Saturday, July 10, 2010

Two new biographies

George Carlin

Newscast 1967

Biff Burns on sports and Al Sleet [the Hippy Dippy Weatherman] with the weather

"To the Ramparts of Comedy, Playfully Profane"


Dwight Garner

July 8th, 2010

The New York Times

If there’s a definitive illustration of the adage that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, it may be the early years of George Carlin’s stand-up-comedy career.

Carlin swam mightily through the lukewarm ooze of American pop culture, opening for lounge acts like Joey Heatherton, Barbara Eden and Robert Goulet. He appeared on regrettable television shows, the kinds of things that will play on every television station in hell: “John Davidson at Notre Dame”; “Perry Como’s Holiday in Hawaii”; “The Tony Orlando and Dawn Rainbow Hour.” He became a grizzled, bankable survivor. A weird anger began to light him, like an ingested lava lamp, from within.

George Carlin died two years ago, on June 22, 2008, a dark day for those (I was among them) who sought regular injections of his word-drunk, reflexively anti-authoritarian humor. Carlin has already had a busy afterlife. His “sortabiography,” “Last Words,” written with Tony Hendra, was published last year and was a better, chewier, more touching book than it had any right to be. On the horizon is an oral history, compiled by his daughter, Kelly Carlin McCall. George Carlin: he’s hot, he’s sexy, and he’s dead.

In the meantime we have “Seven Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin,” a biography from the entertainment journalist James Sullivan. It’s a banty-weight book, thinly sourced. Its wordplay is more John Davidson than Bob Dylan. But it fills in and complicates our mental image of Carlin, and it isn’t long or distinctive enough to genuinely dislike.

Mr. Sullivan, whose previous books are “The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America” and “Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon,” has bravely avoided padding out his book with quotations from Carlin’s stand-up routines.

He has succeeded too well. You miss Carlin’s voice. (“If crime fighters fight crime and firefighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight?” he asked, in a quotation that is provided.) The tumbleweed scarcity of direct quotation prevents you from getting a clear sense of how Carlin’s acid comic voice developed.

This book gets the story told, however, and Mr. Sullivan convincingly makes the case that for 50 years Carlin “may well have produced more laughs than any other human being.”

George Carlin was born in 1937 and grew up in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan, a neighborhood he called White Harlem. His father, who’d been born in Ireland, was a talker, a newspaper ad salesman who won a national Dale Carnegie public speaking contest in 1935. He was a drunk, though, and Carlin’s mother fled with her children while George was still a baby.

Carlin began a lifelong pot-smoking habit when he was a teenager. He began hanging out on street corners. He dropped out of high school at 16. Everyone who met him, though, recognized one thing. “The kid,” Mr. Sullivan writes, “had a mouth on him.”

During a rocky stint in the Air Force he began to work at a radio station, KJOE in Shreveport, La. Listeners liked him. He had more going for him than a nice baritone. He also worked at stations in Boston, Texas and California before turning to stand-up comedy.

Carlin had been weaned on Mad magazine, and later the brainy, subversive patter of comics like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl. After working the club circuit, he began appearing on Mike Douglas’s and Merv Griffin’s talk shows. He began popping up on Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show,” and then Johnny Carson’s. He would ultimately appear with Carson more than 100 times.

As the 1960s dragged on, Carlin began to realize he was aiming at the wrong demographic — parents, not the new generation of college-age baby boomers. He changed his act. It got druggier. He began taking on the Vietnam War and politics. He became an admirer of Paul Krassner’s counterculture magazine, The Realist. He grew a beard and let his hair grow.

His career briefly took a step back before leaping forward. He began playing hip clubs and college theaters instead of Vegas lounges, taking comedy to a rock ’n’ roll audience. He also released several popular comedy albums. He first performed his landmark routine, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” in 1972. It got him arrested in Milwaukee. When a New York radio station played it at lunchtime, the F.C.C. issued on order prohibiting the routine’s language as “indecent.”

The case went to the Supreme Court, which upheld the ruling. But the controversy put Carlin permanently on the map. Lenny Bruce, he said, “was the first one to make language an issue, and he suffered for it. I was the first one to make language an issue and succeed with it.”

Carlin was the first guest host on “Saturday Night Live.” For a generation he defined satirical late-night humor. His gifts were reminiscent not just of Bruce and Sahl but of Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken and Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson. In the late ’70s he began doing free-form concert specials for HBO, a series he would continue until shortly before his death.

