Jim Carroll's New York is a carnival crazy house, where the drunks and hustlers bobble out of dark doorways like phosphorescent skeletons. Reflected in its twisted mirrors is all the perversion, scum and inadvertent slapstick that flesh is heir to.
Carroll is 12 when the diaries begin in 1963, 15 when they shiver to a close. He is the older son of a lower-class, Irish Catholic family. Precocious enough to win a scholarship to a posh West Side private school, he is a sexually sophisticated, glue-sniffing, purse-snatching dopehead. He shoots his first heroin at 13, puffed with self-control; two years later he is a full-fledged junkie. His one untarnished vision is of himself as the basketball hero, and he clings to the idea of his prowess on the court despite the gradual encroachment of his drug habit.
And he has his diaries -- raw, scatological stories that edge from phrase to phrase as if they too were on sneakers, looking for the chance to shoot.
"The more I read the more I know it now, heavier each day, that I need to write . . . . I got these diaries that have the greatest hero a writer needs . . . New York. Soon I'm gonna wake a lot of dudes . . . and let them know what is really going down in that blind alley down there in the pretty streets with double garages. I got a tap on all your wires, folks."
Someday, of course, he plans to turn the diaries into poetry, sculpt them into what he calls "presence like a cheetah rather than a chimp." But as they are, crude, ungrammatical, distorted, they have a voice so strong that those adepts of the subjective narrative, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, both marveled at Carroll's instinct.
The diaries are true, at least sort of, and the line between fact and fantasy is blurred. What gives the book its irresistible surrealism are the characters Carroll meets in the ordinary intersections of his life -- the old woman next door who says mass in her underwear, the young redhead who throws herself out of a fifth-floor apartment, the junkies and whores, the condescending teachers, the sticky-fingered classmates. And shadowing them all is Carroll's own unwilling recognition of both body and spirit.
His descriptions of the specters around him have extraordinary power; they are intimate yet desperately distant.
"Saw Bobby Blake today, a kleptomaniac, speed-freak friend, in the train on my way to school. He told me he was out on bail and had a trial coming up next week. I asked him what happened and (no lie) dig this: He got drunk Saturday night along with his usual super shot of speed and he's on his way home at 3 in the morning. On this quiet little street he decided to break into Gussie's Soda Fountain and check out the cash register. Tactlessly he threw the door of an old refrigerator that was lying around in the street through the glass door and climbed over the glass still zonked as a doggie. Then he makes his way to the register but can't get the thing open, so he pushes it around some more to no avail. He gives up on it. As he's about to get out . . . out of the place he looks up over the fountain, sees a sign of giant ice cream soda and gets an incredible urge for that, plus a grilled cheese sandwich. So he goes behind the counter and lights the stove, puts butter in the pan, make a cheese sandwich, tosses it into the pan and the pan onto the fire. Then he goes about making an ice cream soda, using six flavors of ice-cream . . . 'They took me away,' he told me, 'with my grilled cheese still burning, the dumb bastards.'"
The real Jim Carroll remained a junkie until 1973. His third book of poetry, "Living at the Movies," was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize when he was 22. Now 28, he has escaped the "velvet underground" for San Francisco, where he and his rock band have been signed to Rolling Stones Records. His lyrics have the same bitter humor that floods "The Basketball Diaries." "I was a Catholic boy," he sings, "redeemed through pain, and not through joy."