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We Don't Like It When Someone Breaks the Rules
on December 30, 2006
I was compelled to read this book. I had just read David Hajdu's wonderful biographical book, *Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina, and Richard Farina*, a book that I highly recommend to readers generally interested in Dylan and Baez and the cultural phenomenon of the 60s zeitgeist, or to readers wanting to know more about the U.S.'s fascination with folk music during the late 50s and early 60s.
I'll get to Farina's book in a second, but first I want to say something about Richard Farina. Hajdu's seductive account of Farina--his manic ambitions, peripatetic wanderings, multiple artistic talents, brilliant conversations, spontaneous insights, Lothario lifestyle, and con-artist bravado--compelled me to read Farina's one and only book just to see what he produced as a writer. Similarly, I was compelled to find Farina's two recordings for Vanguard Records (he made two very hip folk records with his wife Mimi Baez).
Farina was a character. He used others callously to gain opportunities for himself. In that respect, he was a lot like Dylan, and other successful artists, letting his self-centered ambitions guide his actions, regardless of how they affected others. Using others as stepping stones, he furthered his career, first as a writer and then as a singer/songwriter and musician, and then again as a writer. Having learned from Hajdu's book about Farina's talent for self-advancement, I was not surprised while reading Farina's novel to see he is uninterested in following established conventions of novel writing for his time. He had his own style. His writing has been called self-absorbed or solipsistic, and those criticisms are true. An example of Farina's self-absorbtion is that he is hardly interested in providing readers with the usual or conventional cues to orient the reader to the setting, plot, and point of view (the point of view exasperatingly alternates from first person to third person at the whim of the author); moreover, he provides no clear hierarchy of characters (e.g. major and minor characters).
Indeed, there is only one major character in *Been Down...* and he is Gnossos, whose life is oddly similar to Farina's: travling out West, to Cuba, Ireland, New York, and in the South; racking up numerous sexual conquests, experimenting with esoteric drugs and living the high life; manically seeking new experiences; in short, doing everything that supposedly defined coming of age in the U.S. during the sixties.
Readers rightly complain that the book is self-indulgent. Self-indulgence and narcissism were obvious guideposts in Farina's own life: he was ambitious and did not follow the rules. It fascinates me that his self-indulgence is manifested in his writing, which is experimental, self-pleasing, self-affirming, and self-interested.
Another reason this book, written between 1959 and 1965, is worth reading is that it presaged the coming Gonzo style of writing, later practiced to great effect by Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and a few others. The sixties bent the rules for what was allowable, indeed possible, in popular and artful writing, and Farina was riding that experimental wave long before others who eventually got the credit for "inventing" Gonzo style. If Farina hadn't died suddenly and at such a young age, he would probably be esteemed among the writers I mention above, as well as Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Truman Capote, and a host of journalists like Lester Bangs and P. J. O'Rourke, all of whom experimented with Gonzo style or New Journalism, an offshoot of the Gonzo style of writing.
So, it seems to me, the value in reading this book is to understand how literary tides were changing in the Sixties. This book is a prime illustration of how those turbulent waters and winds of change altered the shores of contemporary literature. Although Gonzo "literature" never really amounted to a viable "school" of writing, elements of it are now evident in mainstream writing; for example, the birth of creative non-fiction as a genre of writing owes something to Gonzo "literature." Moreover, the Gonzo style opened the door for much more personal experimentation in writing, and Farina, as I said, was at the forefront. Farina may not have been interested in leading the Gonzo fight as Thompson did a couple years later ("Gonzo" was not even a word at the time of Farina's death), but he had tapped into a new experimental style of expression, and I like to speculate that he would have become every bit the artist and changeling that Dylan has become. Hajdu's biography of Farina et al. tacitly concludes that Farina in 1966, at 28 years of age, was already a remarkable, multi-talented, and accomplished artist whose potential was cut short by accidental death, just as he was coming into his own.
In my opinion, there is one other characteristic of Farina's first and only novel that makes it a worthy read: it has a remarkable similarity to Thomas Pynchon's first novel, *V*. Everything that I've said above about Farina's book equally describes Pynchon's first novel, too. Both writers were buddies at Cornell and read each other's stories as undergraduates. They were both autodidacts and injected their first novels with passing bits of arcana from countless esoteric subjects, from nuclear fission to Rennaisance art. Curiously, one song on Farina's first album of folk music, *Celebrations for a Grey Day*, is titled "V" and is a tribute to Pynchon's novel. I think it's fair to say that, even though Pynchon's novel was published in 1963 before Farina's novel, the writers were equally influenced by one another at that early stage in their careers.
So, I have given a number of good reasons to read Farina's book. But aside from these reasons, the question remains: Is Farina's novel a monumental work? Reading the rest of the reviews here in Amazon, I have to conclude Farina's novel annoys as many readers as it pleases. *Been Down...* probably will never be considered a great American novel, maybe not even a minor classic, but its sales will remain steady as long as readers are interested in socio-cultural history of the U.S. during the sixties; and the literature and music of that period will be appreciated for what it tells us about those times and its people. While it is true that Farina's book deviates significantly from conventional standards of good literature, that deviation is exactly why it is worth reading: it is an exemplary novel of artistic experimentation at a critical period of change in U.S. culture.