Sunday, November 14, 2010

"Now Dig This" : Tip-top Terry Southern's misadventures in "the quality lit game"

Now dig this: Here's two hundred fifty pages of wildly unclassifiable, wholly entertaining (and, yes indeed, some unspeakable) bits and pieces of Southern's magazine writings, interviews, stories, and routines.

A genuine literary anarchist with a wicked wit and an incredible eye for detail -- his
Esquire piece on the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968 is classic eyewitness journalism -- Southern was also a screenwriter (The Cincinnati Kid, The Loved One, Barbarella, Easy Rider, Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and others), a satirist, and an agent provocateur who relished goading people into revealing their true personalities. He became adept at telling stories that finished with "the put-away," the telling detail that drove home the point of the tale. Poor E.B. White of The New Yorker comes out the worse for wear for Terry's over-the-top interrogation techniques, I'm afraid.

Fueled by booze, pills and powders, Southern swings through the decades not just as an observer but a participant at the center of it all (he was a writer both for National Lampoon and SNL, pals with Lennon, the Stones and Burroughs, as well as Kubrick and George Plimpton). It seems there's hardly a scene he doesn't make, including an appearance on the cover of Sgt. Pepper.

The book is filled with newly discovered bits of weirdness -- a lost scene for Kubrick's 1980 draft of
Eyes Wide Shut then called "Rhapsody," an outrageous SNL sketch idea taken from National Enquirer called "Worm Ball Man," incendiary letters sent to the editors of Ms. Magazine, and a pitch to Lenny Bruce for a part in Southern's adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One in 1964:

Len Big Bopper -- Enclosed please find cine script by yrs truly ... It is our very real hope that you will consider the role of the "Guru Brahmin" -- which can be altered and grooved up infinitely, natch, to your own outlandish specifications. You will be rubbing shoulders, Len (if not, in fact, pelvic regions) with such star and feature players as Sir John ("Jack") Gielgud (Francis), Jonathan Winters (Harry and the Dreamer), Rod Steiger (Joyboy), Liberace (Starker), Dana Andrews (Gen Schmuck), Keenan Wynn (Immigration Officer), and a host of other show-stoppers of equally curious persuasions. Director is tip-top Tony R, the Oscar-copping madcap, and, as I say, chief scripter is yrs truly. ... The Guru's lines appear on pages as per follows: 75, 76, 93, 119, 120, 141, 142, and 143. Please note that scene 131 gives you an excellent shot at the fantastic winner of our young beautiful girl star, whose name I will not reveal to you at this moment due to its effect of instant shoot-off.

It's easy to romanticize (and criticize) the alcohol and drug-taking frenzy of so much of Southern's work, yet the sheer variety of it all (of which this book is just a part) is amazing, not to mention the amount of "quality lit" he produced for newspapers, magazines and journals -- Grand Street, The Nation, The Herald Tribune. He may have just been paying bills in between the more grandiose flights of fancy, but Southern showed a genuine interest and admiration for writers like Henry Green, the British novelist whose works had not been yet published in the U.S. His lengthy interview with Green in The Paris Review (1959) was done at Southern's own suggestion. And then there's his wry appreciation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym:" "Here is a work which does not appear on any reading list at any school in the country -- by virtue of its extreme weirdness."

Southern spelled out his artistic credo in an interview in The New York Times, 1964: "The important thing in writing," he said, "is the capacity to astonish. Not shock -- shock is a worn-out word -- but astonish. The world has no grounds whatever for complacency. The Titanic couldn't sink, but it did. Where you find smugness, you find something worth blasting. I want to blast it." He was a painfully shy man and reluctant to talk much about himself, but when he was asked how he felt about his treatment at the hands of the critics over the years, he quoted T. S. Eliot. " 'Poetry,' he said, 'is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.' Here's the put-away," Southern continued. " 'But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.' "

Ironically, Terry Southern's wildly prolific writing career created a literary reputation that has only undergone a transformation in the past few years. His son Nile has set about refurbishing his father's literary estate, approving a biography (A Grand Guy, by Lee Hill, 2001) and publishing a memoir of his father's time in 1950s Paris writing for Olympia Press (The CANDY Men, 2004), as well as collecting the wealth of material that appears in Now Dig This, compiled with Josh Alan Friedman. A good chunk of Southern's unpublished material -- including an early Kubrick interview (1962) -- appears in a 2004 issue of Stop Smiling magazine. Nile Southern writes in his introduction, entitled "Resurrection Now!":

I realized I had a strange beast on my hands: as a link between the Beats and the Beatles, pop culture and "Quality Lit," Terry was a literary anomaly. With over 40 boxes of "archive," I got busy. I turned to the neglected work ... I copied everything and began "packaging" dear old dad. He may have defied labels in his day, but in today's pop culture, Terry Southern needed some re-branding.

In 2005, Nile Southern was asked in an interview what his father would make of television's current obsession with reality programs. After the interviewer pointed out the echoes of Southern's 1968 comedy The Magic Christian and what people would -- and would not -- do for money, Nile replied: "I think he would look at them and he'd say, 'Wow!' I think he's gathered around with the ghosts of Michael O'Donoghue and Lenny Bruce and looking at all this with astonishment. And chuckling." For more information on the grand guy himself, visit

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