I recently picked up and read a copy of Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries. The book contains a series of journal entries Jim Carroll, a writer and musician involved in Andy Warhol’s factory scene, wrote from the ages of 13-16, describing his experiences as both a star basketball player and drug addict in 1960’s NYC. Watching Carroll’s writing style develop, becoming more poetic as the world surrounding him grows progressively madder, was truly a special experience.
Again and again I was taken aback by how young Carroll was as he reached each milestone of depravity, and how he managed to write and play basketball so brilliantly, despite the damage he was surely doing to his developing body and mind. Though he may stay on the ball (Pun intended) when it comes to sports and journal writing, other aspects of Carroll’s life spiral out of control. His parents become relatively out of the scene, many of his friends are thrown into jail or die, and he finds himself sinking to lower and lower means to get enough money together to maintain his heroin habit. However, Carroll is able to find things of beauty amidst his sordid world. In the early pages of the book a twelve year old Jim huffs glue with several teammates, even while doing something so detrimental to his health and just plain trashy, he imagines himself “paddling across a river with black water, only the canoe was going backwards instead of forwards…”, it seems unlikely that Carroll’s young drug buddies experience anything of a similarly profound nature. Carroll, however, does not romanticize his lifestyle, in fact extensive detail is put into displaying its horrors, it’s just that he also has an eye for spotting the rare moments of serenity or significance that sometimes occur within it.
A recurring theme in The Basketball Diaries is Jim’s search for purity. Throughout his writings Jim repeatedly mentions wanting to find something pure, what this is he never exactly states, it may be something lost or something that he never had. While on acid Jim scrawls out a short poem, “Little kids shoot marbles/where branches break the sun/into graceful shafts of light…/I just want to be pure.” On it’s own the poem might not seem the most spectacular, but in the greater context of the work it holds much more weight to it. Another instance of Jim wanting to recapture or maintain a certain purity occurs when he storms out of the apartment of a much older woman, who has been paying him for sex, after taking her money but not fulfilling his end of the deal, “‘What about my sixty dollars, you prick!’ she screamed. ‘What about my innocence,’ I said, going down”. This theme is later used to bring the diaries to something of a close, but without giving a full answer as to where Jim’s future will lead him.
Carroll’s writings are incredibly impressive, but I do however place some blame on them for spurring many young writer’s descent into drug use, under the false belief that creative inspiration is a sure fire byproduct of the druggy lifestyle. Along with writers like Allen Ginsberg, Hunter S. Thompson, and Irvine Welsh, Carroll could be said to have unwittingly sired a progeny of drug addled writers producing derivative writing. The sort of writers who rely more on shock value than skill, and think that listing off the names of narcotics can replace a proper narrative. Obviously I don’t fully blame writers like Carroll with corrupting susceptible youths, but I do think there is some sort of correlation that should be taken into account.
Influencing uninspired writing or not, Carroll’s entries are anything but. Each entry holds something new, a new low, a new drug, a new dream, a new chance, all of which come together to offer the unique experience of looking through a window into a turbulent psyche and time. Carroll is constantly finding flaws in the opulent, upper-crust society that has rejected him, and spotting bits of beauty in the world of turpitude he inhabits, making for a perspective worth “hitchhiking” along with.