at age 17, poking fun at the pretentiousness
of the scenario, and the grandiose ambitions of his fellow artists and
art scene habitues. For example,
an art critic and mediocre poet covered the windows of the
place with long strips of black tape, forming x's. Some pompous
geek behind me was hailing the wonderful statement it made.
"It has a lovely negative capability," he informed his girlfriend.
I began laughing so hard people surrounded me, thinking I was
doing my performance. (61)
Carroll's three-minute performance consists of spraying a cockroach
with Raid, with the audience watching it struggle to its death. "The
audience loved it," Carroll says:
The following week, in both The East Village Other and
The Village Voice, I was singled out as a stone rave
in their reviews of the show. One referred to the "keen, trenchant
commentary which the piece made on urban decay." The other called
it "a non-verbal demonstration on the horrors of Vietnam."
I agree. All that is exactly what flashed through my mind
as I bagged the insect in Headquarters' bathroom that morning.
And, I might add, there was a large dose of negative capability
as well. It just goes to show you how random are our gains in
the Performance (a.k.a. Conceptual) Art trade. Fact is, the
only point I was making is the point you get . . . then as now.
Carroll has begun to claim his own identity and his own art form, both
of which are rooted in the concrete world of cockroaches and Raid, not
in the artificial, intellectualized, "high-culture" interpretations
of reality so revered by the art scene.
Carroll's reintroduction to reality encompasses all aspects of
his world. In contrast with his evaluation of himself as a "good-looking
young [man]" in "Invitation to the Dance," Carroll now describes himself
in "Christmas with D.M.Z." as "a twig-like humanoid with translucent
skin" (89). Furthermore, Carroll begins looking at his marginal status
in the art scene in a new light. He is much more humble now and, instead
of making himself look good at the expense of others, as he did with
Warhol, and Ginsberg in "The Poet and the Vibrator," Carroll now realizes
that he simply is not acceptable in the art scene. While he pokes
fun at himself, the scenarios he describes are clearly humiliating.
Meeting Bob Dylan for the first time, he extends his hand for a
handshake; "Dylan, whose hand is close enough to shake, twists his mouth
into a cipher and mumbles a tangy, 'How yer doin',' leaving my hand
hanging somewhere between either end of Ed Sanders' moustache" (66).
Likewise, at the same event, Carroll meets Russian poet Voznesensky,
whose handshake "nearly buckled my knees and elicited a small whimper
from my humbled self, leaving me only to mumble, 'Wonderful . . . simply
wonderful,' over and over until somebody shoved me out of the way" (68-69).
Finally, when he meets William S. Burroughs, "the one literary
idol of mine whom I had yet to meet" (105), for the first time, Burroughs
mistakes him for the bartender (104). This, however, gives Carroll an
excuse for conversation, and he captivates Burroughs with a story of
how his father worked for Dutch Schultz during Prohibition (Burroughs
wrote a book about Dutch Schultz: The Last Words of Dutch Schultz
). Burroughs seems quite interested in Carroll's tale, adding,
at the story's end, that "Schultz was mainly into policy anyway . .
. He didn't get stung as bad as some of the others after Repeal . .
. just a matter of transition. And the Dutchman knew transition." Then
Carroll does it: "'Yep, never put all your eggs in one basket,' I blurted
out, realizing how utterly stupid it sounded the moment it dropped downward
off my lips" (106).
As Carroll accepts his status as an outsider and becomes more honest
with himself, he progressively distances himself from the art scene.
He analyzes it, trying to find the beauty lying latent within this world,
in a sense still trying to discover the source of the laser beam which
kept him so entranced. In "Central Park, Late Fall," Carroll strolls
through the park with Ted Berrigan, and the park transforms into a giant
canvas: "The trees we were approaching on the far side blazed with color.
A brighter orange snaked through the deep mauve, forming glyphs and
symbols, like brands burnt into the hide of some Druid beasts. They
were as enchanting as anything the museum had to offer" (71). Yet as
they "moved closer, the splendor yielded by distance was stripped away,
and we saw how the November wind and chill had taken its toll." Like
the art scene, "What had seemed full and overwhelming only two minutes
and three hundred yards earlier, now seemed barren and strained." Slowly,
it dawns upon Carroll that there is, indeed, nothing behind the glamor
of the art scene except an artist's vision.
Likewise, Carroll also steps back and evaluates his possibilities,
as an artist and as an individual. He begins to take responsibility
for himself and for his art, realizing that he is the source of his
own "laser beam." In "A Bag of Fruit," Carroll witnesses "a horrible
car accident at an East Side intersection," in which "The driver was
dead on impact; his fare was taken off in an ambulance" (100-101). Says
Carroll, "Violence is so terribly fast . . . the most perverse thing
about movies is the way they portray it in slow motion, allowing it
to be something sensuous . . . the viewer's lips slightly wet as the
scene plays out. Violence is nothing like that. It is lightning fast,
chaotic and totally intangible." He has been like the grocer weighing
a bag of fruit, who "never looked up, not even with the metallic sound
of impact, nor during the literal rain of glass shards landing within
ten feet of where he stood" (101); violence is the horrible reality
of the real world, yet Carroll has been blind to it. Even worse, he
has been oblivious to his own violence against himself and his art.
Carroll rediscovers the value of his writing when Deborah Duckster,
the debutante, puts "the dump" on him: "You draw up your ego not from
stains on a black satin sheet, but from the precision of the poem within
. . . the torturous, elegant process of each clean, white page fulfilled"
(99). For Carroll, the important thing to recognize is his potential
to purify the setbacks of everyday life through the filter of his poetic
vision. Transcendence comes not from outside, from associations with
a glitzy art scene or beautiful women; it comes from within himself.
Through writing, defeat is the material of victory; as an artist, Carroll
always has the potential to transform disaster and pain into triumph
via the artfulness of his pen.
Finally, Carroll faces the fact that in his pursuit of his own
ambitions he has not only imprisoned himself, but lost track of himself
as well. That is, while he was seeking the origin of the "laser beam"
of the art scene, he physically, psychologically, and spiritually lost
control of himself. His first step toward releasing himself physically,
after the initial recognition, is to get off of heroin; freeing himself
psychologically and spiritually is perhaps much more difficult. In order
to extricate himself from the harness of hypocrisy, he must get out
of New York:
New York has become like a used car held together by K-Y and
coat hangers; I've been thinking about unloading it and trading
it in for something with cleaner angles . . . maybe California
deserves a chance. . . . I need a more controlled environment;
I need to put the breaks on all this excess and all these variables.
