Longform

Southern Discomfort

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Yet to recount his life's story is to meet the most famous and the most fab figures of the last half of the twentieth century. They are the literary icons who counted Southern among their closest friends and influences: Paris Review founder and editor George Plimpton, for whom Southern often wrote in the 1950s; William S. Burroughs and Jean Genet, with whom Southern covered the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago; and Hunter S. Thompson, who created an entire career standing on Southern's shoulders. They are the rock stars, directors and actors for whom Terry was a touchstone of ultimate hip: Peter Sellers, who, it is said, was never so comfortable on screen as when he was reciting Southern's dialogue; Ringo Starr and Keith Richards, who found in him a sympathetic soul; and Stanley Kubrick, who knew Dr. Strangelove needed Southern's whacked-out wit in order to make it fly.

To recount his life's story is to visit the dusty prairie town of Alvarado, which lies 45 miles southwest of Dallas. Terry was born there in 1924, to a druggist and a dutiful Irish housewife. Later moving to Dallas, he attended Sunset High School, where a thirteen-year-old Terry wrote his first short story based on Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. When the piece scared all hell out of his classmates, he realized even then that Texas was too small a place for him. He visited the Central Track whorehouses in Deep Ellum, where he claimed to have lost his virginity, smoked his first weed, heard his first jazz. He enrolled at Southern Methodist University for a short while, then joined the Army in 1943 and traveled to Europe. In 1945 he returned to Chicago, then attended the Sorbonne in Paris in the late '40s, where he began writing for such publications as New Story, Merlin, Zero, and the brand-new Paris Review. Later came moves to Geneva, New York, Hollywood, then finally to Connecticut...and every point in between.

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."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky