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Chapter One

Shit Into Gold

Shit Into Gold: Jim Carroll's The Basketball Diaries and Forced Entries

everything is shit. the word
art must be redefined.      
--Patti Smith, Babel (33)

Jim Carroll captured my heart in the fall of 1987, when I read The Basketball Diaries for the first time. Judging from the title, I expected the diary to be a boring boys' book about basketball; once I had read the first few pages, however, I realized my assumption was wrong, to say the least. This 13 year-old kid was living in a nightmare world of pedophiliac coaches and priests, gang wars, racism, and poverty; he was a star basketball player hooked on heroin, sampling every drug he could get his hands on, mugging people in Central Park, and hustling gay men for money. But he was doing more than surviving.

On the basketball court, he moved with the grace of a cheetah; each basket, each slick pass, transformed him into something greater than himself. And he described his nightmare world even more elegantly, in street lingo and metaphors and sly jokes, somehow making this nightmare beautiful.

By the time I reached the middle of the book, I was hopelessly entranced, crawling along New York City's dirty underbelly alongside Carroll. As fate would have it, I discovered he would be appearing at SDSU's Backdoor nightclub and, needless to say, I bought my ticket on the spot. Then I waited.

On Friday, November 13, 1987, the day of Carroll's reading, thinking that multitudes of avid fans would have camped overnight, I arrived at the Backdoor two hours early. No one was there. With nothing else to do, I sat in a wire-mesh chair outside the door, pulled my copy of The Basketball Diaries out of my purse and started reading. I sat there, immersed in the book, for at least an hour, until a strange feeling began creeping up my spine. I heard voices behind me, and one of those voices kept slipping into the pages of my book. The sensation was so strange that I was almost afraid to turn around; I finally did, though very cautiously.

Jim Carroll was sitting directly behind me, in a wire-mesh chair just like mine. It was unmistakably him: the long red hair, the pale white skin, and the thin, athletic body; his voice, with its pronounced New York accent, was the one that had crept into my book. He was talking animatedly about an upcoming film version of The Basketball Diaries, obviously excited about it.

My god! A character had suddenly jumped out of the book I was reading! I was so stunned and scared that I couldn't think of a thing to say to him. A thousand words raced through my mind; I rehearsed and revised all the brilliant things I might say, developing entire conversations in my mind. Then I abruptly realized that he was walking away. I heard him ask his friend, "Well, think we awta head ova to the aw-cade faw awhile?" I watched his lanky body disappear into the arcade, duffel bag in hand.

By the time I recovered, a long line had formed at the door, and Carroll strolled straight to the front of the line, to the locked sliding-glass doors of the Backdoor. Apparently I wasn't the only one there left speechless: while Carroll struggled to open the doors, no one said a word; not even, "Hey Jim! No cuts!"

When the reading finally began, I had a front row seat. Carroll strode onto the stage, eyes glued to the floor, and attempted, almost unsuccessfully, to untangle the microphone. That taken care of, he began reading "A Day at the Races," from Forced Entries. His manner was amazing: here he was, reading a story about pubic lice and laughing at his own jokes. He read with a sort of insecure cockiness, as if to say, "Okay, I'm going to read this thing about crabs now. I kinda like this thing, so here I go." He was so cool about it, and the piece was so beautiful and funny, he had the audience nearly rolling in the aisles with laughter.

I was mesmerized by this guy . . . this wonderful, scraggly, nervous-looking guy with long red hair, white white skin, hands moving constantly, dressed in black with his shoes untied. It took a while for the quiver to leave his voice. I hadn't really noticed it until it started to fade.

His art grew with each selection he read, towering over us with him on top, cracking a crazy smile. He peered over our heads from underneath that red hair, watched his hands, or focused on a face floating six feet above us.

