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A Grand Guy: The Art and Life of Terry Southern

by Lee Hill
343 pages,
ISBN: 0380977869

Now Dig This: The Unspeakable Writings of Terry Southern, 1950-1995

by Terry Southern, Nile Southern, Lee Server
263 pages,
ISBN: 0802116892


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The Very Definition of Hip
by T. F. Rigelhof

Lee Hill
Terry Southern with Jane Fonda, 1967 (Courtesy of R. Dudas)
Gail Gerber, 1964 (Camilla McGrath/Courtesy of G. Gerber)

Nobody said Mordecai Richler was hip or cool, did they? In all the hundreds and hundreds of things that were said and got printed in the days after Richler died, nobody said anything like, "I really dug that cat, man. Mort was hip, man, he was one cool daddy-o," did they? If anyone stepped out of that time warp, I completely missed it. And yet Mordecai Richler sat in on the birth of the hip and had a hand in the making and shaping of Terry Southern, the man who The New York Times called "The Hippest Guy on the Planet." This was in London and Paris. This was forty and fifty years ago. And as the Calgary writer Lee Hill notes in A Grand Guy: The Art and Life of Terry Southern, this was before "the eighties and nineties beat the daylights out of any profound notions of 'hip' or 'cool' making it harder for the fragile ironic precision of [his] books and films to resonate meaningfully. 'Hip' and 'cool' began and continue to be aligned with the things one buys and consumes as opposed to what one believes. Thus Tom Cruise wearing Ray-Bans in Risky Business became cool." And rumpled, crumpled Richler with his inevitable whisky and cigar lost it and Southern with his deeper, more destructive addictions (Dexamyl mixed with vast quantities of alcohol, cocaine) fell right off the monitors of most cultural scanners.

Fragile ironic precision, commitment, openness, activism, community, love and fun!¨astonishing as it may now seem, it is these qualities (not indifference, apathy, smugness) that once defined the aspirations of the truly hip, that animate the books and films of Terry Southern¨Flash and Filigree, Candy, The Magic Christian, Red Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes (including the classic and definitive put-down of the unhip ű "You're Too Hip, Baby"), Blue Movie, Dr. Strangelove, Easy Rider, The Loved One, and The Cincinnati Kid.

Buck Henry (who wrote the screenplay for Candy just after he finished The Graduate) said of Southern, "He invented his own idiom out of the fifties and sixties, his own language; Garcfa M▀rquez meets Eisenhower. I think because his work is very specific and noncopyable, he had no influence on us at all. It was a whole new chapter in black comedy, in farce." Buck Henry is Hollywood, and Hollywood never understood hip and cool or Southern, and an infatuation with all things Hollywood seems to keep Lee Hill (who wrote the book on Easy Rider for the British Film Institute's Modern Classics series) from separating sense from nonsense in what Henry and many others have said about Terry Southern, or from probing what it was that was really happening when Southern and Richler and Mason Hoffenberg, the man who brought them all together, were doing what they were really doing when they were hanging out at the Old Navy and other joints on rue Saint-Germain-des-PrTs in the post-war years and investigating satirical possibilities and setting standards of ironic precision that remain fresh, subversive, and not widely enough copied.

Born on May 1, 1924, Terry Southern was a kid from semi-rural Texas (a place in his final novel Texas Summer "of strange hidden contrasts. . . darkly persuasive: the diamondback rattler coiled in a field of bluebonnets, the scorpion beneath the yellow rose") who enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943, served with good conduct in England and Europe with a Quartermaster Platoon (shades of Sargeant Bilko), signed on at the University of Chicago for the Great Books program (Philip Roth and George Steiner were fellow students), transferred to Northwestern ("all these beautiful blue-eyed blondes in their yellow convertibles"), then transferred a second time in 1948 to the Sorbonne under the GI Bill. It was in London with the Army that Southern met Jews ("the grooviest people") and intermingled with African Americans for the first time and discovered what it was to be unafraid to construct a personality out of wit, intelligence, dignity, and self-mocking humour and project it outwards with self-confidence, irony and carefully deliberated understatement. London also opened him to literary influences, high and low (Evelyn Waugh, T.S. Eliot, Henry Green, the comedians at the Windmill ), but it was in Paris from 1948 to 1952 that Southern underwent complete metamorphosis. There is a large and important story here begging to be told but Lee Hill provides only glittering fragments of the things that alienated Southern from postwar America ("McCarthyism was creating a cultural climate of anti-intellectualism, xenophobia, and conformity"), the things that drew him to Paris ("the proverbial City of Light"), the things that provided him with "a frenzy of experience" ("jazz clubs by night and the CinTmathFque by day"), the existentialism to which he wholly committed himself ("a youthful passion that would become embedded in Southern's worldview for the rest of his life"), the larger world to which he was drawn ("spontaneous forays into Holland, Greece, Italy, and Spain"), the literary reverberations, and his intimate friendship with two Jews, one a rich beatnik from Greenwich Village, the other a poor boy of intense literary ambition from Montreal. Lee Hill does understand that Mason Hoffenberg and Mordecai Richler are the keys to comprehending Southern's makeover into the perfect hipster but he doesn't quite see where either of them fits or the turns they take in Terry Southern's life.

