Jim Carroll, 1949-2009December 30, 2009
I didn’t want the year to end without saying a few words about Jim Carroll, who died this past September 11 while at his desk, writing. Back in the early 1980s, when I was twelve or thirteen, I was wandering around a bookstore in Hanover, NH, looking for a sports book to read, and I came upon the 1980 Bantam paperback version of Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries (shown at left). To that point most of my reading consisted of Spider-Man and Fantastic Four comic books, Alfred Slote little league sagas, and sports biographies. The farthest I’d ventured from that realm to that point had probably been when I read Judy Blume’s Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, a tale of a solitary basketball-loving boy edging into puberty (just like me) that offered helpful tips on how to hide unstoppable public erections. I suppose I figured The Basketball Diaries would be something along those lines, though I was probably vaguely aware of and excited by the darker currents suggested by the lean, somber figure in black on the cover. He seemed like a combination of the cool older longhaired kids in my town and, by virtue of his sneakers and long frame, the cool older guys on the varsity basketball team in my town. In fact, there was one kid in my town who almost bridged those two worlds, a guy who partied with all the longhairs but who was also renowned to have almost mystical basketball abilities. Danny Lollar was his name, and as I remember it his final foray into organized basketball lasted only a couple days of being hectored by the totalitarian varsity coach before he grumbled something like “fuck this shit” and shouldered out of the gym’s side door to go get wasted. Some time later, he materialized again one day on the sidelines of the court while some guys, including my brother, were shooting around. An errant shot got past everyone and rolled toward Danny Lollar. He picked it up and spun it in his hands, then stepped over the sideline and onto the court. He was just over the halfcourt line, in desperation heave territory, but he rose up in perfect jump shot form and sent the ball on a high arc that stung the bottom of the net just as he was finally dropping his textbook follow-through and turning to leave. I think when I picked up The Basketball Diaries I was aware I might find something like the legend of Danny Lollar in its pages.
I did find that. Jim Carroll could play some ball. (In years to come I wondered if all the things he said about his own soaring abilities were true, but on that first read I believed every last claim completely, so much so that I imagined an alternate reality where he hadn’t gone down a different path, and had instead stuck solely with basketball, and was at the time I held the book in my hands somehow also in the NBA, dunking on the head of his old New York City playground rival, the former Lew Alcindor. While this impression of Carroll’s limitless basketball potential may have been a bit of a wishful stretch on my part, he definitely was a teenage standout in the sport, playing varsity for all four years of high school, serving as the team captain during a senior year in which he was all-conference and, according to the 1968 Trinity yearbook, “had occasional spectacular performances and averaged 17 points.”) And I would have surely been deeply satisfied with a book that had merely followed the on-court exploits of a New York City playground star. But the book, from its opening pages, was much more than just that. By the second entry the narrator had diverged from a description of his basketball team’s exploits to describe being high on Carbona and puking on the head of “some dude” on the Staten Island Ferry. Before much longer the diaries were describing heroin addiction, anxious apocalyptic fears and fantasies, and the peddling of blow jobs in Port Authority bathrooms, among many other harrowing adventures. Instead of leaving me satisfied, the book–and more specifically its unique, arresting, and jarring voice–actually had something of the opposite effect on me, its street-stung visions and incantations awakening something like hunger inside me. I had begun writing in a journal by then, a little here and there, inspired by the diary style and the simple, hilarious hijinks of Sparky Lyle’s The Bronx Zoo, but with The Basketball Diaries a new and much wider and stranger sense of what could happen when the pen hit the page was born. I didn’t know what hit me for years and years, actually. I mean I knew I loved the book and laughed with it and was confused and disturbed by it, and I read it again and again, but the place it now has in my life, as not only a favorite book but also one of the three or four most important books in terms of my life as a writer, was not apparent to me for a long time because I didn’t really know I had a life as a writer. But I remember that when I took my first semi-deliberate steps toward that solitary vocation I did so by performing a direct imitation of Jim Carroll. It was for a literature class in my freshman year in college, and I wrote a first-person fictional account of riding a subway uptown “to score.” It was quite a piece of horseshit, I’m sure, but the professor, Tony Whedon, was a very gifted teacher who owed part of his gift to having the ability to find the tiny flecks of real gold in the globs of pyrite that piled up on his desk, and he singled my piece out and had me read it aloud to the class. (Jim Carroll would have been proud of one thing, I suppose: I had come to class that day just after doing several bong hits and was pretty far gone.) The attention helped spur me along to keep trying to find a voice that spoke as truly for me as Jim Carroll’s voice spoke for him.
It’s a lifelong search, as Jim Carroll showed by dying with his boots on, at his writing desk. It’s not an easy search by any means, but I’m very grateful to be on it, and I have Jim Carroll as much as any other writer who ever lived to thank for it. So thanks, Jimmy boy. I owe you big time. Rest in peace.