Then came the song lyrics; a request, he said. He held the mic in his hands like a prayer and paced across the stage like a cheetah, back and forth, hypnotizing. There was no band, but there was music--invisible music. His words struck like heartbeats, and he handled them like explosives:

I want the angel that knows the sky
She got virtue, got the parallel light in her eye
I want the angel that's partly lame
She filters clarity from her desperate shame
I want the angel that knows rejection
She's like a whore in love with her own reflection
I want the angel whose touch don't miss
When the blood comes through the dropper
Like a thick red kiss

And he walked back and forth across that stage, wrapped up in those words as if he were somewhere else, as if the words were speaking through him, forcing themselves out of his body through a too-small mouth.

I wanted to open my thesis with this experience because, in many ways, it shows the transformative power of Carroll's writing; ideally, it also reveals the main reason I am writing about him, which is a reason I find myself unable to express accurately with words. That is, more than any artist I've ever known about, Carroll has essentially created himself through writing. He's led a nightmarish life, yet, in a moment, he can metamorphose from a 13 year-old New York street punk into a grown man in a wire-mesh chair; he can transform into a rock star or an art scene initiate, a heroin addict or a basketball player or a nervous poet on a stage.

But most importantly, it is his writing which produces this metamorphosis. Through writing, Carroll transforms his triumphs and his most vile experiences into poems, diaries, and songs of visionary beauty. With metaphors and sparkling imagery, he makes us laugh at the most disgusting, sad, and horrifying things imaginable. As a writer, Carroll is an alchemist capable of transforming shit into gold.

Jim Carroll was descended from three generations of Irish Catholic bartenders. He was born on August first, between 1948 and 1951 (I discuss this ambiguity later in the chapter), in New York City, to Agnes (nee Coyle) and Thomas J. Carroll (Contemp. Auth.); he grew up on the lower East Side of Manhattan, attending public and Catholic grammar schools. [1] As he recalls:

I wasn't the kind of kid who liked nuns. . . . But in the third grade I was close to being called a brownnose for staying after school to help Sister Victoise. . . . It was like hanging out with a good ballplayer to learn new moves--I got this radiance from her, a sweet sense about grace and living your life with compassion. . . . she gave me a sense of humanity that went beyond the faith that I was already doubting. (Milward 142)

In 1963, at the age of 12, Carroll was a typical New York street punk, playing basketball and baseball, sniffing glue, and playing drums in a band called the Blue Dels (Hirschberg 25). But what made Carroll a unique street punk is that he was also writing about his exploits, applying the "sense of humanity" Sister Victoise had taught him, in his "basketball diaries."

The Basketball Diaries, first published in 1978, documents the ups and downs of Carroll's double life between the ages of 12 and 16. By the time he was 13, Carroll had already lost his virginity, had injected his first shot of heroin, and had sampled a wide variety of drugs. He proudly called himself a member of the "Diaper Bandits," a notorious group of youngsters who stalked the area east of Central Park and robbed unwary passers-by. But he was also a star basketball player and a bright student, and he was still keeping his diaries. Because of Carroll's double life, the Diaries "are a real Jekyll & Hyde affair"; Carroll "Has his public life of 'great potential'[:] he's college material by day but lowlifer by night. Loves basketball for its grace, finesse, and sweat, plus all the girls he meets" (Platenga).

Around 1964, Carroll's basketball coach helped him earn an athletic/academic scholarship to the elite Trinity High School. At Trinity, Carroll was a star basketball player, but his equal passions for new experiences, drugs, and writing were beginning to overtake his love of athletics. Luckily, "one of the brothers, hip to the light in Jim's eyes, made him the sports editor of the school paper and passed along columns by Red Smith and others that Jim would study, underlining metaphors, and slowly begin to understand the craft of writing" (Milward 142). Carroll told Ted Berrigan that:

by the time I got to Trinity the straight Jock trip had begun to wear a little thin. . . I still had as much charge, but I simply began getting off into new directions, like pills, sex, drugs, booze and The New American Poetry. I had been keeping my basketball diaries since I was 12, and so when I got turned on to poetry at Trinity, writing it just came naturally. I read Howl first, I guess. Then Frank [O'Hara].

For Carroll, sex, drugs, and poetry were intimately related; hence, at the same time his dabbling in drugs exploded into full-blown heroin addiction, forcing him to hustle gay men to support his habit, Carroll's passion for poetry blossomed.

When Carroll was 15, he began attending poetry readings at the St. Mark's Church (Milward 170). Run by Anne Waldman, the St. Mark's Poetry Project assembled such poets as Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Ted Berrigan, John Ashbery, and Patti Smith, and provided a creative atmosphere in which Carroll was able to work seriously at his writing. He wrote almost unceasingly, publishing his first book of poetry, Organic Trains, in 1967.

Although Carroll wrote his second book of diaries, Forced Entries, during the 1980s, the book describes his adventures in New York's hip art scene more or less between 1969 and 1973, as well as his subsequent escape to California in 1974. After briefly attending Wagner College and Columbia University (Contemp. Auth.; Milward 172), Carroll dropped out to become assistant to New York artist Larry Rivers, worked at Andy Warhol's Factory, frequented the backroom of Max's Kansas City, where he listened to the Velvet Underground, and was Patti Smith's beau for a time. During this time he also wrote the poems for Living at the Movies, first publishing five of them in 4 Ups and 1 Down (1970).

By the time he was twenty years old, he was deeply enmeshed in New York's art scene; however, at the same time, his heroin addiction had utterly taken over his life. In 1974, following the publication of Living at the Movies (1973), Carroll fled to Bolinas, California, to kick the habit.

He spent the first four years in Bolinas "practically a recluse . . . learning to enjoy boredom" for the first time in his life. In a 1981 interview with Clarice Rivers, Carroll explained that, while he was in California,

I wrote two books and another book of poems. Towards the end I worked pretty much on writing rock lyrics. I wrote a book of prose poems and a book of short stories which is the one I'm interested in now and which is all finished. The book of poems has also been completed. I think I might take this book of poems which has about 60 pages and the best of some of my old poems and make that a book.

The books he mentions here eventually came together as The Book of Nods (1986), and the lyrics ended up on Catholic Boy (1980).

Milward details Carroll's lifestyle in Bolinas and early relationship with Rosemary Klemfuss, whom Carroll married in 1978. Rosemary lived next door to Carroll with her husband; she was "slowly recuperating from a near-fatal motorcycle accident and would come to use the bathroom in Jim's house." Carroll says,

One night I was sitting out in the yard, spacing with my dogs, when I noticed Rosemary. She stood up against the moon in a white gown that shook my spine. It was my vision of the Virgin, or at least a top-of-the-line saint, and she walked me over the hills and into San Francisco and from isolation to rock 'n' roll. (174)

During his period of seclusion in California, Carroll says, his only "contact with New York was reading the Village Voice." As he read, he saw "these bands in the ads, like from CBGB's. I knew they'd kind of come out of the same scene that Patti [Smith] came out of, and I was interested in hearing them--people like Mink deVille and Blondie and the Talking Heads" (Hirschberg 25). Rosemary took Carroll to see these up-and-coming bands at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco. As Carroll saw the bands being signed, one by one, with big record companies, he saw possibilities for himself in rock, too.

#9;Hence, while living in California, the idea of writing rock songs first occurred to Carroll. Part of the reason, Cain indicates, was that "When he gave poetry readings in his younger days, people told him he had the aura of a rock star." But Carroll had some reservations, as he explained to Chet Flippo: "When I'd do readings, people would say, 'Mick Jagger reading poetry--you should do rock 'n' roll.' I said, 'No way, man.' I respected people's singing voices then. Forget it. Even when Patti [Smith] did it. Her lyrics were better than her poems, to me" (35). Carroll was hesitant for three major reasons. First, as he explains in Forced Entries, "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."

Second, Carroll had a terrible case of stage fright:

The fact is that I am horrified to face a modest-sized audience at readings, when I understand (and trust) my capabilities. I shudder, literally feel a spread-open hand guiding up my intestine, a spiked armadillo in my belly, at the thought of facing a rock audience under the weight of my mistrust and limitations. (164)

Finally, he was afraid that he would tarnish his image as a poet if he went into rock 'n' roll. As he told Flippo, "Patti [Smith] wasn't as accepted and didn't have a reputation in the poetry scene like I did" (35).

However, Patti Smith played an important role in changing his mind. Since Carroll met her in the late 1960s, Smith had awed him with her limitless energy and integrity as an artist and poet. When she powerfully transformed rock into an artistic medium, without sliding into intellectualized "art rock," Carroll was fascinated.[2] Then, sometime in the late 1970s, Smith came to California on tour with her band. Carroll attended her show in San Diego and, when a disagreement erupted with the opening act, he found himself on stage: with Smith's band backing him, he rapped his new poem-lyrics. For Carroll, "it was great. It was the first time I felt like a real poet" (Hirschberg 25).

Of this experience, Carroll says:

I went out on the stage and it was incredible, because for the first time in my life I was having fun on stage. I never liked giving poetry readings. But there was this incredible energy from these kids in the audience and there was this incredible energy coming from the music behind me. This was my first taste of really doing it and liking it, having all this energy and having these kids to perform for--not just some kind of stuffy college poetry audience. . . . I also saw the potential to reach an audience which usually wasn't that interested in poetry.

After this, Carroll realized, "Well, what the hell, I don't need vocal proficiency. I could write songs to my own vocal limitations." He further explains:

I started to think, "Rock 'n' roll!" When I did the shows with Patti, I saw that it could be done. It was incredibly fun, and it was so intense and scary and beautiful at the same time. It was remarkable. What a feeling. It's still that way, you know. I think it's just a natural extension of my work, of the images.

Carroll found that, on stage with a band behind him, his stage fright disappeared. Also, he also saw that, rather than tainting his poetry, rock 'n' roll had the potential of enlarging it. In this respect, Henry Miller's Time of the Assassins was a prime influence:

Henry Miller's study of Rimbaud, which is really a study of Henry Miller, was the big factor for me going into rock--that was it. That whole thing about getting a heart quality out of work rather than just the intellectual quality. A good poet works on both. Miller spoke about the inner register and how a great poet has to affect virtual illiterates as well as affecting people through the intellect, and I figured many poets are just writing for other poets today. It's all intellectual ["concrete" and "minimal"] poetry. (Flippo 35)

At this point, Carroll felt poetry was somewhat hypocritical and snobbish: poets were writing only for each other. As he put it, "for the first time I started to realize that a poet should not just be an artist for art's sake, but should at least try to change the world" (Hirschberg 25).

Hirschberg explains that "Carroll had written the words to a few songs and was looking for a band when he heard Amsterdam play at the beach near his home in Marin." Amsterdam's members were Terrell Winn, Brian Linsley, Wayne Woods, and (later) Steve Linsley. While he wasn't terribly impressed with their music, "which seemed stuck in a '60s time warp," Carroll liked the way they played. When Carroll was asked to do a poetry reading at the Mabuhay Gardens, he thought it might be fun to perform his songs, instead. Hence, he approached Amsterdam, who agreed to back him. They rehearsed three times before the show, and they were such a hit that the management "asked us to come back and play the late show" (26).