Mr. Sullivan writes well about Carlin the comic’s comic, a man of vast productivity who took pride in writing his own material. Many comics manage to stretch a few thin bits into entire careers; Mr. Carlin wrote a new show from scratch every year or two.

You won’t get a strong sense from “Seven Dirty Words” of what Carlin was like offstage. We learn about his drug use and, later, his obsession with good red wine. He was married to his first wife, Brenda, for 36 years, until her death. But Mr. Sullivan suggests there might not have been that much to know. Carlin was a workaholic, usually on the road or at his desk, working on his next show.

What got him, in the end, was his ticker. He died of heart failure, after suffering his first heart attack in 1978.

Carlin wasn’t big on reverence. To Civil War re-enactors he said, “Use live ammo.” He did a riff about how we devote a moment of silence to the dearly departed, and why there aren’t variations on that theme. “How about a moment of muffled conversation,” he asked, “for the treated and released?”

Well, here’s a cockeyed salute, then, a moment of dazzled mental genuflection for a comic who, every once in a while, felt like the most alive human being on the planet.

Seven Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin


James Sullivan

ISBN-10: 0306818299
ISBN-13: 978-0306818295


"A Talent for Writing, and Falling Into Things"


Dwight Garner

July 6th, 2010

The New York Times

It may not be a surprise to learn that the British novelist William Golding, whose “Lord of the Flies” (1954) supplanted “The Catcher in the Rye” as the bible of tortured adolescence in America, did not have a happy childhood. But the details will put a sweat on your forehead. “He was oversensitive, timid, fearful, lonely,” John Carey writes in this excellent biography, the first to be written about Golding (1911-1993). “He was alienated from his parents and his brother and had no friends.”

Golding’s alienation spun into class rage. His father, an impoverished intellectual, taught at a mediocre grammar school that had the misfortune to be not far from Marlborough College, an elite private school. That school’s privileged and preening young men made Golding feel “dirty and ashamed,” Mr. Carey writes. Golding became a writer partly to seek revenge. “The truth is my deepest unconscious desire would be to show Marlborough,” Golding wrote, “and then piddle on them.”

Golding’s sense of social inadequacy never left him. He attended Brasenose College, Oxford, where he shook with resentment. The school’s placement interviewers privately noted that he was “N.T.S.” (not top shelf) and “Not quite” (not quite a gentleman). Small wonder Golding would later write, in a book review, that he wished that he could sneak up on Eton, perhaps England’s most exclusive private school, “with a mile or two of wire, a few hundred tons of TNT, and one of those plunger-detonating machines which makes the user feel like Jehovah.”

In his fiction Golding would become a laureate of humiliation, writes Mr. Carey, a well-known British literary critic, biographer and academic. (He is emeritus Merton professor of English literature at Oxford.) But Golding was also in touch with his darkest impulses, especially his own sublimated bent toward cruelty.

“I have always understood the Nazis,” Golding said, “because I am of that sort by nature.”

It was “partly out of that sad self-knowledge,” he added, that he wrote “Lord of the Flies,” about a group of British schoolboys stuck on a deserted island and about how culture and reason fail them.

“We’re not savages,” one of the boys declares. “We’re English.” The sound you hear, emerging from behind that line, is Golding’s demented laughter.

This all sounds a bit bleak, doesn’t it? Well, it’s among Mr. Carey’s achievements that this plump and well-researched biography sits lightly in the lap; it reads like a picaresque novel. Mr. Carey tidily lays out the whole picnic: Golding’s youth; his education; his years in the Royal Navy (he commanded a rocket-firing ship off the coast of Normandy on D-Day); his struggle to write his first books while teaching; his slow path toward success; and ultimately his Nobel Prize, awarded in 1983, which brought Golding the kind of esteem that he felt had long eluded him. Mr. Carey walks you adroitly through Golding’s fiction and lays out the case for many of his lesser-known novels, including “The Inheritors” (1955) and “Pincher Martin” (1956).

To this picnic he has also brought a magnum of Champagne — or, to salve Golding’s class sensibilities, let’s say a box of very cold ale. Running beneath Mr. Carey’s biography, “William Golding: The Man Who Wrote ‘Lord of the Flies,’ ” there is a lively counternarrative, one that portrays Golding, a man of constant sorrow, in a warm, fondly comic light. Part modern-day Job, part existential Charlie Brown, part long-suffering hero out of Bernard Malamud or Ian McEwan, Golding was a man for whom things constantly went wrong, yet he resolutely soldiered on.

