Farina, Richard. Been Down so Long it Looks Like Up to Me. Penguin, New York, 1966. F;09/16.
A friend handed me this when I was in second-year university English lit. “You’ve got to read it. It’s us!” I picked up my own copy, of course lost now, but I remember how incredibly cool I found this story. I can also remember events and language from that first reading, and its impact on me. In this now-senescent reading I paid more attention to the events at the end, and had much more mixed feelings.
Farina, who was also a modern folk musician, was famously killed in a motorcycle accident two days after the book was published. There was a period of obscurity of his work following the initial flash of popularity, and then (I now get) this novel got to be considered a minor niche classic, thanks I think to attention paid it by Thomas Pynchon, who wrote a preface to this edition.
The hero, or antihero, Gnossos Papadopoulis, is such a classic 60’s bad boy that no self-respecting member of the flourishing counterculture I was a member of in 1967, especially in university, could have felt anything but admiration and envy for his “I’m here as me, fuck everything else” ideology: casual and worry-free use of drugs, failure to engage in the shallow university scene, “immunity”, sexual exploits. Gnossos returns to a small New England college after a year off (which we all seemed to believe was necessary so we could be cool, interesting, international men of the world, plus get laid), and grapples with campus politics, dark sinister characters, and the (pointedly, to him) unaccustomed constraints of university life. He is supported by a couple of older friends with young children, one of whom leads an iconically idyllic 60s hobby farm/commune life with a wife and six girls all named after birds, and also by male buddies who having spent the past year studying are mildly outraged but admiring of their friend, back from the wilds.
University everywhere in North America at that time was teetering between 50s post-war conservatism (blazers, ties, cocky nicknames – Fitzgore is “Gorzy” – and fraternities) and the massive still-resonating swing to the left that the counterculture generation created. A hilarious and characteristic evening where a friend takes Gnossos to a rush function and he almost literally rips the place apart with, we are to appreciate, appropriately antisocial behaviour sets the scene.
Criticism of this novel over the years has divided roughly evenly between favourable and not. My new reading left me wondering too. Serious violence occurs in Cuba while a car full of the main characters are there, and (PLOT ALERT, for what it’s worth) the dénouement has our hero shoving a heroin suppository up his girlfriend Kristen’s ass, and then getting drafted (END PLOT ALERT). I had trouble knowing what to make of those two dissonant final chords.
Okay, life and love are ambivalent. But I want to be pulled into an experience that makes the crazy possibilities bigger, not sillier. What are we to make of Gnossos’s affair with Kristen, obviously a (the) big event in his year at Athene and so far of his life? He falls, in the first half of the story, way first-time-ever into the romantic erotic love he has almost given up finding, but Kristen turns out to be the daughter of an advisor to the US president, heavily involved with dark and overstated campus revolt politics (hiding that from Gnossos who wants no part of such things), and although when they meet she (says she)’s a virgin she gives him a sexually transmitted disease and then marries the soft and scheming character who controls the campus “revolution” and who ends up part of the state government.
I can’t escape after experiencing the above two pretty straightforward ideas: love is fleeting, or old Gnossos (and everything he stands for) is just a joke. In imagining I have to choose between fleeting love and a contemptible main character, I apologize if I seem to be looking for meaning in postmodern fiction. I’m not. I just want the story to make dramatic and emotional sense, and it doesn’t.
After reading this story I also don’t seem to be able to escape reflecting on how different things are now. Of course they are. We are decades into precious institutionalization of political correctness in universities and elsewhere (to the point where someone like Donald Trump is actually elected as an antidote), which is what people my age gave birth to when we were in our 20s, and which we allowed to persist into absurdity. We couldn’t see – we can’t yet – beyond the reaction we felt justified in having to what we saw as our parents’ moral simplicity, except (as some people are now) to radically object to that reaction and try to return life and society to the late 1940s.
Couldn’t real leaders have seen a synthesis or compromise that looked like the best of both worlds and represented progress? No, it seems. Has America and all of us under its wing had its day, and won’t get another chance to accomplish that? Maybe Richard Farina was eerily prescient. Somehow I don’t think so.
No matter about the whole doomed political nightmare I here shamelessly oversimplify, I in 2016 find this book falls short of coherent. And how the scene I loved as a student in the 60s is presented here is dated in a way that provokes for me more shame than nostalgia. 6.9/6.5