The only certainty in my life these days . . . these years,
more accurately, is uncertainty: the uncertainty of rising with
the late sun twisting through broken blinds and the echo of
For him, New York has become sick and corrupt. It is made up of sirens
and broken blinds through which the sun twists, rather than beams, and
it is all held together by K-Y jelly and wire. He cannot see the beauty
of his city anymore. Considering the fact that his art is based upon
his vision of New York City, it is clear that he needs to find a new
way of seeing it. He must distance himself from the city to gain a new
He is finally beginning to recognize his writing for what it is:
the most important thing in his life. As he said in "The Price You Pay,"
writing is a scary profession: "Poetry can unleash a terrible fear.
I suppose it is the fear of possibilities, too many possibilities. It's
like looking too closely and too long into a mirror . . ." (14). However,
now he is prepared to tread the road less travelled: he is ready to
risk looking into himself and meeting the horrors inside; he is ready
to take his chances and fulfill whatever potential he has as an artist.
After all, the only thing holding him back is his allegiance to New
York, and "One thing's for certain: I have burned down this city in
my flesh, heart and spirit" (120).
He combs New York for something substantial upon which to build
his art: "I walk the street aimlessly, mugging my own depression with
the quick and ephemeral. Only the lines of architecture against the
shadowed sky in midtown calm me down, so I search like a thief for the
edges of buildings, sharpening themselves on sunlight" (116-17). But
Carroll is an outsider in his own city, a mere thief stealing impressions
from the skyline.
Carroll must reclaim himself from the art scene and the city, neither
of which care the least bit for him; like a spurned lover he must overcome
his desire for their intrigues. As when he reordered his priorities
when Deborah Duckster dumped him, so does he concern himself now. The
problem is that, in his affair with the art scene and New York City,
he has become so entangled in his own decorous posturing that he doesn't
know who he is anymore; he has become a fraud. "I don't know how to
undo what's been done. There is an untraceable knot in my head of false
facades I have set up . . . dummy corporations whose addresses lead
to no place but a mail-drop in some abandoned storefront, the windows
blank with whitewash." Furthermore, this pretense has depleted the "punk"
energy reserves which normally would keep him afloat: "There's no cool
left in me. The only resources I retain are a minimum of rage and controlled
madness, barely enough to offset the bullshit paraphernalia of art and
In his dealings with the art scene, Carroll has essentially repeated
the process he went through in The Basketball Diaries with heroin:
what was once a means to an artistic end now is an end in itself. That
is, Carroll's participation in New York's art scene initially seemed
to open up new possibilities for him as an artist, and he was able to
draw upon its energy for his own purposes. The problem is that he has
ended up spending so much his time trying to be part of the "scene"
that he is barely able to avoid being engulfed by it. He has thus lost
track of the reasons he was engaging in this balancing act in the first
place; he forgot that his intention was to be a Writer.
The fact is, if Carroll doesn't settle down he can't communicate
with himself, and if he can't communicate with himself he can't write:
I can't keep a steady style in my writing standing on these
shifting platforms of artifice and quick change. I try to fuse
my life and my work, to keep up with the tiresome dodging of
cars and drugs. But when you are walking such a thin wire above
such a chic and sleazy cosmopolitan abyss, you don't stop to
think. You can't stop. You just keep on walking, your feet bent
on the wire, intuition as your only balance. Lately, balance
is my job. I'm consumed by it. But how long is the wire?
The corrupt world he has previously been able to transcend by virtue
of his ability to see clearly and write about his perceptions now threatens
to swallow him up. So long as he continues his balancing act, he is
only fooling himself and limiting his own potential; only when he achieves
balance will he become an artist.
Furthermore, if part of his potential involves fusing his life
with his work, his exploration of himself has been constricted not only
by his rejection of himself but also, ironically, by his refusal to
move beyond the convenient haven of drug abuse. As with William Burroughs
and Arthur Rimbaud, drugs eventually defeated the goal Carroll was trying
to achieve. As Jennie Skerl says of Burroughs, "His life had been reduced
to a basic contradiction--duality of mind and body--which is the human
condition" (12-13). Likewise, with Carroll, heroin was a means to transcendence
in The Basketball Diaries, but now it has become a prison. Now
Carroll's artistic quest plays second fiddle to his attempts to remain
stoned simply to feel normal. Furthermore, in Forced Entries,
he has devoted at least an equal amount of energy toward concealing
this. Hence, by the time he decides to leave New York, his double life
has nearly evolved into schizophrenia: drugs have become a self-imposed
barrier between his Artist self, his public self, and his "street" self.
Because of this, drugs are actually closing more doors than they open.
Now he must be honest with himself and break free of his self-imposed
confines, either by accepting his heroin-addicted self or by creating
a new "real" Jim Carroll. He chooses the latter:
I'm sick of writing about dope, about drugs in every form.
I'm sick of recording the ups of indulgence, and sick of releasing
dispatches of misery via abstinence. I thought I could deal
with, perhaps even come to understand, my obsessions through
some strained eloquence. I thought I could eventually pierce
every veil through chance metaphor, but how many flowers can
serve as metaphors for that initial mingling of blood and water
encased in the barrel of a syringe? All the Laotian roses .
. . the Mariposa lilies, and now the hideous methadone I drink
each morning, the color of a clown's orange fright wig. (120-21)
In essence, Carroll has become a cartoon version of the "drugged-out
poet," and he has made a mockery of his own poetic vision. All the jokes
he has made at his own expense have become startlingly serious. As he
I can't attempt to write always in the hollow flux of desperation
and incipient terror. I try to cover this up, cower behind some
facade of humor, hoping that old Aristotle was right--that humor
will act as a catalyst to purify the tragic. But it can't go
on. My body is broke. I'm shitting where I eat. (114)
Literally, he has replaced the "magic" of heroin with methadone "the
color of a clown's orange fright wig," and where heroin once broke down
barriers for him, it now creates them. He cannot be free when his vision
is confined to endless identical drug metaphors.
