Book review: Southern's thoughts spill out in his letters


It must have been a gas, to borrow one of his favorite terms, to get a letter from Terry Southern. Each was its own little acid trip, streaked with innuendo and poached in a satirical kind of intellectual flop sweat. He used thin, expensive paper and sealed some of his letters with wax. People were said to read them aloud to whoever was in the room.

It must further have been a groove, to use another of his favorite terms, to get a letter from Southern (1924-95) because he seemed to know everyone, from George Plimpton and Lenny Bruce to Ringo Starr and Dennis Hopper and had stories to tell.

It's hard to sum up how brightly Southern's star burned in the mid-1960s. A counter-cultural Zelig, he was nowhere and everywhere. Tom Wolfe credited Southern's article "Twirling at Ole Miss," published in Esquire in 1963, with jump-starting the New Journalism. Southern helped write the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" (1964), injecting the software (wit) into the hardware (dread).

Southern's novel "Candy," a smutty parody of Voltaire's "Candide" written with Mason Hoffenberg, was a best-seller when it was issued in America in 1964, six years after it was first published in France. On the cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1967), he was immortalized in sunglasses, wedged between Dylan Thomas and Dion.

Southern covered the 1968 Democratic National Convention for Esquire alongside Burroughs and Jean Genet. He cowrote "Easy Rider" (1969). Good Lord: He was profiled in Life magazine.

Southern's big, scattered life (he burned out on gin, speed, sex and debt) went tit for tat with his big, scattered prose style. This is reason to expect a lot from "Yours in Haste and Adoration: Selected Letters of Terry Southern," edited by his son, Nile Southern, along with the critic Brooke Allen.

But with Southern, pretty often, you had to be there. The crackle in his letters has faded almost entirely. In part, the deal-killer is the hipster lingo. There's an avalanche of "bop, razor fight, hippy-dippy jive-talk," as he put it in one letter about how he freshened up a script. He warned a friend he didn't want to "jeopardize the mind-flow freshness of my gestalt, you dig." In this book, the mind-flow is not always so fresh.

Southern always stayed too late at the party, chiding one friend for having "sent me packing so often at the very shank of the evening." He was exhausting in other ways. A typical performance was a 1980 letter to the novelist and Zen master Peter Matthiessen, which reads right up top: "Wow-ee! Bro-ther! Boy-oh-boy! Holy Mack!" You imagine Matthiessen mailing him back a sachet of decaffeinated tea.

A bigger drawback of Southern's letters is that there's very little gossip (another word for reportage) in them. He tended not to relate things he saw or heard, but things he would have liked to have seen and heard. So in a 1961 letter to the playwright Jack Gelber, for example, we read: "You'll be amused to hear that Lil Hellman wigged, but I mean completely, trying to strangle herself on some of Carson McCullers' old panties she had stashed." Hahahahaha.

Southern's letters were antic, but they were also surprisingly unlettered and juvenile in an ur-Judd Apatow sort of way. (A lot of penis jokes.) He was not a close observer of people, in these letters, nor of his environments. He didn't reveal much about his own life. There aren't many facts to hang onto.

The editors make the point that Southern emerges, in his letters, as a kind man. He sent offbeat gifts to William S. Burroughs. He was godfather to the songwriter Harry Nilsson's daughter.

But he could also be distant (there are relatively few letters to family members) and plainly cruel. In a 1963 letter to a female friend, he ordered her to stop leaning on him to bring impressive guests to her parties. "Just because your Dad is important," he wrote, "doesn't mean that you are."

Inexplicably, "Yours in Haste and Adoration" has been issued as a jumbo-size $65 art volume, though it contains few photographs. The width of the main text on each page is so wide that you're nearly forced to move your head as well as your eyes when reading, as if you were sitting center court at the U.S. Open. It's headachesville, as Southern might have put it.

It won't fit on the shelf with other Southern books. So it will end up, in my house at any rate, in the basement, where it is one move away from Goodwill.

The footnotes in this book, from Nile Southern and Allen, are excellent and often droll. Southern ended a 1962 letter to Gore Vidal, "You are often in my thoughts, and my best to your darling sister, dear Nina." I laughed out loud at the footnote, which reads: "Gore Vidal had no sister. His mother was named Nina."

The forced gaiety of Southern's prose can't hide a note of desperation that's nearly always lurking just below. He was a jobbing writer, consistently on the lookout for grants, blurbs, magazine assignments, scripts, deals. By the 1980s, all were drying up.

Southern's money woes started early. "I am broke again," he writes in one of the very first letters here, from 1954. "That is what happens when you hang with the very beat cats, you see; a decent stash falls your way and is divided by 23."

He begged Hopper for a percentage of the "Easy Rider" profits. To Kubrick, in 1973, he wrote: "I am into a very heavily negative scene at the moment with the IRS, who are on the verge, quite literally, of selling my house."

Southern's letters click just often enough that you wish he had franking privileges in hell, or heaven, or wherever he is. Maybe Lillian Hellman is down there, strangling him with someone's old panties. But they trace a downward spiral that reminds you that, in Christopher Hitchens' phrase, "Those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they probably begin by calling 'charismatic.'"

"Yours in Haste and Adoration: Selected Letters of Terry Southern," edited by Nile Southern and Brooke Allen. Illustrated. 345 pages. Antibookclub. $65.


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