In the meantime, in 1978, Carroll finally published The Basketball Diaries which, although critically ignored, was something of a hit in underground circles (James). Also, around this time, Carroll and Amsterdam recorded a three-song demo tape. When Carroll returned to New York to sign a deal with Bantam for the republication of The Basketball Diaries, he took the demo tape with him and played it for an executive at Rolling Stone Records (some sources say this executive was Paul McGrath, some say it was Earl McGrath). Hirschberg notes that, "On the basis of the tape, they signed Jim Carroll to a three-record deal" (26). [3]

When the Jim Carroll Band released its first album, Catholic Boy,[4] in 1980, Carroll became an instant celebrity. Up to this point, his work had received very little attention: Ted Berrigan wrote the only review of Organic Trains in 1969; Living at the Movies received only two reviews after its publication in 1973 (Gerard Malanga's was a stone rave; Seamus Cooney said, "Don't miscalculate: avoid this book"). The Basketball Diaries received no reviews at all upon its first publication in 1978. Yet in 1980, with the simultaneous release of Catholic Boy and the republication of The Basketball Diaries, Carroll's picture flashed across the pages of nearly every major magazine, and journalists went into a frenzy.

The problem was that they raved about the wrong things. That is, while many of the authors of these articles have made the same observations I have, noting Carroll's remarkable ability to transform into any number of personas at will, most journalists are so fascinated (or disgusted) with Carroll's biography and his appearance that they fail to recognize his writing as the source of this transformation. Hence, while they spend pages and pages recounting Carroll's nightmarish past, and the miracle of his having written The Basketball Diaries between the ages of 12 and 16, they fail to make one necessary connection: Carroll transformed his past into a work of art, and he rose above the decadence of his youth, through writing.

John Milward, for example, witnessed the same "magic" I did seeing Carroll read his work:

Jim Carroll stands before an overflow audience at New York's Public Theater, flipping through The Basketball Diaries. . . . Slipping into his sidewalk prose, Carroll slowly peels 16 years off his gaunt, burnt-angel frame like a carving knife skinning an onion. But there are no tears. . . . "I was just gonna sniff a bag," Carroll reads from the book . . . , "but Tony said I might as well skin pop it. . . ." Carroll pauses, his eyes like saucers and the silence saturated by the memory of that first shot coursing through his veins. (141)

Yet, while Milward's is an excellent biographical essay, the article concentrates almost entirely on Carroll's heroin addiction. So many journalists focused on this, in fact, that Carroll told Laura Fissinger he simply didn't want to talk about drugs anymore (44, 96). Even worse than the journalists who focus on Carroll's drug addiction, in "Jim Carroll's Rock 'n Roll Heart-on," Mark J. Norton has Carroll talking about Greenpeace and saving the whales.

Because Carroll's critics are mostly misguided, although there are dozens of articles about him, there is no "literature" about Carroll to speak of. Aside from a number of book reviews in library journals and my own recent annotated bibliography, there certainly is no scholarly literature. Furthermore, the articles about him repeat the same information over and over. When discussing The Basketball Diaries, journalists rave about Carroll's horrible adolescence, his drug addiction, stealing and hustling, or, as with Mark J. Norton's review, "The Wide World of Drugs," they see the book as a manifesto of the drug culture. Understandably, everyone also has to mention that Jack Kerouac said, "at the age of 13, Jim Carroll writes better prose than 89 percent of the novelists working today." With Forced Entries, they either complain about Carroll's name-dropping or adore the book as a "documentary history" (Hochswender), and they always compare it to The Basketball Diaries. Finally, when journalists write about Living at the Movies, they will, without fail, mention Carroll's nomination for the Pulitzer Prize at age 22--a false rumor perpetuated solely by the media.

The reviews of Catholic Boy were generally very positive, although most journalist say Carroll's singing voice is terrible. Likewise, the six critics who reviewed The Basketball Diaries in 1980 and 1987 loved it (Bart Platenga, Jamie James, and Tony Perry offer perhaps the most insightful articles on Carroll to date). However, when the Jim Carroll Band released Dry Dreams in 1982, critics either damned the album with faint praise or slaughtered it. Adam Sweeting, for example, wrote that "Nothing straightforward ever happens to Jim. Everything he does is metaphorical." He also concludes that "There's nothing here to suggest that Jim Carroll has ever experienced anything real at all. He probably spends his time in the launderette reading Heavy Metal comics and Playboy. We are not amused." Critics continued to complain about Carroll's singing voice, but the largest hurdles Dry Dreams faced were the comparisons with Catholic Boy. Dry Dreams didn't fare very well.

The number of articles published on Carroll has steadily dwindled since 1981. When the Jim Carroll Band released its third and last album, I Write Your Name, in 1984, it received only four reviews. The reviews of this album, however, were of a different variety than earlier ones, especially since, according to critics, Dry Dreams wasn't a hard act to follow. While Bruce Pollock called I Write Your Name "less embarrassing than frustrating," he also conceded that the title song "deserves to be considered as a kind of rock and roll Howl of the eighties" (747). Likewise, Eric Levin remarked that "Jim Carroll has an ear for language and an eye for imagery" (34), and Danny Sugarman said, "I Write Your Name is the album Jim Carroll always wanted to make and should have made but couldn't until now. This is the one, not his other two."

With I Write Your Name, Carroll stopped making rock 'n' roll albums, at least temporarily. However, during this rock 'n' roll period, Carroll was also involved in a number of other projects, some of which extended into the latter part of the 1980s. He began writing Forced Entries shortly after the release of Catholic Boy, published a number of selections from The Book of Nods, recorded readings from Forced Entries for John Giorno's Dial-A-Poem series (Life Is a Killer [1982] and Better an Old Demon than a New God [1984]), went on the poetry reading circuit, and appeared in Ron Mann's Poetry in Motion (1983) video and in the film Tuff Turf (1985).

In 1986 he published The Book of Nods, followed by Forced Entries and another edition of The Basketball Diaries in 1987. With the release of The Book of Nods, Carroll was again in the limelight, sort of. He read from it on MTV, and journalist Joyce Caruso wrote a flattering article on him in Elle in 1988. At this point, negotiations were in progress for a film version of The Basketball Diaries, starring Anthony Michael Hall. (When I asked Carroll about this in 1989, he told me he sells the film rights to that book about once a year.) Since 1986, Carroll has toured the reading circuit about twice a year, and he is now writing his first fiction novel. He may be considering recording a new rock album with ex-Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek . . .

Such is Jim Carroll's biography, along with critics' appraisals of him to date. In laying all this out, I hope to offer a sense of Carroll's general life story and achievements as portrayed in the media. This distinction is important because not only does Carroll tell quite a different story in his two diaries, but his second diary is in many ways a reaction to the stigma his past became as a result of this media portrayal. (I discuss this in the conclusion.) As journalists recount it, Carroll's biography is a just another biography of a decadent culture hero. But in his diaries, while Carroll is trying to tell the truth about his life, he is also transforming it into something beyond itself--a continuing, constantly metamorphosing work of art. Therefore, while all of Carroll's work is, in one way or another, "about" his life, it is also very much a record of his ongoing struggle to find a sense of "purity"--a purity he can find, in the end, only by transforming his life through writing.

For this reason, I have chosen to discuss his two diaries, The Basketball Diaries and Forced Entries, to show not just Carroll's shocking biography, but his transformation of it into art. Patti Smith once wrote, in "The Salvation of Rock":

pollution is a result of the inability of man to transform waste. the transformation of waste is perhaps the oldest preoccupation of man. gold, being the chosen alloy, must be resurrected--via shit, at all cost. inherent within us is the dream and task of the alchemist. to create from clay a man. and to recapture from the excretions of man pure and soft then solid gold. (Babel 140)

Had Carroll never written a word, he might have been just another New York street punk grown up, a star basketball player gone to waste, a heroin addict, a hustler; he would have been numbered among the excrement of human society, polluted and unable to transform or resurrect the debris of his life. But he did write, and still writes, perpetually revising and transforming the waste of his past into works of startling beauty, turning shit into gold.

