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Order Within The Maelstrom

 Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, by Richard Fariña


Buddhist theory, I’ve heard, proclaims that the human nervous system’s prime function is to find (create, perhaps) order within chaos. Fariña’s book, as a prototype for what is popularly known as postmodern literature, seems to toy with this idea as it expands its reach into the tumult of the ‘sixties. But I’m getting ahead of myself.


I first read this book in, oh, nineteen-seventy, was it? It was at the time an underground phenomenon, presenting its readers with an emotional purgative contrived from sex, drugs, jazz, and travel, all amid college life and politics. Whether the populace of the day approved of such hedonic pursuits or not, reading about them, in the person this book’s Gnossos Pappadopoulis, surely moved readers to a feeling of liberation akin to Kerouac’s On The Road, or perhaps the Beatles’ movie, “Help!” This book influenced Thomas Pynchon and inspired his manic literary works. The book remains in print, I think, as a monument to the anti-establishment posturing of college students of all eras, not to the social vomiting that seemed necessary in the late ‘fifties and early ‘sixties to allow a truly multicultural U.S. to be born.


Reading the book now, it has the effect of a period piece, and more than a bit fatuous. Reliving such times via this book seems redundant, more or less on the order of reenactments of the American Revolution or the U.S.’s Civil War. Still, there are good things to be said following this my most recent reading of Fariña’s only literary work.


Fariña, who died in a motorcycle accident in 1966, was clearly a skilled writer. Perhaps if he’d lived, Pynchon would have been forced to share credit for the uniqueness of his writing. As averse as I am to redundancy, let me refer you to this blog’s critique of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.   


But anyway….


As with most postmodern literature, there’s no structured plot – more of a series of connected vignettes that go nowhere in a linear sense, but leave the reader with an understanding of situations or historical events based in emotion. All that can be said in relation to story here is that Gnossos ends up where he began, on a college campus - but with fate thrusting this hapless character into a student demonstration against the college administration.


But how does Fariña put this no-story together? As implied at the beginning of this post, the author moves from Gnossos’ and his friends’ assault on their nervous systems through sex and drugs to an implied stirring-of-the-pot of the U.S. (college campus) body politic – all in the hope of bringing into being a new form of order reflecting new sensibilities and a new, multicultural national reality.

There’s humor here, but of the sophomoric type – exaggerated excess, posturing in the face of authority, scatological. But Fariña also manages to interject moments of paranoia, solitude, whimsy, pathos, crashed-and-burned idealism. But he’s no slouch at eloquent narrative, either, as this passage suggests:


"He awoke at noon, the sun exploding under the lids of his eyes like silent-film incendiary bombs; ears ringing with the drip and seethe of the thaw. Through the slats on his bedside window…he could see the swollen Swiss drolleries on the porch. The snow had melted and slipped away, saturating the wood. The fat icicles were gone as well, patches of lawn miraculously green after months of entombment, walks and porches clear but for the wet; beams and timbers creaking with the sigh of shrugged-away weight, stretching back into place…"


The passage goes on for another hundred or so words, clearly pronouncing in well-hewn prose a sense of newness and rebirth. And as the passage ends, the scene shifts once more to Gnossos:


He bellowed like a Cretan Bull. “Fitzgore! Where the hell are you? I’m in love!”


This passage is, in a nutshell, Gnossos, the era, and the book itself. The ‘sixties, in most any piece of writing you’ll find on the subject, exemplifies the best and the worst of humanity, as it does here: idealism, romanticism, daring openness. Chaos, conflict, secrecy. All building, as poet and rocker Jim Morrison said of this era (I’m paraphrasing liberally here), toward a new human reality, but born of an ugly face.


My rating: 3-1/2 stars of 5