Easy Rider Terry Southern

Anything but an easy ride

In A Grand Guy, Canadian journalist Lee Hill tells how a boy from Alvarado, Texas, armed only with talent and hip (and a talent for the hip), wends his way to avant-garde literary success, Hollywood script mills, the cover of Sgt. Pepper, and finally, it seems, heartbreak. It’s quite a ride. But when Terry Southern started out as a player in what he memorably called the Quality Lit Game (after some time spent loitering around the Sorbonne on the GI Bill), he seemed destined for a no more exalted fate than to wind up as The Hippest Guy on the English Faculty, the sort who kept a little reefer in his tweed coat with leather elbow patches. With his early fiction drawing on Faulkner’s rotting-magnolia gothic, Nelson Algren’s police-lineup realism, and the feather-light touch of his future pal Henry Green, Southern cut through the era’s stifling New Criticism orthodoxy by creating scary new worlds, twisted situations, and vivid characters with no plunges into purple prose, no relinquishing of craft or control. Flash and Filigree, The Magic Christian, and Candy (cowritten with Mason Hoffenberg, and the precursor of money and credit squabbles to come) remain high-water marks of satirical novels: You scarcely feel the knife going in. It was worthy work and an honorable ’50s-style MO, and Southern’s mastery became clear to those in the know: not overlooked, exactly, but definitely underground.

But one reason Terry Southern traveled so far was because the world was headed his way. Postwar affluence had made culture Big Biz, and, post-Ike, people hungered for a taste of the wild side. The Paris Review (Southern was a charter editor) and Evergreen Review introduced adventurous writing to the general reader; Esquire and Playboy were featuring new voices in spaces ordinarily reserved for the usual run of chloroform artists; you could even get an intelligent discussion of The Sot-Weed Factor at a cocktail party. And, of course, there was the public phenomenon of the Beats: photographed by Life, discussed in the New York Times, in extreme cases actually read. Even the film industry, long regarded by the avant-intelligentsia as the leading abattoir of talent, suddenly seemed subject to change: Something was happening, and Mr. Jones the studio head wanted in. Still, it took king-sized maverick Stanley Kubrick to send a telegram asking Southern (to whose works Kubrick had been introduced by Peter Sellers) to lend a hand with a movie called Dr. Strangelove. Several months of what Southern described as “tightening and brightening” followed, and his screenwriting career had begun. Terry Southern was about to become, as was said of Orson Welles, a man with a great future behind him.

It didn’t seem like it at the time. Strangelove was not only a hit movie, it was an Event: any halfway with-it person was expected to have an opinion on it. Southern, past forty, was making the first serious money of his career, as well as enjoying the ancillary joys that accompanied Hollywood success — drugs, sex, glamour, and, soon, residence in the rarefied air of the Beatles/Stones axis. He adapted Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One for the screen, sent Jane Fonda into space with Barbarella, engaged in high-priced script doctoring, saw both Candy and The Magic Christian turned into films — so what if neither was all that great? Back in the Quality Lit Game, Candy was (after a brief ban in, of all places, France) scaling the bestseller lists in the US and, in pirated editions, Europe. Southern capped the ’60s by cowriting Easy Rider, an enormous hit made for pennies that helped wrest control of American films from the dead hand of the studio execs and gave it, however briefly, to directors, writers, and actors. Terry Southern seemed poised to become an even more major player in the beckoning decade. Why didn’t this happen?

The story of American cinema in the ’70s has been ably told in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and in retrospect the era appears even more of a Golden Age now than then: Films like The Godfather, Taxi Driver, and The Last Detail remain yardsticks by which today’s films succeed or, more often, fail. The decade’s unprecedented freedom and scope make the dilemma of A Grand Guy‘s protagonist doubly puzzling — in such iconoclastic times, how could Terry Southern, of all people, stall? Nevertheless stall he did, and from this point on Hill’s book becomes a grisly recitation of aborted “projects,” with Southern condemned to churn out treatments and outlines and spec scripts that never made it past the story conference, languishing in the twilight limbo of “development” and the even more dreaded “turnaround.” The reasons are sometimes easy to spot (don’t make a movie of Junky if your producer actually is one; steer clear of Dennis Hopper); other ideas are so mouth-watering (an adaptation of Harry Crews’ Car) that their failure to get lensed amounts to disappointment compounded by mystery. After a while it becomes faintly embarrassing to eavesdrop on Southern spurned once again by yet another Hollywood airhead (Chuck “Gong Show” Barris asked if “the sex and drugs” could be taken out of Naked Lunch). By the time, decades later, he started having the heart attacks and strokes that would finally kill him, Terry Southern was teaching a class in screenwriting at Columbia University, and he hadn’t gotten a script in front of a camera for years.