In one sense, writing diaries for Carroll serves a purpose similar to that which Albert Appel notes of Nabokov's Lolita. That is, Carroll, like Humbert Humbert, purifies his nightmarish, ugly experience through the filter of his imagination so that his autobiography "takes on a new life: frozen in art, halted in space, now timeless, it can be lived with" (xxii). On the other hand, Carroll has yet to leave his past frozen. He is in a constant process of becoming: not only has he written two autobiographies, he also reworks his life in other forms, poetry and rock music, within which he continually experiments with new ways to relate his experience. Hence, with each work, he perpetually revises his autobiography so that it is always new, always alive, and never quite finished.

Furthermore, just as Humbert Humbert calls upon his readers "to participate in the scene I am about to replay" (Nabokov 59), Carroll asks his readers to participate in his metamorphosis. We are not to just read about his life; we are to experience it with him, attempt to understand it, and discover the beauty of it. In both The Basketball Diaries and Forced Entries, Carroll directly addresses his audience in author's notes, clearly indicating both that his diaries do not document the "literal truth" of his biography, and that he wants us to be part of the story. The "Author's Note" of the original The Basketball Diaries states:

Just to clear a few matters up pertaining to these diaries.

I was 12 yrs. old when I began writing it down, it continued until I was 15 nearing 16.

"Did it all really happen to you?" I get that one put to me often. Well . . .

To answer that simply, they are as much fiction as biography. They were as much made up as they were lived out. It all happened. None of it happened. It was me. Now it's you.

Likewise, the "Author's Note" in Forced Entries (though Carroll told me it was written by lawyers as libel protection) states:

Because I know from repeated experience one question which will be asked later, I will try to answer it now. This diary is not the literal truth and is not meant to be a historical recounting of the period. The entries were consciously embellished and fictionalized to some extent. My purpose was simply to convey the texture of my experiences and feelings for that period.

As in the first "Author's Note," Carroll asks his readers "to make the characters your own," and concludes, "I sincerely hope this has not answered all your questions" (vi-vii).

What makes the author's notes especially interesting is that, actually, most of the facts in Carroll's diaries are verifiable (I checked everything I could). That is, the biographies themselves are for the most part factual. However, judging from Carroll's interviews and early publications of The Basketball Diaries, he changed characters' names (apparently to avoid lawsuits): Mike Tittleberger is "Benny Greenbaum," Corky Ball is "Bax Porter," Luther Green is "Sammy Fulton," Frank Smith is "Mr. Brothers," and Dean Meminger is "Ben Davis." Likewise, in Forced Entries, Patti Smith becomes "Jenny Ann," Larry Rivers becomes "D.M.Z.," and Brigid Polk becomes "Gloria Excelsior." [5]

More significant, however, is the fact that Carroll altered the chronologies of both diaries; that is, where he painstakingly details the "facts" of his biography, he takes great liberties regarding the dates of most events. Importantly, because of this, his exact birth date is a matter of doubt; secondary sources place it at 1950 or 1951, but Carroll never verifies either date. In Forced Entries, for example, he claims he was born "the day the Russians scattered the remnants of their first bomb into the atmosphere" (1); this event occurred in 1949. Furthermore, in the first entry of The Basketball Diaries, dated Fall 1963, Carroll says he is 13, which would set his birth date at 1950. Even so, an earlier publication is dated November 6, 1962, which would move his birth date to 1949 again.

In any case, Carroll exploits this ambiguity to suit his aesthetic design. For example, in the first entry of The Basketball Diaries, Carroll emphasizes that he was admitted into the Biddy League under false pretenses: "The Biddy League is a league for anyone 12 yrs. old or under. I'm actually 13 but my coach Lefty gave me a fake birth certificate" (3). With his ambiguous birthdate and fake birth certificate to match, Carroll sets up a carefully constructed aesthetic framework for the book: by society's standards (in this case, the Biddy League's) he is illegitimate, so he must find a way to transcend this status. At the same time, in this entry Carroll also reveals that the society itself is hypocritical and corrupt (Coach Lefty not only gives him the fake birth certificate but is a pedophiliac as well), so the question becomes: who is really unauthentic, Carroll or the "system"? Because of this, Carroll must find a way to rise above this society's corruption and hypocrisy to maintain his own integrity.