Because of this, leaving New York represents Carroll's last-ditch
attempt to free himself and his writing from this self-imposed prison;
it is a drastic endeavor to distance himself from the forces he feels
have corrupted his clarity of vision: New York, heroin, and his frantic
lifestyle. In freeing himself, Carroll hopes to recapture his earlier
artistic vision, rejoin his life with his work, and find a new
way of seeing, a new basis for his vision which does not rely on drugs
or New York City.
When it comes down to the wire, Carroll must put his writing, and
thus himself, above all else. Both have been on the back burner for
a long time, with the result that, "instead of freeing myself through
language, the language itself has become a hostage, and the room where
we are held becomes smaller every day. The language needs room to maneuver.
Only without boundaries can the words transform into something beyond
themselves." Since the maneuvering of language and its transformation
into something beyond itself is the key to Carroll's own transcendence,
he must set his writing free; he needs new landscapes, words, and metaphors
upon which to base and explore his vision. Carroll's solution? "For
God's sake . . . California" (121).
"The Move to California" and "Back
to New York"
When Carroll left New York for California in 1974, he did so at
least partly because he felt the one-to-one relationship between his
life and his work had been severed. That is, if the definitive feature
of Carroll's writing is his ability to cut through the dross and get
to the heart of the matter, then his writing had lost its integrity
through his gradually becoming entangled in the dross himself. Somewhere
along the way, he lost control of his life and his clarity of vision,
and lost track of himself as well.
California offered a methadone withdrawal program "which actually
encourage[d] you to get off" heroin (Fissinger 44), so, following the
publication of Living at the Movies (1973), Carroll decided to
leave New York. Armed with a literary grant for subsistence, Carroll
moved to Bolinas, a remote artist community on the coast of Northern
California above San Francisco. As Carroll says in a later interview:
The final step to breaking the habit is feeling that you need
a second wind, that you can no longer sustain this level of
abuse. . . . I finally decided that there would be some advantages
to getting off junk, that I could start to see things from a
whole new perspective and with a new consciousness. It was as
simple as that--if my new head didn't satisfy me, I might have
gone back to shooting. (Milward 172)
Conquering heroin is, for Carroll, the first step toward finding a
new perspective and new consciousness, both in the way he lives his
life and in his writing. In many ways, Carroll is starting anew, attempting
to re-master what he called the "life of doing nothing" in The Basketball
Diaries, this time without drugs as a crutch . . . or a hindrance.
Since the California section of Forced Entries is brief, it
by no means encompasses Carroll's entire experience in California. The
time frame of these last entries is entirely distorted. Apparently, the
entries cover the first few months of his stay, during which he breaks
his heroin habit, and lead into his return to New York, which came some
Furthermore, Carroll omits all of what we might consider the monumental
events of his life during his California period. He neglects to mention
that he met and married Rosemary, who lived next door to him in Bolinas;
that he completed The Book of Nods (which he had been working on
since age 17); that he performed his first rock show with Patti Smith;
and that he formed the Jim Carroll Band. Clearly, documenting his history
is not what Carroll has in mind for "The Move to California."
"The Move To California" is almost a new book; in fact, the title
Forced Entries takes on several new levels of meaning. In the
"Downtown Diaries," Carroll's "forced entries" include his attempts
to enter and keep up with the art scene, as well as the art scene's
rape-like "forced entry" into his psyche; hence, his diaries record
the details of these intrusions as autobiography. In "The Move to California,"
however, Carroll must literally force himself to write diaries or anything
at all; hence, the California entries are forced diary entries, and
they do not record strictly autobiographical events. Furthermore, both
in his experience and in writing the California diaries, Carroll is
finally attempting to "force an entry" into himself. As a reflection
of these new themes, "The Move To California" entries are about writing
"The Move To California"; they describe an artist learning how to see
and reorder a world alien from any reality he knows.
As Peter Delacorte notes, "Carroll is a fish out of water" in California
(E4). Carroll is detoxing from drugs, which have been a constant in
his life for a decade; he is separated from New York, where he has lived
all his life; and he barely knows the "self" that has developed over
the last several years. Where in the "Downtown Diaries" Carroll was
at least someone in the art scene, in "The Move To California"
his is both a stranger to himself and an outcast in his new world. In
Bolinas, he notes, "The minute [the locals] pick up on my New York accent
(which is one badge I'll never surrender), I might as well be a nigger
in Mississippi, circa '55, jumping some white man's place in line for
the drinking fountain" (128).
Carroll's extreme sense of alienation has been either misconstrued
or ignored by most reviewers of Forced Entries.
Put simply, contrary to most reviewers' (at least implied) assessment,
the California section is not "incessantly boring" (Delacorte E4). Unlike
Carroll's previous diaries, "The Move To California" is not non-stop action
and thrills; instead, it records a monumental transition in his life and
in Forced Entries as a book. Had he focused on the social atmosphere
of Marin County, which he calls "California mellow-hot-tub bullshit" (Rivers),
the California section would have been a simple continuation of the "Downtown
Diaries" of Forced Entries. Instead, in direct contrast with the
"Downtown Diaries," "The Move To California" is marked by Carroll's utter
isolation and languor, as well as a notable lack of Famous Names and exciting
However, there is movement in the California section: movement
produced by the subtle tension between Carroll the physical being, who
is going through the tortuous process of heroin withdrawal in an alien
place, and Carroll the artist, who is attempting to regain contact with
his world and himself through writing. In a sense, "The Move To California"
is an impressionistic record of the process he goes through, and because
of this, the time frame of the section is distorted and slow-moving,
reflecting the Carroll's nightmarish mind state during this period.
In a later interview he remarked that, while kicking junk: "You're totally
weak, but you can't escape through sleep. There are blasts of light
in your head when you close your eyes, and there is no way to distract
yourself when time is moving so slowly, and a minute feels like an hour"
(Milward 172). Hence, keeping in mind the physical and mental torment
Carroll undergoes in California, what makes "The Move To California"
exciting is the way Carroll writes about it.
The exhilarating force driving this section along is the discrepancy
between the horror of Carroll's physical experience and the elegant, poetic
prose describing it. Perhaps Carroll is physically and artistically paralyzed
in California, perhaps he is unable to write, and perhaps his world is
overcome by chaos. But Jim Carroll, the author who composes Forced
Entries nearly a decade after the fact, has transcended his suffering
and is reordering and transforming his experience--his past, his "biography,"
his "sins"--with striking precision, through writing. The fact is, while
Carroll's transcendence and purification in The Basketball Diaries
is merely implied by the publication of the book, Carroll documents
the transcendence and purification he achieved in Forced Entries
in "The Move to California."