Of course, Hollywood has been historically detrimental to writers, and the world is full of Chuck Barrises, but Southern also needed to shoulder his share of the blame. Fact was, the guy stuck with being a screenwriter long after lesser, or different, mortals might have used those outrageous paydays as getaways. This was not Faulkner hacking out Land of the Pharaohs for Joan Collins (after his Nobel, no less) then returning to Mississippi to write novels; for the second half of his life Terry Southern by choice wrote little that was going to be read by anyone other than bored, mercenary producers. He so neglected the printed page that when Texas Summer, his final novel (and the first in over two decades), appeared, the critics were baffled by its nostalgic hue and elegiac tone. Where was the slash-and-burn artist of yesteryear? It was like they’d never read a dying man before.

Hill (no relation) tells Southern’s story in a calm, workmanlike fashion while allowing himself the occasional wail of anguish: “What … was someone as talented at novel writing and the short story doing churning out a screen outline for … a story so stale […?]” Nevertheless he seems to suspect the answer: Terry Southern was caught in twin pincers. He lacked the killer instinct, the whore-like self-promotion, the amalgam of arrogance and servility so necessary for success in the Culture of the Pitch that prevails in Hollywood. But a second point reinforces the first — that failure money in show biz is like success money anywhere else. The sums discussed, to the kind of poverty-stricken litterateur Terry Southern once was, seem enormous: $2,000-plus per week to work for Saturday Night Live, a gig depicted as his absolute nadir; ten thousand bucks for a couple weeks’ screwing around on a script with James Coburn. No Bukowskian scrounging for this cowboy. But not a lot of novels either.

Hill is saddled by a circumstance a biographer must find terribly frustrating: His subject never seems to have done a lot of whining. Spiraling downward, harried by the IRS, drinking too much, phone calls not returned, dismissed as a relic, Southern stoically weathered the bad times with the same grace with which he had enjoyed the good. The word “courtly” keeps cropping up, both in the author’s prose and in the comments of Southern’s friends and colleagues; Larry Rivers speaks of him as “strangely polite.” The man who once spoke of “money and other good things” was also unfailingly generous, reaching for the check even as the IRS sized up his house for the auction block. Even the one remark Hill finds where Southern bewails his situation (“I feel like the professor at the end of The Blue Angel“) is chillingly filmic. The guy was a pro to the end.

That professionalism is one of the astringent pleasures on display in Now Dig This, a roundup of fugitive bits from five decades, including some of the unrealized film work that cluttered the desks of bored producers, thus allowing you to impersonate Chuck Barris in the privacy of your own home. F’rinstance, would you have greenlighted what ended up as Eyes Wide Shut if it had been (as Southern proposes in a fragment here) a comedy? (Well, considering the result…) There are also tributes to the fallen (Frank O’Hara, Abbie Hoffman); accounts of touring with the Rolling Stones and shepherding Jean Genet through the streets of Mayor Daley’s Chicago during the ’68 convention; and the lost and legendary “Stiff Gook Rimming,” an anti-Vietnam War satire that ranks with Michael O’Donoghue’s “Vietnamese Baby Book” in its cool expression of moral fury, and whose hilarious and repulsive imagery culminates with a suit stitched entirely from human rectums. It’s a nifty reversal: These days the asshole is usually inside the suit.

Now Dig This should also, but probably won’t, put an end to the sloppy shorthand identification of Southern as somehow “Beat.” It becomes clear that this amalgamation is based more on ties of friendship and, um, tastes in recreation rather than the trusty categories of style and substance. Not for Southern any earnestly autobiographical effusions; no interest in grooving on Nature, thumbing to Mexico, pondering (or plundering) the Buddha. If this cat was going to Mexico it was going to be in a rented Caddy, or a chauffeured limousine with some studio picking up the tab. Stylistically as well, Southern had little truck with wonderstruck Kerouacisms or amateurism — no matter how inspired. Why reinvent a tongue that served Poe so well? The language on display in Now Dig This is rollicking, roiling, almost 18th century in its rhetorical exuberance. Bizarre and grotesque subjects that would have been treated as writhing moral hokie-pokies in the hands of, say, Alfred Chester, are rendered by Southern with a demented ringmaster’s cackling, hand-rubbing glee, his bop prosody always with a symphonic edge to it.

What endures? Well, Dr. Strangelove remains a classic of lunatic logic, and any of the trove of unrealized screenplays ought to be worth at least a once-over. But there’s still no telling what could have happened between the typewriter and the screen, even with the best intentions. (Ever see The Telephone? Ouch.) No, the first and finest place to rediscover Terry Southern is in his books, reissued a few years ago by Grove Press. Here’s the man fully realized in and by himself, unimpeded by budget or producer’s whim or a studio committee’s idea of what is funny, getting over on nothing but sheer language and frenetic imagination.

And satire itself? Well, weirdly, as the world turns ever more grotesque and ridiculous, showbiz ever more loudly echoes the trite, vacuous riffing of a Dennis Miller or an Al Franken — Prez Bush is stupid, Al Gore was dull, Clinton remains fat and horny: that sort of thing. And if you think these guys are saying shit, well, that’s a dismal commentary on more than just you or even on them. Terry Southern skewered bogus patriotism, sexual hypocrisy, vapid public culture, the sacred “free” market: these days the number-one topic seems to be the heft and dimensions of Jennifer Lopez’s ass. Sure, it’s a world begging for satire.

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