Likewise, in Forced Entries, Carroll again uses his birth date to set up the aesthetic theme of the book. While many of the events later in the diary chronologically came earlier, when Carroll was 18 and 19, the first entry marks his twentieth birthday. Again, this single alteration unifies the entire book. His birth date now associates him with greatness and legitimacy: he was born on the same day as Herman Melville, the Emperor Claudius, and Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead (1). Nevertheless, as he reaches adulthood, Carroll now realizes he has yet to fulfill his potential for greatness. Hence, he begins the book idly appraising his future, gauging "the passage from a disturbed youth to a disturbed adult" (2). Because of this, as with The Basketball Diaries, Carroll sets out again to validate himself and transcend corruption by entering the "system," this time as an adult rather than a self-destructive kid.

The alterations of Carroll's chronology are significant because they indicate that the primary purpose of the diaries is not just to document his biography. By imposing order on his chaotic life, and by setting up tangible themes within his biography, he is able to transform his life into a work of art.

Carroll wrote Forced Entries nearly a decade after the events it describes, and his hindsight allowed him to structure the diaries in such a way that events connect logically together. However, even though Carroll reworked and reorganized The Basketball Diaries to some extent after the fact, it is for the most part the diary Carroll kept during the period. Hence, the real chaos Carroll experienced underlies the book's aesthetic unity. He lives in the shadow of the cold war, and his world is one of crime, poverty, racism, hypocrisy, sexual and religious corruption. He is addicted to heroin and hustling gay men, and trying to rise above his conditions through basketball, drugs, and writing.

Hence, because real life is not orderly, The Basketball Diaries does not offer the flawless unity of a fictional novel, nor is it as impeccably structured as Forced Entries. Carroll descends to horrible depths, experiences terrific victories, then falls back down again, over and over. But even within the chaotic details of Carroll's life, he imposes a general pattern in his diary. There is a gradual opening up from the first few pages to the end. The Biddy League in the first entry, with its pedophiliac coaches, is a microcosm of a corrupt society as a whole, in which respectable-looking businessmen molest young boys in public restrooms, and Catholic priests take sexual pleasure in beating their students. Lefty's racial prejudice expands into a world ruled by bigots, leading to fears of "them commies," "them longhairs and junkies," and contributing to the war in Vietnam.

Finally, what makes Carroll's diaries truly remarkable is that he is able to write so eloquently about the chaos and corruption surrounding him, and about his own corruption, his drug addiction, his defeats and victories, and make sense of it all. Carroll's ultimate transcendence is in the street lingo he uses; this, combined with his black humor, is an explosive mixture in his alchemist's brew. In both diaries, Carroll shows off with language, with each turn of phrase being a sort of slam dunk with language. His street lingo becomes punk poetry, and his manipulation of it is a self-controlled game. If he has no control over his physical existence, his control of language is remarkably consistent. Likewise, he uses humor to cope with his victimization and lack of control, ironically juxtaposing appearance and reality, and deflating the pretensions of his hypocritical world with the turn of a phrase.

The fact is, the real miracle of Jim Carroll is not his shocking biography, but the way he has transformed it into a work of art. Hence, while his diaries can be viewed as a continuing initiation story, straight autobiography, or documentary histories, I've chosen to focus my discussion on the ways Carroll uses his biography to illustrate the development of his artistic sensibility. This can be seen in his poetry and rock music, but the diaries are perhaps the best examples of that sensibility.

Copyright 1990 Cassie Carter. This material may not be reprinted except by permission from the author.


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