Upon his arrival in California, or "the Mecca of Clorox," as he
calls it, Carroll's major concern is to recover his perceptive faculties
and learn to see again. While he was racing frantically around New York's
art scene and chasing heroin, he was unable to stop running long enough
to see anything. With this in mind, in the first California entry, Carroll
reassures himself that he has made the right decision:
I need this place, this small town in California where I plan
to take up residence. I need a disciplined landscape and the
opportunity to respect the commonplace joys. I think I'm ready.
I believe I have finally exhausted my New York City energies.
I no longer live with obsessions that pull constantly in half
a dozen directions.
In his reference to "the Mecca of Clorox," it is clear that Carroll
sees California as both a purifying force (bleach removes stains) and
as the epitome of sterility. As he goes on to explore and itemize his
expectations for California, neither sentiment prevails; again, his
major concern is to be free himself from impinging forces:
I'm ready for some precise boredom to wash over me, instigating
a life where the choices are mine. I want to write in a room
whose view doesn't change from day to day. . . . I'm ready;
I've had enough external stimuli, enough experience, courtesy
of New York City, to last a hundred years. The certainty of
my logic is the only thing that's truly frightening. (125)
What is frightening about this, to Carroll, is that for perhaps the
first time in his life he knows exactly what he wants. He has not been
coerced into moving to California (though he was persuaded), and he
goes there of his own free will. He is not trying to prove anything
to anybody, or join something for the sake of status. He is doing this
for himself and for his art.
However, while Carroll knows what he wants, the irony is his belief
that he knows what to expect, and that the future is benign--as sterile
as Clorox bleach. He is voyaging into the unknown, yet thinks he knows
precisely what he will find there. As he continues the diary while riding
from the San Francisco airport to Bolinas, it turns out that the things
he had not planned on--the germs in the sterile solution--will be the
things which make his stay in California worthwhile: the elements of
surprise and discovery will reawaken his dormant artistic vision.
Carroll continues the diary as he scans the xerox landscape of
Daly City, finding that it meets his expectations of stability, sterility,
and harmony. There are no surprises here:
The slopes were filled with uniform rows of tract houses, each
home indistinguishable from the others. It wasn't just the dimensions
and the architecture, however. All the homes seemed to have
the exact same curtains, the same yard furnishings, the same
flowers growing from the same green flowerbeds on the same yellow-trimmed
However, within this hygienic scene of suburban serenity, Carroll finds
an anomaly; he sees something he hadn't planned on, and his fascination
There was something else, too. Something that really put the
chill on me. The clothes, the towels, the sheets hanging on
lines in each back yard, had a kind of transcendent cleanliness.
Surely, it was a brilliance unimaginable to one who every Monday
as a child retrieved the family laundry drying on the tar rooftops
of New York. It seemed to absorb sunlight. It was a mutant cleanliness,
and it was a bit frightening. What was more horrifying were
the shadows these mutated white sheets cast down across the
hillside, where the grass was as trim as a putting green. These
shadows were counterpoint to the brilliant clean in their effect,
darker by the same degree. I had never seen such pure black,
Carroll thrives on the contrast between orderly appearances and the
chaos lurking beneath, and he finds it even here, in the most mundane
of settings. As he suspected, he simply requires enough freedom from
impinging forces to see contrast, and enough stability to appreciate
Carroll is delighted with these discoveries both because he realizes
he hasn't lost his vision after all, and because the scene establishes
the groundworks of a new, active artistic vision. He is no longer
chasing an ephemeral laser beam, hoping to absorb some of its magic;
now his attention is riveted to the concrete world, and now the magic
radiates from his own transformation of everyday reality. As he concludes
. . . . I think it's healthy to be bent out of shape so abruptly
on one's first day in a new place. Just as I was preparing myself
patiently to indulge in the joys of the commonplace, an element
of the strange sent a wave across the still pond. Now the logic
of my move has lost some of its certainty and I'm less afraid
for what is yet to come. (126-27)
However, Carroll's new vision does not come into focus immediately.
Once he is settled in Bolinas, he turns circles for a while, attempting
to set his bearings in the place. Like anyone who has moved from one
coast to the other, or who has moved to a new town, Carroll desperately
seeks out some sense of familiarity and belonging. He observes that
Bolinas "has some form of beauty and wonder that transcends place (and
time . . . most folks in this town are convinced the sixties never ended),"
and goes on to say that "the majority of the people I spend any serious
time with are old friends from Alphabet City on the Lower East Side.
. . ." However, Bolinas offers Carroll no sense of affinity. The problem,
as he notes, is that these aspects "combine to blur comparisons of any
sort between East or West Coasts" (127). With the similarities and differences
blurred, there is nothing solid with which Carroll can ally himself.
It soon becomes apparent that Carroll needs to find distinctions
between the two coasts. While exploring the countryside around Bolinas,
Carroll investigates the most intangible comparisons between New York
and California. He notes that, "Not taking into account the formidable
past of the Native Americans, I come up nil when it comes to any sense
of history along my daily route [along the coast or up Mt. Tamalpais],
or the rest of this coast, for that matter" (128). By comparison, he
recalls that "In New England, you can't walk along any back road for
long without spotting some plaque on a tree marking the very limb where
some poor son of a bitch patriot was strung up by the Redcoats during
the big one for independence" (127). Then he decides that "the greatest
distinction between New York and San Francisco (aside from the outrageous
realization that you cannot buy pizza by the slice here) has to do with
murder. They always find cute names for common serial killers here"
Finally, after thoroughly casing his new surroundings, he resolves
that it doesn't matter how similar or different the two coasts are.
"The city, east or west . . . frantic or quaint . . . no longer owns
me. I'm giving my time to the country life, living in the protective
shadow of a sacred mountain" (130). He realizes he cannot continue to
grope for a sense of attachment to California; this pursuit was doomed
from the start. But, most importantly, the longer he believes he can
find solace in mere setting, the longer he avoids confronting and rejoining
his lost self. The fact is, until Carroll connects with himself and
re-masters his ability to transform experience through writing, he is
unable to connect with anything. Hence, with the city behind him, Carroll
now must come to terms with himself and his writing.
