Thomas Pynchon remembers Richard Farina, author of Been Down So Long It looks Like Up to Me
In a dim way, I had been aware of Richard Farina before I actually met him. It was the winter of 1958, toward the end of the school semester, and I was a junior editor on the Cornell Writer, which was the campus literary magazine. At some point these stories and poems began to arrive. It was a radically different voice, one that seemed to come from the world outside, surer, less safe, of higher quality than the usual run of submissions. Not many of the staff could tell me much about this “Farina” character, except that he’d been away from Cornell for a while, out traveling around.
Soon, in the back spaces of classrooms I happened to be in, I would sometimes detect this dangerous presence, not wearing a jacket or tie, more hair than was fashionable, always sitting with the same group of people. Quiet, but intensely there, checking things out. Eventually I connected him with the other, literary presence.
We ran with different crowds, so our paths only crossed now and then. One day in the spring I was crossing the Arts Quad and spotted Farina, reclining on the green grass with an open book. We nodded, said hello. “Listen,” Farina said, “I’m having a party Saturday night at my place on College Avenue, if you want to fall by.” Which was how I first encountered his remarkable gift of civility. As we chatted, a strange thing was also happening. Coeds I had lusted after across deep lecture halls were actually altering course, here, out in the daylight, to stop and talk to Farina. He was inviting them to his party too. Oboy, I thought to myself, oboy.
1958, to be sure, was another planet. You have to appreciate the extent of sexual repression on that campus at the time. Rock ‘n’ roll had been with us for a few years, but the formulation Dope/Sex/Rock ‘n’ Roll hadn’t yet been made by too many of us. At Cornell, all undergraduate women were supposed to be residing, part of the time under lock and key, either in dormitories or sorority houses. On weeknights they had to be inside these places by something like 11 P.M., at which time all the doors were locked. Staying out all night without authorization meant discipline by the Women’s Judiciary Board, up to and including expulsion from school. On Saturday nights the curfew was graciously extended to something equally unreal, like 12 midnight.
Curfews were not the only erotic problem we faced– there was also a three- or four-to-one ratio of male to female students, as well as a variety of coed undergarments fiendishly designed to delay until curfew, if not to prevent outright, any access to one’s date’s pelvic area. One sorority house I knew of, and certainly others, had a house officer stationed by the front door on date nights. Her job was to make sure, in a polite but manual way, that every sister had some version of a Playtex chastity belt in place before she was allowed out the door. Landlords and local tradesfolk were also encouraged to report to the Administration the presence of coeds in off-campus apartments, such as Farina’s. In these and other ways, the University believed it was doing its duty to act in loco parentis.
This extraordinary meddling was not seriously protested until the spring of 1958, when, like a preview of the ’60s, students got together on the issue, wrote letters, rallied, demonstrated, and finally, a couple of thousand strong, by torchlight in the curfew hours between May 23rd and 24th, marched to and stormed the home of the University president. Rocks, eggs, and a smoke bomb were deployed. Standing on his front porch, the egg-spattered president vowed that Cornell would never be run by mob rule. He then went inside and called the proctor, or chief campus cop, screaming, “I want heads! . . . I don’t care whose! Just get me some heads, and be quick about it!” So at least ran the rumor next day, when four upperclassmen, Farina among them, were suspended. Students, however, were having none of this–they were angry. New demonstrations were suggested. After some dickering, the four were reinstated. This was the political and emotional background of that long-ago spring term at Cornell–the time and setting of Richard Farina’s novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me
Not that this is a typical “college” novel, exactly. Farina uses the campus more as a microcosm of the world at large. He keeps bringing in visitors and flashbacks from the outside. There is no sense of sanctuary here, or eternal youth. Like the winter winds of the region, awareness of mortality blows through every chapter. The novel ends with the death of a major character.
Undergraduate consciousness rests in part on a set of careless assumptions about being immortal. The elitism and cruelty often found in college humor arises from this belief in one’s own Exemption, not only from time and death, but somehow from the demands of life as well. It is Exemption –in a sense which Farina interestingly broadens here– that so perplexes and haunts the novel’s main character, Gnossos Pappadopoulis.
For Gnossos, Exemption is nothing he can either take for granted or have illusions about. His life is a day-to-day effort to keep earning and maintaining it. In the course of the book, Gnossos looks at a number of possibilities, including Eastern religion, road epiphanies, mescaline, love. All turn out to have a flaw of some kind. What he’s left with to depend on is his own coherence, an extended version of 1950s Cool. “Immunity has been granted to me,” thinks Gnossos, “for I do not lose my cool.” Backed up by a range of street-wise skills like picking locks and scoring dope, Cool gets Gnossos through, and it lies at the heart of his style.
