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Southern Discomfort

Writer Terry Southern helped shape a generation. Now his son is fighting for his legacy.

And to recount Southern's life's story is to realize what an important writer he was--as a journalist, novelist, screenwriter, even letter-writer. He revolutionized the English language, made up words that became part of the casual lexicon. Rip Torn insists that Southern was the first man to refer to the Beatles as "the Fab Four" and, Torn says with a huge guffaw, "He was the first person I ever heard say fanfuckingtastic!"

In his book The New Journalism, Tom Wolfe credits Southern as the man who proved it was possible to blend reportage with autobiography until the writer became as important as the subject. Southern's 1955 story for Esquire, "Twirling at Ole Miss" (which appears in Wolfe's book), was less about baton girls on campus than it was about an expatriated Texan's return to the South--a place he adored and abhorred with equal passion. In the story, Southern walks through the streets of Oxford, Mississippi, disgusted and amused by what he sees, wondering whether "reverting to the Texas twang and callousness of my youth [would] suffice tosee me through."

From the late 1950s through 1972--when his novel Blue Movie was published--Southern reigned as the literary world's most savage yet sincere satirist. The "squares" called his stuff "unnecessarily unpleasant...grotesque...offensive." At least, that's what Mademoiselle's fiction editor, Rita Smith, wrote to Southern in 1952, when rejecting one of his earliest short stories. They balked at his unflinching desire to "astonish," as he told Life magazine in 1964. Merely shocking the reader was too pedestrian, too easy for him.

Southern's novels, beginning with Candy in 1958 (co-written with Mason Hoffenberg) and Flash and Filigree the same year, were published in Europe before they ever reached the U.S. Indeed, Candy--about a woman whose sexual exploits land her in the embrace of a lunatic humpback ("'Your hump! Your hump!' she kept crying, scratching and clawing at it now")--sold an estimated 12 million bootlegged copies in the States before it was officially released in 1964. "Sick sex," bemoaned the critics at Publishers Weekly--after which Candy spent more than twenty weeks on the bestseller list. Southern, however, could never recoup the illicit proceeds made from the sales of pirated copies. (The only money Southern made off Candy was when he sold the book to the movies--and then Terry claimed Hoffenberg got most of it.)

His 1959 novel The Magic Christian told of a billionaire named Guy Grand who gets his kicks from pulling off the daftest pranks that would make the public "hot." Guy hires an actress to appear on a soap opera and deliver dialogue condemning the at-home audience for watching such "slobbering pomp and drivel," or has sky-writing airplanes scrawl racial and religious epithets in order to incite mass rioting. The book was such an absurd, corrosive marvel that Peter Sellers bought 100 copies for his friends--including Stanley Kubrick. Nelson Algren wrote in The Nation that Southern ranked "among our very best novelists."

Southern wrote some of the grisliest, darkest, funniest short stories imaginable: about men luring women into sexual con games for twisted kicks, about men convincing their hated co-workers to defecate on the snow-white carpets of royalty, about strange sex he had known. Among his most infamous pieces is "The Blood of a Wig," in which Southern and The Realist editor Paul Krassner, in the midst of a heated, drug-addled writeoff, try to one-up each other. Southern wins, crafting a scene on Air Force One in which Jackie Kennedy walks in on Lyndon Johnson standing over the corpse of JFK, "his coarse animal member thrusting into the casket and indeed into the neck wound itself." Jackie is, of course, appalled: "Great God, how heinous! It must be a case of...of...NECK-ROPHILIA!"

Like Burroughs, Southern believed the only way to make a point was to exaggerate it, to make it absurd, to take the madness toward its "informal conclusion." Such writing--over-the-top, delirious, fueled by drink and drug and the freedom found in such a "monstro" combo (to use one of Southern's favorite words)--made him a cultural hero. He was the link between the Beat 1950s and the Beatles 1960s, a man who found beauty in the grotesque and sanity inside deep madness. Southern was the writer as rock star, especially after he and Stanley Kubrick collaborated on Dr. Strangelove in 1964.

Nobody better personified the anything-and-everything-goes 1960s than Terry Southern. Which is perhaps why his legend remains there, stuck in the past like some time-warp prisoner.

"You think of the '60s as a really fertile time," Nile explains. "And Terry is like a gardener of that time...He was able to enter all these different scenes without an objective. I think he just wanted to produce work that was culturally significant."

I guess I first realized I was a foot-man--or 'piedo' as the French have it--on the occasion of my 13th birthday in Big D. Dal. Tex, at a beach picnic (family-style) on the torrid sands of White Rock Lake. For over a year I had entertained a torturously bitter-sweet infatuation for my beautiful drum-majorette cousin, a college sophomore 5 years (quelle eon!) older than myself...She was lying on her stomach and I on mine, and she was silently reading poetry (poetry!) for an English assignment. When I flopped down, she looked up from her book for an instant and smiled (be still, my heart!) then lowered her eyes to her book once more--and I mine to contemplate her body inch by inch, so to feed my prolific fantasies...until...I saw that something was missing--her perfect perfect feet! She had buried them--perhaps absently, perhaps in delightful caprice--and now I was lying on them--the point of contact, or near contact (I could have counted the grains between us!) being you may imagine where!

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