In facing himself, it becomes clear why he should avoid this task.
In his utter isolation and despair, Carroll's guilt and regret over
his past grow to monstrous proportions. The "sins" of his youth haunt
him like vicious demons which simultaneously horrify and fascinate him.
An oozing abscess in the pit of his elbow, caused by years of heroin
injections, transforms into the container of all the evils of his past.
However, this same abscess also represents something precious to him;
he caresses the abscess in his sleep, "as if I was sanctifying
this oozing pit." As he puts it:
Though it's only, in fact, about a quarter-inch in diameter,
in my mind that hole is sometimes large enough to insert my
own head, my whole body. I could climb in and see my past transgressions
among the slime, or . . . perhaps I can put my lips to it and
drink from it like a chalice. But will this act purify, or just
further the decay? (133-34).
In other words, Carroll's own transcendence and purification hinges
upon one question: should he exalt, and thus purify, the demons of his
past, or must he exorcise them?
There is no easy solution, Carroll is well aware. By analogy, he
explores the possibility of "exorcising" his past sins in "Extractions,"
in which he has an abscessed tooth pulled. Following the procedure,
he takes a walk on the beach:
I took the tooth from my pocket and held it up against the
background of the ocean. I thought how strange it was that such
a tiny object could be the source of a pain that seemed to encompass
my entire universe for a time. When I had that ache and looked
at a tree, then the tree itself seemed to be suffering. It also
seemed odd that one could purge this misery with so simple an
operation. If only all our pains could be so easily remedied,
I thought. I flung the tooth as far as I could into the rushing
tide, letting it sink to the bottom and never return. (137)
"If only all our pains could be so easily remedied." Indeed, Carroll's
obsession with his past, his guilt, and his pain have corrupted his
vision to such an extent that nothing is beautiful. The confusion he
feels regarding his past and his present has projected outward onto
the world. Nothing makes sense. If only he could hold his past in his
hand and examine it, like that decayed tooth, maybe then he could deal
Overcome by guilt and confusion, Carroll looks to forces beyond
himself for an understanding of his alienation. In fact, the entries
prefacing his move to California presaged the dilemma Carroll faces
in California, and hinted at the new obsessions he grapples with. In
"Something Outside," for example, he contemplates the notion of evil
as pervasive force in the universe:
I've decided this longing which I have been experiencing is
of some outside origin. . . . This thing comes on like a voice,
and it is surely not any muse. So am I talking demons? Possessors?
I don't know. For now I am marking it down under the generic
tab of evil, and the fact is I've never really had a problem
with the idea that evil exists all by its lonesome: a self-contained
force. Is that so hard to accept? (112-113)
In California, Carroll's preoccupation with the supernatural becomes
exaggerated, but stronger yet is his fascination with nature, which to
him is an existential drama of baffling proportions; along the same lines,
he ponders the passing of time, as he is now nearing his mid-twenties
and is wondering where his childhood went.
The disturbing problem facing Carroll and which underlies his obsessions
is that his alienation is overtaking him; his past, previously his ally,
has become his greatest enemy. He is becoming aware that he is alone and
without ties to the world, but he wants to believe that his existence,
and the world, does have a meaning which transcends itself.
If he cannot depend upon his past for a sense of stability, nothing means
anything. If he cannot know himself, then how can he know the world, and
Because he is too much an optimist to resort to nihilism, and too
much a pessimist to resort to solipsism, he looks to superstitious and
religious beliefs to give his experience meaning. But because his faith
in superstition and religion is not strong, he looks to the concrete world
to assure himself that, in fact, his existence in the world of things
is meaningful enough in itself. The conflict between these two ways of
looking at the world results in a Gnostic view--an almost religious quest
This view provides the fodder for his art and brings him closer to self-knowledge.
Combined with his lingering nostalgia for the past and New York
City and intensified by his poetic language, Carroll's Gnostic vision
produces especially spectacular results in "Watching The Storm." Here
Carroll extends the poetic vision of Organic Trains beyond the
primordial, organic aspects of the city. Confronting nature in its purest
form, he draws out the marrow of human behavior and recovers the most
elemental bases of his art. The result is a kind of metamorphosis, with
insect imagery to match, in which Carroll grapples with nature and his
past, and begins to overcome his fear of chaos.
Carroll observes that storms bring out the most primal parts of
people, East Coast and West Coast alike. In New York, pimps roll "up
windows in their Cadillacs, shutting out their whores and signalling
them back to work. Then they light a smoke and sink low into zebra skin
upholstery, like insects surviving through camouflage with their natural
environment." He notes that, in the rain, "People gather in small spaces,
in hallways and storefronts, and begin to talk. . . . They tell strangers
things they would never think of revealing to friends or lovers. During
a storm in New York, people actually agree with things you say."
Most importantly, the workings of nature humanize people and awaken
their deepest fears and desires. For Carroll, these primal responses
to nature in action are the makings of inspiration, as he writes: "First
I hear the pounding of horses' hooves. They are moving from the far
slope of the hill across the street to the side visible from my window.
They gallop in complete unison, so the sound is like an organ key jammed
down, producing a single, long drone." Like the first California entry,
the scene initially exudes perfect harmony; yet, as he continues, a
subtle modification in the expected timing of events shatters his sense
It's strange, because they never move to this side of the hill
until evening, and it's barely four P.M. In the city you learn
to deal with constant, petty anomalies, but here in the country,
I have come to know that nature does not deal out variations
without large and often mean consequences.
So I'm not totally surprised when I hear the first distant
thunder, and see the first banks of clouds, black and quick,
roll over the top of the mountain. Then the lightning. I settle
against the back of the sofa, a blanket wrapped around me. I
get up and split a small log on the slab beside the wood stove
and throw it in. I don't need so much heat, but it makes me
feel prepared. When I feel prepared, I feel lost. When I feel
lost, I feel comfortable.
When Carroll says he feels prepared, he does not mean he knows
what is going to happen. Quite the contrary, he has no way of knowing
what will happen, and is preparing to face the unexpected, the unfamiliar,
and the unknown. Nature doesn't disappoint him, and he renders the storm
using the imagery of a mystery novel or horror film: "The lightning
produces incredible shapes against the sky's black canvas . . . bent
daggers . . . collapsing stairways. . . ." While this imagery illustrates
the terror nature is capable of producing, it also intimates that there
is a mystery to be solved. Carroll becomes a sleuth, setting out to
meet this challenge.