At an early point in his book, Lee Hill sums up Richler in relation to the others in this way: "Unlike Southern and Hoffenberg, Richler proved to be more pragmatic and savvy about his career. His successes would not have the kind of cultural impact of Candy or Dr. Strangelove, but he wouldn't end up with Southern's monumental money problems or Hoffenberg's enervating addictions to drugs and booze." Richler was a pragmatist and very savvy but not only on his own behalf: Lee Hill does give Richler the credit he is due for getting Andre Deutsch to publish Southern's novels when no American firm would touch them and, again, for finding Southern his first jobs as a television screenwriter in London. And Hoffenberg was a notorious heroin addict. But to learn what he needed to know to make sense of their deeper effects on Terry Southern's art, Lee Hill should not have been satisfied with merely interviewing Richler: he ought to have dug out the novels (St. Urbain's Horseman, Cocksure, Barney's Version) where Hoffenberg appears in various guises and Richler's satire shows its closest kinship to Southern's.

At his most serious moments, Richler was fond of saying in interviews, "In a time when there really is no agreement on values. . . you are obliged to work out your own code of honour and system of beliefs and to lead as honourable a life as possible." He wasn't being particularly original: he was claiming as his own creed what he had absorbed from Samuel Johnson and Voltaire via Hoffenberg. Hoffenberg's precise contribution to Candy is still subject to debate but there can be little doubt that that book is closest to Hoffenberg when it's nearest Voltaire's Candide in spirit (Lee Hill seems entirely unaware of the blindingly obvious connections). Hoffenberg was the Francophile among the three of them and the one quickest to perceive the ways in which eighteenth century satire (with its explicit sexuality and love of grossness and excess) was a psychological and political necessity as well as an aesthetic possibility for those who wanted to survive the stringencies of the Cold War. The times were too serious not to be silly.

Candy made Southern's name in North America in 1964, and his appearance in 1967 in the collage on the album cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Southern is a few faces to the northwest of John Lennon's right shoulder) picked up an audience for Flash and Filigree and The Magic Christian. Peter Sellers met him on the set of Dr. Strangelove and drew him into the unending intercontinental, bi-coastal blast of a party that was the sixties for people who made too much money far too quickly for what was all too frequently their less than best work. Continuing the story past Southern's encounters with Easy Rider, the Rolling Stones, and the whole hippie scene, Hill writes that the seventies "should have been a continuation of the Terry Southern boom . . . Instead, as the new decade began, Southern entered a frustrating and puzzling 25-year stretch of grand projects, fascinating possibilities and dead ends." That's another large story and a far more dramatic one than the genesis of literary style and attitude and, once again, Lee Hill misses its most important parts. Because he never fully comprehends what it was that Southern had when he had it, Lee Hill is not in a good position to rightly judge its collapse and is more befuddled by the "bad luck" that haunts Southern's later projects than he ought to be.

A Grand Guy: The Art and Life of Terry Southern offers fascinating possibilities for a fine book but mostly its the kind of dead end chronicle of famous people met and drugs taken that minor celebrity biographies fade into when executed by the hand of a writer who lacks style and substance and has read too many PR handouts. Lee Hill is at his best when he's at his briefest and offers a summing up of a movie or a book. Indeed, anyone who wants the clearest insights and assessments that this book has to offer can find them in the final four pages which culminate in this: "To the extent that this wildly inventive writer had a single theme, it was in his poignant exploration of innocence, nanvetT, and idealism on the one hand, and worldliness, cynicism, and materialism on the other. In his greatest novel, The Magic Christian, Southern created an alter ego, Guy Grand, who embodied all these qualities and contradictions. The book is more than a satire about money and greed, it is also a fable about making one's dreams a reality and the importance of giving for its own sake." Precisely.

On October 29, 1995, at the age of seventy-one, Terry Southern died "sans sou" his son Nile Southern reports in the Afterword to Now Dig This: The Unspeakable Writings of Terry Southern 1950 ű 1995, an anthology he has edited with the Texas blues guitarist Josh Alan Friedman. Nile Southern inherited only the "big boy boxes" at Chelsea Mini-Storage in New York that contain Terry Southern's papers. From this archive of published and unpublished pieces, the two editors have drawn "a dizzying myriad of vocalizings"¨tales, letters, interviews, scenes from screenplays, journalism, critical writings, and bits of memoir. Although these short pieces demonstrate that Terry Southern was a forceful, witty, lively, generous, wicked, wildly erotic, and fun-loving writer, there's little here (the exception is a wickedly perverse satirical tribute to Kurt Vonnegut) that rises to the standards set in his previously published works. On the whole, this is a collection for aficionados. Newcomers to Southern or those who know him only through his film work should start elsewhere: Nile Southern maintains the Terry Southern website (www.terrysouthern.com) which is user-friendly and very useful as a guide to his life, his art and the half dozen books that established his literary reputation as a writer worth reading by anyone who sees little virtue in being correct when the politics of the times are so wrong-headed. They are larger, weirder, more invasive, and a lot funnier than life as most writers imagine it these days. ˛

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