The Basketball Diaries compiles three years in the life of Jim Carroll from the ages of fourteen to seventeen, over the fall of 1963 to the summer of 1966. During this time Carroll was often drugged out on the streets of New York. Carroll, like myself, kept a diary during this time of his life yet unlike him I was not an aspiring basketball star (nor a drug addict). The level of writing coming from a druggie as young as fourteen seemed unbelievably coherent. I could not help but wonder how much editorial help he must have received prior to publication. No clean and sober fourteen-year-old, or seventeen-year-old for that matter, can write as well as Carroll. How can a boy strung out on heroin or zonked on grass, who skipped school so often write so well? We are either dealing with a Pepys prodigy or another Go Ask Alice con job. There is however some credibility to Carroll’s teenage writing prowess in that, in spite of his nodded-out altered state, he managed to win a scholarship to a school for gifted students. Still I can’t help but wonder about the promise he might have shown if he hadn’t wasted his youth on scoring dope.
Carroll’s eye for description was succinct and from what I can remember, accurately reflected what adolescent boys pay attention to. I could read whole chunks of diary entries without pause, even the pages without paragraph divisions. He wrote exactly what he was thinking, and to stop midway in order to reread (a habit of mine) would destroy the experience of being inside his drugged mind. The Basketball Diaries was pure stream-of-consciousness writing, and even Jack Kerouac raved about it.
Carroll let his bravado run confidently after a basketball win:
“Anyway, with the other starters out, I get to score all the points and wind up with 42, which felt good because I haven’t really been scoring that many lately. I can also see little Most Valuable Player trophies in my head if this keeps up. We won by an awful lot. After the game they gave us free sodas and shit and all the local people stood in the lobby as we left and patted us on the back and said, ‘Nice game, son,’ and all, the whole scene strictly out of ‘Leave it to Beaver,’ all the old men Fred MacMurray types in tweed suits and the women, a pack of poodle walkers, standing around with a lot of make-up and sort of thinking how cute we were. They had these teased up bleached hair-dos that reminded me exactly of the higher priced 14th St. whores. I wanted to ask one if she wanted to suck it off but we just hopped into the car for that bitch trip downtown. It’s a Friday night and we all wanted to go to the East River Park and get drunk, do reefer and sniff glue. And that’s exactly what we did.”
There are many hilarious episodes like this in the Diaries, those which are linked to drug culture and Carroll’s junkie lifestyle being the funniest. I was laughing out loud as he and some teammates were presented with the serious dilemma of selecting which one of two pills to take before a game. The matter was indeed crucial to the team’s performance, because one of the pills was an upper and the other a downer, and no one could remember which was which. They ended up picking a pill at random and the story wouldn’t have been funny if they had chosen the upper. You will read how the players s-l-o-w-e-d down as the game went on and missed even the simplest passes and setups.
Another diary entry had me tittering during my lunch hour when Carroll called the cops on a birthday party for his neighbour’s four-year-old daughter. An act of revenge for the neighbour calling the police on a noise complaint at Carroll’s, he had the last laugh when cops strode up to the door, scaring the daylights out of the tots and ruining their happy scene.
Carroll captured some episodes from 1960’s history, such as the latest Dylan releases and the great Northeast blackout of 9 November 1965. I was surprised that there was not one mention of the Beatles, since Carroll was in New York at the time of the Beatles’ American arrival in February 1964.
It is the perceptive eye with a humorous twist that Carroll has for detail that struck me the most. Again, I wonder how one so strung out on dope could be alert enough to recall what he had seen–because there isn’t a chance that he could have written these diaries while high as a kite. So I have my doubts about the diaries’ authenticity. The next passage was hilarious, and while void of drug references, increases its veracity:
“My Marxist pal, Bunty, from my new school, finally talked me into going to one of his Communist Party meetings today. It was in this sleazy place on 11th St called Webster Hall. All the girls looked like reformed Mary Magdalenes. Everyone moans a lot and plays folk songs, one of the requirements seems to be that you have to be ugly. I was wearing my seediest clothes and I still came off looking like Arnold Palmer or something. I dig these motherfuckers, but the speeches bored the shit out of me. I went home and told my old man how the government suppresses the proletariat from his due. ‘I am the proletariat, you dumb bastard,’ he said, ‘and I think those motherfuckers are off their rockers. Now get the hell inside and do your homework.'”
I liked the imagery at the end of the next passage. I will never think of wedding cake in the same way again:
“Who did I run into today but old Ju-Ju Johnson, fattest junkie I know, could hide a complete set of works, a cooker and innumerable bags of dope in the layers of fat that flop one by one down towards his belt like a drenched wedding cake.”
By the time he was seventeen, Carroll was a junkie, selling himself, thieving and committing armed robbery to get money to buy drugs. He described himself as a starving walking skeleton who had no function in life other than to score. That is how his diaries end, abruptly, with the cry of an addict who is so sick of the game:
“I got to go in and puke. I just want to be pure…”