As he continues the entry, the storm, the fire, the horses, and
the fear coalesce into reminiscence, inspiration, and a strange logic.
As he puts it: "Since childhood I have loved the fear a storm brings.
Inside that fear I feel alive. Inside that fear we are forced to transform
knowledge to wisdom . . . all our learned trivia into principles." And
with this understanding, Carroll's fear is replaced by inspiration:
There is a single stallion right on the crest of the hill,
its head raised regally. The pose reminds me of Roberto Clemente
standing at home plate. Suddenly a bolt rises from behind him.
It creates the effect of a focused fire spit from the stallion's
wide mouth, as if he were playing a game with the elements,
throwing it all back against the sky.
Certainly it is no coincidence that, in an interview, he described
Frank O'Hara in precisely the same terms: "I followed him home, keying
on how he threw his head back like a proud stallion, like Roberto Clemente
or somebody, and taking in everything that he looked at" (Milward 170).
Here, Carroll is invoking his old muse, embodied in a stallion, to transform
his uncertainty into art and throw his fear "back against the sky."
As O'Hara said in his statement for The New American Poetry,
"It may be that poetry makes life's nebulous events tangible to me and
restores their detail; or conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible
quality of incidents which are all to concrete and circumstantial" (Allen
420). Likewise, once Carroll transforms his fear and uncertainty into
wisdom and art, the storm becomes less threatening. The imagery
Carroll uses no longer carries the overtones of horror or mystery; instead
he describes the storm in terms of the commonplace, human reality
of "sheets slung over a line." With this transformation he looks to
himself, feeling that an "equilibrium" has been reached between his
art scene self and his present self. The frantic lifestyle of the past
has now "equalized" with his present low-key existence, and he is free
to move ahead:
The rain builds, comes now like sheets slung over a line.
It's not that frantic or digressive rain; this is the sound
of that certain rain, steady and dependable. . . . It's as if
a car you have driven in the night off some poorly marked bridge
has at last filled up with water, just as you have given up
fighting the pressure against the door, trying to escape. Now
the pressure is equalized. The door opens and you swim to the
surface, which is much nearer than you thought.
Finally, before Carroll moves ahead, he looks to his past, to the
simplicity he knew as a child, to find a direction for his forward movement.
In this reminiscence, the fire and the storm are present, but the elements
of mystery and horror take the form of a game, Clue, played on
a dark, stormy night in a strange house:
When I was about eight years old, my parents rented a bungalow
upstate for the month of August. I remember sitting out a hurricane
there. Some of the guys from the neighborhood were visiting
us at the time; there was a huge blaze in the old open fireplace.
. . . There were four of us playing a board game--I think it
was Clue--and we were each seated in an overstuffed armchair,
sunk in as deep as that pimp in his Caddy, riding out the storm.
But then he was a child, he was not alone, and he felt a sense of order,
belonging, and solidarity then which he now lacks:
The chairs' arms touched each other, forming a sealed, safe
square around the table holding the board. It seemed, though
we each felt an exquisite fear, that nothing could penetrate
the sanctuary of that square. The lights were down; we played
by candlelight. It was, perhaps, my only true mystical experience.
Of course we didn't understand it, but we wordlessly formed
a design that was impenetrable to any elements, to any danger.
As Carroll ends the entry, "God, I want to find a chair that is large
enough to make me young again . . . young enough to begin constructing
that square again" (138-140).
However, he will not find that chair, and as Carroll observed in
a later interview:
What helped me was the realization that you can never go home
again. You could go up the river and go mad like Kurtz, or you
could haul up the Titanic from the bottom of the ocean,
or you could go to San Francisco and get into rock 'n' roll.
But the only time you were really free in the heart sense is
when you were young and on the streets, because you were wild
and free an murderous. But suddenly I felt detached, and the
only thing that sustained me was my work. (172)
Hence, with the understanding that he cannot relive his past, his writing
becomes his priority. That is, Carroll now sets out to re-write
and redefine his past, and begin "constructing that square again."
As if to spite Carroll's good intentions, however, yet another
obstacle stands in his way. In attempt to start anew, Carroll has begun
a methadone treatment program, and the ravages of withdrawal leave him
nearly paralyzed: "Every morning I wake and down my dosage, drink coffee
and wait for it to take effect. When it does hit, the euphoria of those
earlier days is gone. I lie in bed, prey to a compulsion for neatness.
. . . And I smoke incessantly. One after the other. It's obscene" (141).
Furthermore, he finds himself helpless in the face of "hideous" nightmares,
unable to control even his own dreams: "Usually I can guide my dreams
once they arise, bad or good. But there is no control when the dream
takes place in the room where I'm actually sleeping. No guiding the
man standing in the corner, or emerging from the closet with luminous
eyes, holding a huge syringe-like scepter . . ." (142). As Carroll explained
later, "methadone is a month of physical torment at the very least.
You can't get any sleep to escape it. I hate even thinking about it"
But the most frightening result of the detoxification process is
that Carroll finds himself unable to write. The same Jim Carroll who,
in The Basketball Diaries, asked, "will I have time to finish
the poems breaking loose in my head? Time to find out if I'm the writer
I know I can be? How about these diaries?" (BBD 151), confesses that,
"until this rather forced entry, I just didn't have the ability to recall
that such things are what I'm supposed to do. That is, not only did
I not give a shit, but I had no inkling that I was supposed to. Even
now, I'm forcing it, and I suppose it's evident . . . " (FE 143-44).
Likewise, the New York street punk once said: "I think about poetry
and how I see it as a raw block of stone ready to be shaped, that way
words are never a horrible limit to me, just tools to shape" (BBD 159).
But Carroll now finds that, while he is "fighting the heebie-jeebies"
from a lowered methadone dosage, "The words themselves seem strange
from the moment they release themselves from my pen." When he tries
the typewriter, "Each letter typed seemed to chew up the one before
it like a vicious dog so that no words could be completed. If I did
compile enough words to complete a phrase, they eventually would disassemble
from their linear path like parked cars in stop action over the course
of an entire day." As he summarizes his predicament, "It's as if words,
phrases, images, syntax were small glass beads from a necklace which
was wrenched from some neck and spilled on the floor and down the sides
of sofa cushions and armchairs and under bookshelves and maybe swallowed
by the cat."
