Thursday, September 14, 2006

Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me by Richard Farina

Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me by Richard Farina (2/5)

I really wanted to like this book, I really did. Terse and sometimes difficult prose, drug flavored stream of consciousness, and heaping allusions to The Odyssey and pulp comic book heroes. At first the book seemed perfect for me, but not unpredictably Richard Farina’s creative well was poisoned by the usual dose of misogyny. Usually I can stand some cognac in my literature, but in this case it felt as if there was more poison than water. Been Down is a frustrating book, where Farina’s hatred of women overcomes, strangles, shoots, poisons, and drowns out any of his natural talent.

Been Down follows Gnossos Pappadopoulis as he navigates his way through college while the whiteheads of the sixties rebellion make their way through his circle of friends. Early on he seduces an engaged woman who quickly falls in love with Gnossos. Why? I have no clue because the description of the “seduction” veers precariously close to date rape. It is easily the least erotic love scene I’ve read. When the seduced woman informs her fiancĂ© that she is in love with Gnossos, he ends up committing suicide. A paragraph of regret later and Gnossos is back to his old ways.

Gnossos eventually gets bitten by the love bug when he meets Kristin (of course, if you’ve read the novel you’ll know that’s not the only bug he gets bitten by). This gives Farina the opportunity to delve into some drug induced conversation and scenes. The first psychedelic set piece is rather successful, and it involves Farina describing a dream where he encounters a wolf. It actually plays rather well by taking the form of an allegory but denying the reader any strict one-to-one metaphor. This strong passage is offset by another psychedelic piece involving a demonic monkey. Yes, you read that right. It’s funny for all the wrong reasons, and the only way I was able to get past these passages was by imagining the evil monkey that lives in Chris Griffin’s closet on The Family Guy. (I took a similar approach in getting through Wuthering Heights by imagining that Joseph was the spitting image of Groundskeeper Willie).

Well, it goes without saying that Gnossos’ love ends when they have a falling out, she becomes pregnant but decides to rid herself of the child, and, naturally, at the end of the book Gnossos ends up forcibly giving her a heroin suppository. Once again, you read that correctly. There are more subtle examples of Farina’s misogyny, but you have to admit he saved the most flagrant for the finale.

At one point Kristin asks Gnossos if he ever gets tires “thinking about stuff all the time.” This line is second only to the demonic monkey in unintentional humor. If you’ve ever wondered why so many progressive hippies became straight laced businessmen or fanatic evangelicals, then I have two untested observations. First, for a certain age group being a hippie was the norm, and for many was merely conformity to a subculture (Charles Manson comes to mind). Second, many just could not escape the lifestyle their parents had raised them in since birth. A summer of love can’t quite overcome a childhood filled with gender roles. Farina suffers from the latter and it is readily apparent in Been Down.

It’s a shame that Richard Farina dies so young, because at times you can see the talent peeping out of this novel. The prose can be really strong and unique, but unfortunately Farina suffers from an immaturity that is beneath his years. I can sense that a good book was in him if he has survived. Perhaps by the time he was sixty he would have written a novel with the insight of a thirty-year-old?