There was a similar element of reserve to Farina’s own public character. When he spoke, one of the typical expressions on his face was a half-ironic half-smile, as if he were monitoring his voice and not quite believing what he heard. He carried with him this protective field of selfawareness and instant feedback, and I never did see all the way through it, although I got to know him a little better during the ’59 school year. We were never best friends, but we did like each other, and each other’s writing, and we hung out some, at parties, at beer outlets on campus like the Ivy Room, or at Johnny’s Big Red Grill (called Guido’s in the book), which was the usual nighttime gathering place.
The eats and atmosphere at Johnny’s were pretty much as Farina describes them. From time to time there’d be live l music. Peter Yarrow, later of Peter, Paul and Mary, had a standing gig there, maybe one of his earliest. He alternated with a rock ‘n’ roll group, all of them related, from the grocery across the street. In a few years these same two currents, modern folk and working-class rock, would flow together in what we remember now as the music of the high ’60s. Farina’s ear was taken not so much then by pop music as by more traditional American forms like jazz, and especially blues, both country and black. To the now canonized Buddy Holly he listened with some ambivalence– evident in the novel–but he did pay close attention to “Peggy Sue.” It seems now that in the guitar break of that recording he may have caught something others didn’t, some flash of things to come–but this could also just be my own retro-fantasy. Two albums of the period I know he was crazy about were Mose Allison’s “Back Country Suite,” also mentioned in the novel, and the English version of Weill and Brecht’s Threepenny Opera.
When it came to dancing, Farina went for Latin music. He was blessed, and knew it, with a happy combination of heritages. His mother was Irish and his father Cuban. He had relatives in both countries and had visited with them. It happened that in ’58 and ’59 there were a number of students from Latin America in the School of Architecture, and their circle was one of several that Farina could move in with some intimacy and ease. Their weekend parties were regarded as the best around. Farina danced a strange paso doble I’ve never seen since, and whose authenticity I can’t confirm. But the women he danced with, though now and then puzzled, were certainly enjoying themselves, which was the whole point.
Each year on St. Patrick’s Day, the tradition in the Architecture School was to construct a giant, what seemed like hundreds-of-feet-long, Chinese dragon, get as many folks under it as possible, and go running around the campus, in and out of classes and lectures, hands emerging from underneath the critter to grab and fondle the nearest coeds, many of whom had their hair tinted green. Everybody whooped it up all day long with oceans of beer dyed the same color. This was the one day, close to the Spring Equinox, when Farina’s two ethnic sides swung into balance, and he could indulge both. He would end the day with a crowd of dragon personnel, all spattered green, dowrs at a venerable bar called Jim’s, standing up on a table with a mug of green beer, quoting Garcia Lorca’s “Verde, que te quiero verde….” This would produce a long series of toasts to everything green, cervezas verdes, conos verdes. “El barco sobre la mar,” Farina hollered, “y el caballo en la montana!” Years later, in California, around sunrise on the morning of his marriage to Mimi Baez, we happened to stagger into each other in somebody’s front yard, both hung over. It was somewhere out in the country, in the hills near Palo Alto. We then managed to have one of those joirit epiphanies. Farina was staring up one of the slopes nearby. A white horse was standing out on this very green hillside, looking back at us. Of course Farina and I were both thinking of Lorca’s horse on the mountain.
Sometimes at college we also succeeded in getting on the same literary wavelength. We showed up once at a party, not a masquerade party, in disguise–he as Hemingway, I as Scott Fitzgerald, each of us aware that the other had been through a phase of enthusiasm for his respective author. I suppose by then I was learning from Farina how to be amused at some of my obsessions. Also in ’59 we simultaneously picked up on what I still think is among the finest of American novels, Warlock, by Oakley Hall. We set about getting others to read it too, and for a while had a micro-cult going. Soon a number of us were talking in Warlock dialogue, a kind of thoughtful, stylized, Victorian Wild West diction. This may have appealed to Farina partly as another method of maintaining Cool.
The first time I read Been Down. . . was in manuscript, an early drafts in the summer of 1963. I remember giving him a lot of free advice, though I’ve forgotten what it was exactly. But fortunately he didn’t take any of it. He must have wondered if I thought we were still back in writing class. Later, having rewritten it, ten pages from the end of the final draft, his hand went out on him. “Did you hear about my Paralyzed Hand?” he wrote in a letter. “Why Tom old boy”– Warlock talk– “I woke up this here otherwise promising morning with a clump of inert floppy for a hand. Lentils. Lentils and some kind of exhaustion known only to nits in sedentary occupations. Me, the once hunter after restless game gone to seed in a J. C. Penney armchair covered by a baby blanket…. But the hand came back by pins and needles after a month and I got done….”
When I first read the book, I was comparing it with my own experience of the same place, time, and people. It seemed then that Gnossos and Farina were one and the same. It was also great fun recognizing the real-life counterparts of the other characters, being tickled by what he’d done with and to them. Now, nearly twenty years later, seeing a little further into his method, I think maybe it wasn’t so simple. He didn’t just take things that had happened and change names. He really worked his ass off, but the result is so graceful that the first time around I was fooled completely.
