The Basketball Diaries
by Jim Carroll
I remember the first time I read The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll. I was in eighth grade and a girl in my home room handed me her copy to borrow. I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect, at first – I didn’t know anything about it, wasn’t a huge basketball fan, didn’t know who Jim Carroll was and was just at the tail end of reading Kerouac’s On The Road – which I had fallen in love with. [editor’s note: who reads Jack Kerouac in grade eight?] For those reasons, her copy of the book sat in my backpack for about a week. At that point, she asked me what I thought of the book and I told her I hadn’t started it yet; I offered no further explanation, just that I hadn’t even cracked it. She sort of grimaced in response to that but, undaunted, simply said, “You should. I think it’s your kind of thing, check it out and then give it back.”
She and I had similar taste in books but, rather than running home and starting it that night, I gave it a day and then started it at the beginning of the weekend. By the end of the weekend, I had finished the book (I wouldn’t end up finishing On The Road for another month after that, BECAUSE of what The Basketball Diaries had done to me. I was inspired; I had already started writing quite a bit (short stories, essays, poetry, journal entries – the sorts of things that kids do), but The Basketball Diaries got me writing constantly.
I had already been reading a lot too (in the pre-internet age without access to cable television, I did a lot of reading and listened to a lot of music); I started reading the Beat writers, autobiographies, biographies – far less fiction and more stuff that was stranger than fiction because it was real. And writing? The Basketball Diaries opened me up. It proved to me that candor did not have to be a sign of weakness; it was actually far more effective at weakening the knees of those who were exposed to it than strong, calculated sloganeering because, while still featuring some artifice to make it memorable, it was very poignant and affecting.
Needless to say, The Basketball Diaries had a profound impact on my literary taste and the way I wrote but, a little over twenty years later, I’ve picked the book up again to re-acquaint myself with it (I had to buy a new copy because, after returning that girl’s copy to her, the copy I purchased was soon destroyed from use) and see if the effect it had on me years ago was still as profound as it was after having lived a bit more life and having learned a few more lessons. After all, let’s be honest here; some books seem so fresh and exciting when first you read them but, years later (Steven King’s body of work is notorious for this), even the mention of the title can spark a cringe from those familiar, because those books seem so juvenile and pedantic years later.
The Basketball Diaries still reads beautifully for me, to this day. From front to back, it captures the energy and excitement of growing up in New York, with a perfect ignorance of the turbulent times in which the story is set (Fall 1963 to Summer 1966). At first, the story reads very much like a coming of age tale (see “Today was my first Biddy League Game and my first in any organized basketball league. I’m enthused about life due to this exciting event.”), but it doesn’t take long for the shadows of darker matters to begin coloring the edges (the teach’s coach. Lefty, is presumed to be both gay and a pedophile) of the monologue.
Soon, discussion of drugs becomes more present in the proceedings (on page 4, the image of drugs is as simple and relatively carefree as huffing Carbona on rags and then vomiting over the side of the Staten Island ferry – but then it’s weed by page 17, huffing glue within ten pages and then more abstract memories of heroin use not long after that). In that way, perhaps without even noticing at first, the story becomes very polarized; there are vignettes showcasing teenage kicks and good times (jumping off the cliffs above the Harlem River into the water below – a test of bravery as well as of fortitude given that the sewage which flows down the river is thick) contrasted with the tales of drug experimentation which gets darker and darker as the book progresses.
That contrast could easily make for a compelling undercurrent through the novel, but it proves to be even better because, eventually, the dark and light contrasts eventually blend together into a consistent, muddy, shade of grey. Eventually, there prove to be no heroes or villains in The Basketball Diaries, just shadows with names and general descriptions which are irrelevant to the narrator beyond the scope of their usefulness; occasionally there are reactions to those shadows but, most regularly, they’re irrelevant unless they serve Carroll’s needs and desires.
The third act of The Basketball Diaries marks the darkest period in the novel. Here, memories of drag queens playing doctor with young boys are presented, as are images of hapless New York cops and pounds of drugs; weed, speed, smack and more begin to make every-page appearances in the latter half of the summer of 1965. Most telling of Carroll’s decent is the darker language which colors the pages; where once the language around drugs and the mischief of scoring and discussion of girls was light and fairly playful, the darkness of the situation and those in it is reflected in the harsher language of the characters and Carroll’s less forgiving, increasingly foul and artless interior monologue. There are flashes of beauty to illustrate the contrast between who Carroll was at the beginning of the novel and who he has become, but the dark, increasingly critical air, anger and need are the consistent angles that the third act both establishes and inhabits. After the shock of that change recedes, readers will be able to pull the torment more easily. Passages like:
“The more I read the more I know it now, heavier each day, that I need to write. I think of poetry and how I see as just a raw block of stone ready to be shaped, that way words are never a horrible limit to me, just tools to shape. I just get the images from the upstairs vault (it all comes as images) and fling ’em around like bricks, sometimes clean and smooth and then sloppy and ready to fall on top of you later.Like this house where I got to sometimes tear out a room and make it another size or shape so the rest make sense… or no sense at all. And when I’m done I’m stoned as on whatever you got in your pockets right now, dig?”
Are ugly, tormented, beautiful, uplifting and inspiring all at once. The lines between dark and light have begun to dissolve with the help of hard drugs. In that way too, the turn is romantic, ominous and intoxicating and makes the scene of Carroll dressing in drag for the woman he’s sleeping with forgettable.
Of course the whip has to come down and, in this moral treatise, that happens in Winter ’66. Carroll gets sent to Ryker’s Island Juvenile Reformatory for a three-month stretch which, at least theoretically, can double as detox and/or rehab. Carroll only does thirty days before being released, but it does the trick; by Spring/Summer ’66, the bright, energetic and semantically nimble Carroll who first began this diary has returned. Almost like a new author, Carroll cruises the streets a free man, seeing some of the characters from his past redeemed (Diane – the young pro-in-training back in ’64, is now presented as clean, neat and well put-together) and others absent (the acid-eaters club from the park is gone when Carroll goes somewhere familiar to drop, and ends up having a terrible – perhaps as some kind of ironic punishment) because they just didn’t make it out alive.
While one might think that such a moral portrait would cause readers to recoil, the turn here proves satisfying; as dealers drop out of sight and/or in short supply when Carroll’s sobriety stumbles and the thrills (from peyote; from street crime; from boosting cars; from acid; from street drugs in general) quickly evaporate, the pinch of age makes itself evident. The drugs become diversions which don’t last, and the increasing number of clear-headed moments offer lessons learned like, “junk is another nine to five gig in the end, only the hours are a bit more inclined to shadows.”
Finally ending the book’s 210 pages (it took me one more day to complete than I expected), I was struck by how affected by the read I was. Twenty years ago, I was energized by The Basketball Diaries; it got me reading The Beats, autobiographies, more journalism than I’m really comfortable admitting, Hunter Thompson and even Hemingway; basically, if there was a grain of truth in it somewhere, I was interested because Jim Carroll had shown me (to paraphrase Bad Religion) that sometimes truth is not only stranger than fiction, it’s better; more captivating; more affecting; more interesting and more inspiring too.
Re-reading The Basketball Diaries now, none of those things have fades with the passage of time and other lessons learned – in fact the book resonated BETTER with those lessons acquired. That said, this book can change your life reader – it changed mine twenty-two years ago, so much so that I haven’t reverted back at any time since.