During one of his first sexual experiences, the girl asked him, mortifyingly, “Should I have all that rammed up my guts?” (“Yes,” Golding stammered.) While in the Navy, he caused an explosion in his pants by placing bomb detonators and a battery in the same pocket. Luckily, no important bits were blown sideways. When he was a schoolteacher, writing his first novels during class in assignment books, the other teachers would tweak him, asking, “How’s the masterpiece coming on?”

Golding was scared of heights, injections, crustaceans, insects and all manner of creeping things. “He was scared,” Mr. Carey writes, “of being alone at night.” He was an accomplished sailor yet had almost no sense of direction. One of his boats sank. In a car, he’d get lost a few miles from home. “He was always hitting his head on doors, car boots and other projections,” Mr. Carey writes.

He was no luckier with hobbies. He adored cameras, but they broke the moment he picked them up. He loved gardening but suffered for his foliage. “He stocked his pond with decorative fish, and they were eaten by herons,” Mr. Carey writes. “He bought an innocent-looking aquatic fern called azolla, and it spread with such monstrous vigor that he was soon dredging it out by the wheelbarrow-load, and feared it might end up damming the English Channel.”

Golding was obsessed with early chess computers; his gout was so excruciating that he felt like something “out of Charles Addams”; his students nicknamed him “Scruff” because of his grizzled beard and unkempt dress. A friend described him as “a cross between Captain Hornblower and St. Augustine,” noting that he was “stocky, heavily built, short, very thick in the shoulders, with a slight nautical roll.”

Many of Golding’s misadventures involved drink. He fell a lot, missing couches he meant to sit on. After a 1971 dinner party, Golding destroyed a puppet of Bob Dylan that belonged to his host, the writer Andrew Sinclair.

“He had woken in the middle of the night, attacked it under the impression that it was Satan, and buried it in the back garden,” Mr. Carey writes.

The wonderful if dark human comedy in this biography aside, Mr. Carey takes Golding’s fiction very seriously indeed, and vigorously defends him against criticisms that it was pretentious and joyless. Mr. Carey is a shrewd reader, reminding us of what was perhaps Golding’s greatest gift as a novelist, his ability to go into “Martian mode, showing familiar things from an alien viewpoint.” We get a sense of Golding the nonalien as well. He married his wife in 1939; they were married still at his death in 1993.

Golding was an intensely private man, one who gave few interviews and did not want a biography written during his lifetime. He’s lucky now to have Mr. Carey, here to restore him in our minds with intelligent sympathy and wit.

William Golding: The Man Who Wrote "Lord of the Flies"


John Carey

ISBN-10: 0571231632
ISBN-13: 978-0571231638

Another review...

"Man as an Island"


William Boyd

July 9th, 2010

The New York Times

In the late 1960s, some 15 years after the publication of “Lord of the Flies,” William Golding confessed to a friend that he resented the novel because it meant that he owed his reputation to what he thought of as a minor book, a book that had made him a classic in his lifetime, which was “a joke,” and that the money he had gained from it was “Monopoly money” because he hadn’t really earned it. Golding was drinking heavily at the time (he had a lifelong struggle with alcoholism) and one may have to take his bitterness advisedly, but these remarks reveal an interesting artistic conundrum. What is it like to owe virtually your entire reputation as a writer to a single book? One thinks of J. D. Salinger, Ralph Ellison, Joseph Heller — to cite only the 20th-century American exemplars — but such one-book writers are legion in all literatures. John Carey seems to allude to the category in this biography’s subtitle (even though Carey eventually disputes the implication). However, if anyone thinks of William Golding today, it is almost certain that his name will be conjoined with his extraordinary first novel.

A blessing and then a curse of some sort — though by the time the book finally appeared in 1954, Golding wouldn’t have cared about any downside. He was a 42-year-old provincial schoolteacher, desperate merely to have a novel published (it was the fourth book he had written, incidentally); renown and wealth were not even remotely considered. In fact, even “Lord of the Flies” was rejected by many publishers before an alert junior editor at Faber & Faber, Charles Monteith, saw its potential and encouraged Golding to make ­changes. By 1980, sales in the United States alone had reached seven million.

