Like many people who lived through the cultural changes of the 1960s, I have a few touchstones which evoke those times, the first lines of Howl, the opening bars of Purple Haze or I Heard it Through the Grapevine or In a Silent Way, almost any Dylan song, among others. The sense of barriers breaking, new frontiers established, the old order upset, challenged, left behind. It is going on sixty years now since those days, the immediacy of the political changes, drugs sex and rock and roll a distant memory, faint but captured in the whiff of a change of seasons, a stream of music, and, occasionally, a book.
Although set in 1958, Richard Farina’s 1966 novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, manages to capture the liberating chaos of the time, as well as its often darker side. The book has a sort of cult status now, few readers are familiar with it other than those who might have read it in the 60s or those who read David Hadju’s 2011 book, Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina, and Richard Farina. It’s the language as much as the story. Words elbowing each other for space on the page, in the mind of the reader, pulsing with the energy of its self-absorbed main character, Gnossos Pappadopoulis (Paps), modern day Odysseus, a freak before that term was in vogue, often drugged up and drunk and busting down barriers wherever he found them. You feel the words as you read them, immediate and as prickly as Gnossos himself. Rereading it now brings me back in a way my totems from that time, music posters, old tickets, political pamphlets, bring things almost into my grasp.
Farina came at the end of the Beat heyday, a bridge between the 1950s and the counterculture of the 1960s. He was what would now be called a multi-hyphenate, novelist, songwriter, singer, poet. His first wife was the folk singer Carolyn Hester, and his second, Mimi Baez, Joan’s sister. Together, he and Mimi made two memorable records, both of which remain, dusty and slightly warped, in my collection of vinyl. I particularly remember their song Pack up Your Sorrows, from their album, Reflections for a Gray Day, written by Farina and Pauline Marden, the eldest Baez sister. He seemed to have it all for the times he lived in—brilliant, talented, creative, deadly attractive. His life would end tragically but in the short time he lived, he produced some great music, some writing, and one, unforgettable novel. I am not sure it is an indication of anything, but the introduction to an early edition of his book, reproduced in subsequent editions, was written by Thomas Pynchon, who knew Farina at Cornell. Not bad at all.
At the opening of the novel, Paps has just returned to Athene, Farina’s stand-in for Ithaca, after a year of adventure, rumored dead in a variety of ever-more colorful ways, a truly mythical character. In his absence, life has gone on without him, many of his fellow rabble rousers moving toward the straight and narrow, leaving Gnossos looking and feeling even more out there, drinking, drugging, pursuing women, while his former party-mates somewhat half-heartedly attempt to buckle down and finish their education.
I remember the language, or think I do, many of the characters, and Gnossos himself, but until I reread the book had little recollection of the plot. As Farina’s language barrels along, Paps and his motley crew of students, artists, drug dealers, mystics, party, talk, occasionally attend classes, or at least one class—for Paps, it’s astronomy–take part in a student rebellion, fall in and out of love, and ultimately travel to Cuba in the dying days of the Batista regime where the book takes an unexpected and tragic turn. The table is set for the decade to come.
As with many books from the past, the modern reader is left to deal with behavior and language, much of it the hipster slang of the Beats, the jazz world, and the emerging counterculture, that would not be tolerated in more enlightened circles today. It is uncomfortable at the least. As it happens, as I was writing this piece, Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris reported in a front-page article in The New York Times on steps being taken or proposed to align the language of a range of books to more modern mores and values. I am not certain Been Down So Long merits this kind of revision or that it would survive the changes, but I will leave that topic for wider debate.
In the end, Gnossos, the ultimate outsider, who thinks he is in control (or at least “exempt”), flirts with unwanted notoriety yet remains alone and adrift, unable to outwit the system in the end. But that description is too flat, and hardly does it justice. In Farina’s version, it’s all happening at once, the kinetics of Farina’s prose—verging on poetry in many sections—feels like the 60s. And worth it for that alone.