Carroll the artist is literally held hostage by methadone. He has
become a prisoner in his own body, and because of this, his writing
is imprisoned as well. For him, recognition of this is a positive event
because he now sees the supreme value of his art. He can now take control
by harnessing the power of his own writing. As he concludes "Getting
It All Back,"
I've got to find all the glass pieces before I can even
reorder the color sequence, and restring it and tie it tighter
than before. There's always a splendor in beginning all over.
Even if it means getting on one's knees to search beneath that
bookshelf or prospecting through years of lint and ashes beneath
those cushions. Even if it means breaking open that cat's shit,
which it conveniently has deposited in a plastic box, more orderly
than any secretary could ever hope to be.
Then I'll appreciate the value of each bead--rather, each
word and image--that much more, never wasting another. And I
will, I swear to myself, get it all back in time, string it
all together, tighter, as I said, than before. (144-45)
Immediately following this entry, Carroll completes his methadone
program and is surprised to discover, in "Matters Literary," that "God,
I've gotten myself so straight I can actually think about matters of
the literary sort." That is, Carroll's freedom from heroin addiction
also releases his writing from dependence upon drugs. Furthermore, he
is now able to step back and distinguish his life from both the work
of art he has created out of it and the lies he has fed himself. While
he claims the comparison applies only to "matters literary," he notes
that deceit is "an active, energetic (and energizing) pursuit"; conversely,
total honesty, though it "can be beautifully dreamlike," is "so horribly
passive" (147). The fact is, Carroll has made quite a monumental effort
of deceiving himself, whereas he must stay honest in his writing.
However, in the process of redefining his artistic sensibility
and recovering physical well-being, Carroll still does not come to terms
with his past. In the next entry, when he has "been clean from my last
dose of methadone for about a week," Carroll decides, "I have to reregister
a room for my heart. It's been waiting a long time, somewhere outside,
without so much as a whimper of protest. That abandonment wasn't just
abuse, it was a sin." Throughout Forced Entries, Carroll has
alienated his authentic self in order to avoid confronting the ugliness
and fear it harbors. In doing this, however, he has become a hollow
shell; like the tin man in The Wizard of Oz, he has no heart.
(In fact, he calls himself "a tin motherfucker" earlier in the book
.) Hence, he must find a place within himself to accommodate his
"heart" before he will be a complete, authentic individual; he must
accept his past, with all its ugliness, beauty, and sensitivity, before
he can begin to force an entry into himself.
While his recognition of this and his decision to "register a room
for my heart" represent victories of sorts, as well as a step toward
authenticity, taking action is another matter. As Carroll continues
this entry, he illustrates the dilemma he faces:
Today I went for a long walk with my dog, up to Mount Tamalpais.
I watched a pumpkin spider for hours, weaving its web across
a tri-pronged branch on a dead thorn bush. After watching all
the insect death and escape, and the repairs that followed,
I wanted to feel the web. It was nothing but tactile curiosity.
I reached out and fingered a piece, but couldn't control my
newly recovered senses. The fine tuning of my touch was off.
I just couldn't gauge the resilience of the web. I was too caught
up in the vibrance of the orange hump on the spider, and the
silver intricacy of the weave. By the time I pulled my hand
free, the whole web was torn apart. It seems the deeper I allow
my perceptions to penetrate, the more ruin I leave in my wake.
In order to reclaim his "heart," he will have to explore his past and
allow his "perceptions to penetrate" all of its intricacies, pleasant
and unpleasant, just as he attempts to explore the spider's web. In
many ways, this project entails "looking too closely and too long into
a mirror; soon your features distort, then erupt" (14). In this case,
Carroll has only two possibilities from which to choose: he can either
disown his past entirely or transform it, through writing, into something
he can accept. But now that he has detoxed, he cannot "take drugs .
. . to calm things down" (14); he is entirely on his own in the face
of chaos. Regardless of the choice he makes, if his "fine tuning" is
off, what he finds in his explorations of his past could devastate him.
Hence, Carroll remains a "tin motherfucker" and succumbs to the
"magnetic impulse to return to New York" without having reconciled his
past (149). He leaves California driven not by self-knowledge and free
will, but by the insistence of supernatural forces. While he says, "I
have never been one for superstition," a severed goat's leg on his doorstep
and a "fat bat" in his bedroom send him running back to the city. As
he puts it, "when certain signs knock so loudly and insistently at my
door, I listen" (152).
However, upon his return, Carroll finds New York itself transformed,
and its novelty intrigues him. He walks its streets "in the grip of
a midtown trance." When he is "robbed of a cab by one of the world's
most famous living artists," Salvador Dali, Carroll describes the painter
and his consort as "perfect variations in presence which I've
written about before: it was the difference between a chimpanzee and
a cheetah. She was the monkey; he was the cat." But Carroll has changed
too. He imagines Dali "embracing me and laying a kiss on both cheeks
and exclaiming, 'Brother artist! I know your work well, and envy it
even more. The second half of the century was mine, but clearly the
second half has passed into your hands. . . !'"
When this scenario doesn't come off as he had imagined it (Dali
"acted as if they were on some esplanade in Venice, and I was a peasant
holding steady the plank to the gondola for them"), he takes no recourse;
"I couldn't do that, not to Salvador Dali, not to the man who embraced
me in such a hastily conjured fantasy, passing on the torch of Art,
as it were" (158-61).
Carroll's ambitions are different now. He doesn't want to be part
of a scene, or to have a Great Name with nothing to back it up. Now
he wants revel in the texture of his experience, transform it, and share
his vision with the world; he must earn the right to carry the torch
of Art. In fact, as Carroll explores his new possibilities he stumbles
upon the means by which he will come to terms with and transform his
I have been considering lately writing lyrics for some rock-and-roll
bands. Certain friends have prompted me toward this idea for
years. Some, like Jenny Ann, have even made the ridiculous proposition
that I sing these songs . . . that I actually front a band!
They tell me they see the possibilities when I give readings
of my poems and diaries. The way I move. The phrasing.
I do believe that a poet would possess a stronger intuitive
sense of phrasing with a rock song . . . But I respect craft.