Golding, to other writers, is a model of the late starter (along with Anthony Burgess and Muriel Spark). You don’t need to be young to make your name, so his career asserts, and once Golding had achieved that first success it never ­really left him. “Lord of the Flies” was swiftly followed by “The Inheritors” (1955) and “Pincher Martin” (1956), both published to great, if not universal, acclaim. A new and highly distinctive voice seemed to have arrived in contemporary British literature. The critical reception was not always so favorable for subsequent novels ( “Free Fall,” in 1959, suffered a near-unanimous pasting), but it is fair to say that Golding’s life as a writer was forever financially secure thanks to the rock-solid, never-­ending sales of “Lord of the Flies.”

Golding was born in Cornwall in 1911. He was only eight years younger than Evelyn Waugh and is effectively part of that generation of English novelists (including Graham Greene, Anthony Powell and Aldous Huxley) who had reached their maturity by the time of World War II. But we never think of Golding in their company because his success as a writer was entirely postwar — he seems in some way more modern and contemporary.

Golding joined the navy a year after war broke out (he was already married with a child). At D-Day in 1944 and the Battle of Walcheren some months later, he was in command of a rocket-firing landing craft, a vessel designed to deliver a terrifying “shock and awe”-style blanket barrage of thousands of small deadly rockets. Golding, operating the firing mechanism on the bridge of his ship, clearly saw the indiscriminate, devastating effect of the wall of fire and destruction that was unleashed as his myriad rockets erupted on beachheads and coastal villages.

He survived the war unharmed and with some reluctance went back to the tedium of schoolmastering in Wiltshire. ­Carey makes the valid point that his war in the navy was profoundly destabilizing for him in various ways (both personally and artistically), and many of the key themes in his work can be traced to these formative and disturbing experiences.

Carey summarizes the abiding obsession in the novels as the collision of “the spiritual and the miraculous” with “science and rationality,” and it is this per­sistent hypersensitivity to the numinous and immaterial aspects of the world and the human condition that sets Golding apart from the broad river of social realism that so defines the 20th-century English novel. He was a kind of maverick in the way D. H. Lawrence was, or Lawrence Durrell, or John Fowles — to name but three — and I think this strangeness explains how throughout his life, after his initial success, the critical responses to his work were so violently divided. You either loved William Golding, it seemed, or you hated him.

Golding himself was abnormally thin-skinned when it came to criticism of his work. He simply could not read even the mildest reservation and on occasion left the country when his books were published. What is fascinating about “William Golding” is the portrait that emerges of a man of almost absurdly dramatic contrasts. He fought with commendable bravery at D-Day, yet in life was the most timid arachnophobe. He was married for more than 50 years, yet was probably a repressed homo­sexual. He was an accomplished classical musician and excellent chess player and an embarrassing, infantile drunk. He loathed and detested the stilted conventions of the British class system (particular scorn was directed at the Bloomsbury group), and yet when already a Nobel laureate and a member of the elite group to whom the queen grants the title Companion of Literature, he still frenetically lobbied his important friends to secure him a knighthood — successfully — and was a proud member of two of London’s stuffiest gentlemen’s clubs. Time and again the impression is of a man in a form of omnipresent torment of one kind or another: sometimes it would be mild and possibly amusing; at other moments, debilitating and damagingly ­neurotic.

John Carey has had unrestricted access to the Golding archive, and it is unlikely that this biography will ever be bettered or superseded. Moreover, Carey, an emeritus professor of English literature at Oxford and one of the most respected literary critics in Britain, writes with great wit and lucidity as well as authority and compassionate insight. Perhaps because he has had the opportunity of reading the mass of Golding’s unpublished intimate journals, he brings unusual understanding to the complex and deeply troubled man who lies behind the intriguing but undeniably idiosyncratic novels.

And the fiction is highly unusual and uneven, right up to the end of Golding’s energetic working life — his last novel, “Fire Down Below,” was published in 1989, only four years before his death at the age of 81 — emblematic of the warring forces in his imagination, of a writer (in Carey’s words) “interested in ideas rather than people, and in seeing mankind in a cosmic perspective rather than an everyday social setting.” Anthony Burgess described his talent as “deep and narrow,” and Golding’s own demons often drove him to analyze the extent and limits of his achievement. After the publication of “The Inheritors,” as the acclaim flowed in, Golding remarked that he saw himself “spiraling up towards being a . . . universally admired, but unread,” novelist. This was horribly prescient. With the exception of “Lord of the Flies,” Golding’s strange, haunting, difficult novels have few readers these days, and his post­humous reputation is neglected and in decline. At the very least, Carey’s superb biography should take us back to the work again and allow us to make up our own minds, anew.

No comments: