Terry Southern is one of those writers that keeps popping up, has for a long time. Nu? Why haven’t I read anything by him? I really should, shoudn’t I? Why don’t I see his books more in used bookstores? Man, I’ve been meaning to read him for years now.
Southern is one of those characters that you hear about, time and again, yet his legend has outlasted his work. His two best know novels are The Magic Christian and Candy (co-writen with Mason Hoffenberg ), but he is more famous for the work he did as a screenwriter–Dr. Strangelove, The Cincinnati Kid, Easy Rider. (Peter Sellers, the story goes, bought 100 copies of The Magic Christian, gave one to Stanley Kubrick, and that’s how Southern got the job on Strangelove.)
Southern was briefly a writer on SNL during the Eddie Murphy years but apparently, not much of his material made the show. He was a guy who drank a lot and dig a ton of drugs, and his writing suffered as a result.
I’ve read a couple of pieces on Southern lately. Maybe I’m not missing much. There is this, from a New Yorker article about Easy Rider, “Whose Movie is This?” by Mark Singer (June 22, 1998).
Peter Matthiessen, who says that a Southern story from the fifties, “The Accident,” helped to inspire the founding of The Paris Review, told me recently that he though Southern had lost the energy and discipline to persevere as a serious writer. “I don’t believe there was much more work he wished to do,” Matthiessen said. “He was an observer anda commentator on modern life, and he had this quirky take on things. He was one of the founders of that school of irony–that cool style–and when he had a big splash with ‘Dr. Strangelove’ that irreverent, obstreperous take on things was all very startling and new. But, after that, everybody was into outrage. Terry’s style became diffused throughout the culture, and I think he’d already said what he had to say.”
And this, from an essay by Luc Sante, “I Can’t Carry You Anymore.”
Southern staked everything on effect. Thus he required a social context; he needed both an audience of cronies who would get it and an audience of squares who not only wouldn’t, but would turn purple and thrash ineffectually in offended protest. His was the strategem of someone with a lot to prove, and perhaps a lot to conceal. Other writers of his time similarly polarized the readership, but never quite in the same way. His old friend William Burroughs, for example, put all his contradictions on the line. He might have enjoyed provoking the enemy, but he hardly appeared dependent on the finger-popping approval of his frat brothers. Anway, his provocation had a point–there was a world of repression that had caused him misery and that he wanted to destroy. Southern never made it clear that he was in it for more than high fives and free drinks.
…Many of his riffs have failed to survive their context, and there wasn’t a whole lot in his work that transcended the category of riff. What we have here is a caution to the young, which might be summed up by one of Southern’s most famous lines: “You’re too hip, baby. I can’t carry you anymore.”