I believe in technique . . . and my singing abilities are so
serious a handicap that it would take a whole new scale to make
the entire thing less than ludicrous. Music without melody,
where my voice would simply be another rhythm instrument, like
a drum. (164)
Carroll doesn't act on this possibility within the pages of Forced
Entries. At this point he is wary of such a venture, afraid it would
throw him into a tailspin and negate whatever victories he has achieved.
But the notion is enticing: "I would like to see fame to understand
it. I would like to hold it in my hands a while, like a crawling infant
with a ball of yarn . . . to unravel it and realize what I believe I
already know, that the core is empty. Then I could dismiss it and crawl
away." The danger is that "I expect it would not be that easy . . .
getting far enough away once you are on your knees" (164-65).
All of this observation, toying with possibilities, and experiencing
New York anew culminates in the last entry of the book, "Opening Night."
In the previous entry, Carroll had found himself "Lost on the Back of
My Hand," lost in his own city. Now, Carroll is alone in a red bath
tub with a test pattern on the television, and "Since I have no book,
I'm stranded with my own thoughts." He takes inventory of his accomplishments
I think I did learn some things in California. I believe I
have moved closer to my heart. I feel comfortable in reclusion.
I don't need the vacant flux of parties. I don't need my own
attendance at "Art Happenings" which are, for the most part,
excuses for the party afterward. But I don't want to become
a cynical prick. It is, after all, a human universe. Knowledge,
the hunger for detail, even the learned trivia, does
give way to wisdom. If you sit back and remove the clutter of
lips and claws and capsules and punch. I know I am
a cold motherfucker, but I have moved closer to my heart.
While he has not yet reclaimed his heart entirely, he at least feels
closer to it; if he was lost the night before, he is not now. With his
desire to transform knowledge into wisdom, he clears away the "clutter"
to make himself receptive.
As he lies in the tub, he shuts his eyes and "words pass over the
lids, which feel like they have been scraped clean . . . hollowed out.
And stuffed with words" (179). His mind, and then a page, becomes the
canvas on which he paints his city in minute detail. He describes "The
bakery trucks with twenty-year-old transmissions, their gears clanging
loud as a construction site at noon in midtown," and, "The news truck
at 5:30 A.M., where the guy yells out and the bales of The New York
Times hit the pavement with a stiffer thump than the News
or the Post." He discerns the sound of coins changing hands,
"And the garbage trucks . . . I almost forgot" (180-81).
Finally, Carroll notices "the green slime leaking down my forearm,"
oozing from the abscess on his arm. He debates whether or not he wants
to "have a go at the thing," to try to rupture it. On the one hand,
he has been battling the abscess for too long to accept another defeat,
and he no longer wants to "deal with its spite, its enticements to self-mutilation,
the exhaustion of its resistance: body, mind and soul." Still, "It's
taken on demonic proportions," and this wound represents to him the
last barrier between himself and his heart; hence, he decides, "All
right then, just one shot at it." As he prepares to undertake this task,
he recalls his "cat choking from an abscess back in California, and
the wonderful feeling I had of opening that wound, watching the scum
pour out, and the lovely sound of the creature breathing anew, sucking
in the air of another chance."
For Carroll, opening his own wound would achieve the same effect,
giving him "another chance": "I want that sensation. No matter how much
I've cleaned up, this hole in my arm is still an emblem of my addiction,
a memorial tattoo that I myself inscribed, as if for an old lover, in
homage to that sickness I took years to perfect" (182). He wants to
purge himself of the sickness and breathe anew, and release himself
from the dark side of his past. It is not a matter of exorcising his
past in its entirety, however; he wants only to exorcise the "spite"
which shrouds it and haunts him.
Amazingly enough, this time his efforts prevail, and the abscess
bursts; as the pus flows out, the demons of Carroll's past go with it.
Even more significantly, the abscess's bursting becomes an elaborate
dual metaphor for Carroll's process of writing Forced Entries.
First, the "facts" of book are the pus of his past, but his transformation
of this past into art is purifying act which, like the laser beam he
trailed throughout the diaries, comes entirely from within himself.
Second, in writing the book, he has gone through the rituals of penance,
though it is to himself, not God, that he has paid his dues. After having
been baptized in fire in The Basketball Diaries, he experienced
contrition and confessed his sins, and is now finding satisfaction:
Out it flows, not just from that small opening, but from the
center, in one stream, like a laser's beam. It exits in various
shades of yellow and green, followed by blood. . . . I kept
on pressing. I wanted the last vestiges of that horror within.
I wanted to prolong the feeling of victory. There was no feeling
of disgust for the slime, or the pools it had formed on my sheets.
All disgust was overwhelmed by joy. Besides, you must understand:
this was not just some infected body fluids I was looking down
on. To me, this was the return of all the bad-cut street-drug
garbage I had inserted with such precision, all these years.
This was the toxic residue of all my past sins (there, I've
said it!). 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? (183)
With this victory, Carroll has successfully registered a room for
his heart, and he has finally found purity. But even so, he concedes,
"I might very well blow it again. I don't really know where I go from
here, but at least I've raised my quality of living above cockroach
level." He is aware that his cycle of descent and redemption could very
well begin again with the slightest relapse, especially if he stops
his exploration of himself too soon. Yet the important thing is that
Carroll has another chance. He is now able to look at his world
and himself through new eyes and is ready for absolution: "New York
is not the same, that's for certain. I feel, as I said, closer to my
heart. I feel a comfort in being alone."
For now, the future is not his concern. From this point onward,
Carroll can live in the present, experiencing and exploring his world
as he sees it, without having to battle the demons of his past. And
since he has exorcised those demons, he feels comfortable with himself--all
of himself. He can even delve into his past, should he choose to do
so, to resurrect its beauty and grace. But for the present, what is
important is that the future has opened up. He is free, all systems
are "go," and he can experience the present for its own sake:
I want to penetrate only this moment. I've pierced a veil.
I've beaten an old enemy and I'm tired and my mind is clear,
my senses full. I can hear the bakery truck just pulling away
down on Broadway, leaving behind only the stunned silence of
New York City at 5:15 A.M. It's so quiet I can hear the clicking
of the traffic lights changing . . . red to green . . . stop
to go. Walk. Wait. (183-84)
©1990 Cassie Carter. This material may not be reprinted except by permission from the author.