Approaching the "Speed of Death":
Jim Carroll and the Voice of a Dark Poetics
The subject matter is often brutal. The content often reeks of the grotesque. And the
language sometimes assumes the air of an over-confident, bullish, teenager hell-bent on
destruction. Nonetheless, something compelling exists, and at times a strong, visceral
beauty emerges from the works of Jim Carroll.
The author of The Basketball Diaries, Carroll is known also as a poet and a
musician, having started the Jim Carroll Band. But it is his work as a diarist, a
chronicler of the turbulent sixties, that has gained him his fame--or some would say
Certainly, it would be amusing to hear a critique of Jim Carroll's work by Newt
Gingrich. Senator Jesse Helms probably would also find enough evidence to place Carroll in
that same category of other "non-artists", such as Mapplethorpe, whose crime is
an offense to mainstream sensibilities. Regardless of the opinion, Carroll's work evokes a
His work does not provide the luxury of cool detachment. It provokes; it enrages; often
it hits with an overwhelming sense of sadness and loneliness. At other times, Carroll is
playfully cocky like an athlete out on the floor. Instead of a super-cool slam dunk, he
tries to amaze with a witty phrase or clever metaphor. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it
Born in New York City, Carroll grew up in a working-class neighborhood, the son of
Irish-Catholic parents. He soon exhibited talent as a basketball player and received a
scholarship to Trinity High School in Manhattan. There he played as an All-City basketball
star and began to pursue his love of writing. After he graduated, he spent one semester at
Columbia University before dropping out to concentrate fully on his writing.
Recently made into a movie, The Basketball Diaries focuses on Carroll's
experiences during 1963-1966 as a teenager growing up in a hard-edged world of drugs, sex,
and rock-n-roll. It is a world where experimentation leads to addiction, and violence and
alienation coexist in a sinister union. As Carroll relates,
. . . one morning you wake up, suddenly your nose is running and your eyes are
tearing and the leg and back muscles start feeling tight and heavy.
The laugh's on you, finally, no matter how long you think you got it "under
In his diary, Carroll talks about looking for something pure.
The mood of these years is one of anger and a fear of imminent destruction. The youth
culture has become a counter-culture, reacting in opposition to phony facades, corrupt
institutions, and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Searching for an alternative to the
hypocrisy of Cold-War society, Carroll and many of his friends turn to drugs. Trying to
escape the "horrible dreams of goblins in tiny planes circling my room and bombing my
bed," Carroll finds a temporary solace in getting high.
Marijuana, heroin, cocaine, poppers, LSD . . . The list continues as Carroll becomes a
slave to a new master, unable to free himself from the shackles of addiction. He had
sought to become pure. Instead he becomes trapped by a darker craving, a craving which
reaches toward destruction.
And perhaps this quality is the irony in much of Carroll's work. In trying to break
free from a society of hypocrisy where priests denounce homosexuality only to molest young
boys, where God allows one's best friend to die of leukemia, where urban life grows
increasingly menacing, Carroll--and so many of his generation--embark on a path that
spirals back toward the same destruction they hope to escape.
This "dark poetics" finds a certain lyrical beauty in Forced Entries--The
Downtown Diaries: 1971-1973. This work, in fact, may be one of Carroll's finest, for
there surfaces a distinct richness in language. In reporting the somewhat cryptic suicide
of a beautiful girl named Andrea, who equates the speed of light with the speed of death,
Carroll explores this search for the pure, the perfect--what ultimately becomes the
unattainable. And it is only in a hyper-language of dreams and the fantastic that Carroll
can express this race (toward) self-destruction."
As one reviewer has noted, Carroll has come to represent a "postpunk icon."
As a diarist, Carroll's autobiographical writings have detailed a world grappling with
transition--the world of Jack Kerouac, Andy Warhol, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and
Bob Dylan. And Carroll became part of this inner circle. He worked for Warhol, running
errands and searching for a place in the pecking order of the iconoclast. He went to all
the big parties where he met the big people--the cultural avant-garde who shaped the
direction of the sixties. Carroll lived in the center of a maelstrom of new ideas, new
sensation, and a new sense of freedom that came from rejecting the false security of the
The strident turbulence also emerges in his music. In addition to being an accomplished
writer, Carroll has explored his personal experiences in his role as leader of The Jim
Carroll Band. Songs such as "People Who Died," "Catholic Boy," and
"Wicked Gravity" are played on alternative rock radio and show the influences of
one of Carroll's favorite groups, The Velvet Underground.
Although his diaries are probably his best-known works, Carroll has also published Living
at the Movies, The Book of Nods, and Fear of Dreaming: The Selected Poems of
Jim Carroll. Yet in all of his works, Carroll returns to the themes of searching and
loss. As diarist, musician, and poet, he crosses the boundaries of several art forms,
exposing the hypocrisy of limits while simultaneously revealing the perils of going too
He never preaches. A brutal honesty reveals his innermost emotions. At the same time,
nonetheless, one cannot help but agree with Anatole France, whom Carroll quotes, that
"all writers of confessions, from Augustine on down, have always remained a little in
love with their sins."
Fans of Jim Carroll will not want to miss his appearance on the campus at the
University of Kentucky. Carroll appears at Memorial Hall on January 29, 1996, 8pm. The
performance includes a reading from his works, a discussion about the impact of the film The
Basketball Diaries, and a book signing following the program. Admission is free and
open to the public.
© 1996 Shannon J. Hanley / ACE Magazine