For many of the characters, Farina seems to have begun with the key traits that in their Cornell originals appealed to him most–Drew Youngblood’s decency, Juan Carlos Rosenbloom’s manic bravado, Judy Lumpers’s build–and then from these cores gone on to develop each of them more fully. Presently, as characters will, each took on an inside the-novel life, separate from whoever they’d been outside it. There isn’t much point Naming Names here– they know who they all are and they walk among us, even today.
Gnossos himself is not Mr. Perfect, by any stretch. He has a short temper and a low tolerance for organized religion, national mythologies, incompetence, resignation, anybody from the American South, racist or not–the list of resentments goes on. He is susceptible to the thrill of vendetta or karmic adjustment, an impulse I suspect isn’t entirely absent from why Farina wrote the novel. Gnossos uses drugs and alcohol injudiciously, and gets publicly abusive with women, something I never saw Farina do. His own approach to women was never less than courtly and sensitive, though not without perhaps one or two jiveass moments.
The wolf story, for instance. This is one of Gnossos’s encounters with homicidal animal life, the other being the monkey demon of Chapter 14. In the book, Gnossos tells the wolf tale to Kristin McCleod, a young woman he’s falling in love with. He puts it in the form of a dialogue, in which Kristin, and we reading, are asked to provide the sense data–the cold, the squeak of the snow, the Adirondack visuals. It is Farina’s most perfected version of a piece whose early tryouts many friends first heard at Cornell, some more repeatedly than they really wanted to. He was in fact dismayingly successful with the wolf story, which he was using then mainly to hustle coeds, often those on whom one had sort of had one’s own eye. Most of them, as I recall, went for it. Each time he told it, of course, he rewrote, so it got better and better.
The monkey demon or mandrill-at-the-window story didn’t play as well. Some only thought he was being dramatic, others thought temporarily insane. When winter boredom set in there was always a chance of entertainment in sneaking up to Farina’s window at unlikely hours and making what we imagined to be mandrill faces and sounds, in hopes of some reaction. But he would only half-smile, and shrug, as if to say, if you don’t get it, you don’t get it.
But it remains one of the most effective of the many dark scenes in this novel. The darkest of all, and I think the best written, is the sequence that takes place in revolutionary Cuba, in which Gnossos’s best friend is accidentally killed. Although a few pages of campus rioting come later, the true climax of the book is in Cuba. Back in his Hemingway phase, Farina must have seen that line about every true story ending in death. Death, no idle prankster, is always, in this book, just outside the window. The cosmic humor is in Gnossos’s blundering attempts to make some kind of early arrangement with Thanatos, to find some kind of hustle that will get him out of the mortal contract we’re all stuck with. Nothing he tries works, but even funnier than that, he’s really too much in love with being alive, with dope, sex, rock ‘n’ roll–he feels so good he has to take chances, has to keep tempting death, only half-realizing that the more intensely he lives, the better the odds of his number finally coming up.
Close to the end of his last term at Cornell, Farina seemed to grow impatient. He had a job waiting in New York, and they didn’t care, he said, if he got his degree or not. There may also have been some romantic disaster involving Kristin McCleod’s original, though we never talked about it and all I heard was vague gossip. We were in one class together that term, and studied for the final at Johnny’s Big Red Grill over bottles of Red Cap ale. Next day, no more than half an hour into the exam, I was scribbling away at an essay question, caught a movement, looked up, saw Farina handing in his exam book and leaving. He couldn’t have been finished. As he came past I raised my eyebrows and he gave me that smile and that shrug. This was the last I saw of him for a while.
He went to New York, to Cuba, married Carolyn Hester, got a career in music going, toured overseas, lived in London, Paris, got divorced–then it was back to California, Boston, California again. Sometimes we wrote letters, sometimes–not often enough–we’d run into each other. We talked on the phone the day before he died. His book had just come out. We arranged to connect in L.A. in a few weeks. The next evening I heard the news over an AM rock ‘n’ roll station. He’d been riding on the back of a motorcycle on Carmel Valley Road, where a prudent speed would have been thirty-five. Police estimated that they must have been doing ninety, and failed to make a curve. Farina was thrown off, and killed.
I called his house– no answer. Called the AP in Los Angeles– they couldn’t confirm anything for sure. It never occurred to me to call the hospital up there. I didn’t want to hear what they’d say. The only person I found in that night was a long-distance friend who’d also known him at Cornell. She didn’t have any more solid news than I did. Both still hoping, hope fading, we talked for a long time, into the middle of the night, about Farina and the old days, in our voices the same mixture of exasperation and love most of us had always felt whenever his name came up. Finally, toward the end of the conversation, she laughed. “Just thought of something. If that fucking Farina,” she said, “has only been seriously hurt–if he goes up to the edge of It, and then comes back, you realize–we’re never going to hear the end of it.”