[ bookreviews ]
That titular breathlessness, followed by the lower-case subtitle - memoirs of a beat survivor - didn't bode well. Nor did the commendatory jacket quotes from some resolutely un-household names (e.g. Adrian Shaw, Richard Aaron, Nick Saloman, Gary Faulkerson, Michael Simmons, etc). These ranged from the tentative to the ecstatic. "Hammond's book may be one of the quintessential freak histories" declared one, while another dubbed him "an extraordinary writer who has been there, done it and has now written the book. An important yet rather anonymous figure of the alternative scene from the 60s to the present day..." All in all, I suspected that this oddly-hyped "journey from the vortex of the 60s counter-culture and on into the void" might be continuing revisionism, just barrelscraping, and itself one more void to avoid.
However, a couple of familiar London names from that era, Hoppy and Miles, were kind about this memoir, so I persevered with it and am glad I did. Bits of it are hilarious (if not always intentionally so), while there are anecdotal gems or odd nuggets of crazed eccentricity half-buried amid whole landslides of slipshod and too often tortuous prose. But then the whole decade was self-indulgent yet exciting, excessive yet creative, frustrating yet fulfilling, radical yet reactionary and, especially for city-dwellers, on the whole encouragingly, wonderfully weird. The 60s were full of all sorts of chancers, groupies, wannabes and neverhasbeens, swingers, dropouts, pseuds and hangers-on. That decade - my own twenties and (as readers will work out) the author's teens - was indeed a fine time to be young. And if Guthrie's none too exact with dates, no matter, for time itself seemed to do deceptive things then - expanding, looping or warping along with the enormous variety of experimental substances consumed. Hammond Guthrie's taste for the latter, and his cheerfully avowed and gargantuan ingestion of the same is, in the most exact and considered sense, mind-boggling!
Brought up on the American West Coast, largely by grandparents, Guthrie wistfully reflects: "Life on a horse ranch as an only child can be more adventurous and is certainly less competitive than living in town with on-site parents and possible siblings". His parents divorce early on: the mother disappears, becoming a non-person, while young Hammond secretes only a single photo of her, after the family destroy all the others. Meanwhile his "off-site father, who had gone on to become a well known criminologist at the University of Southern California and who occasionally served as an unidentified advisor to sitting Presidents, the FBI and to the anonymous Directors of Central Intelligence, decided to remarry." The boy more or less escapes having to come to terms with this new parental relationship by being sent to Military Academy, of all places, but soon the erratic and confused adolescent must confront adulthood and conscription. The best and funniest parts of the book describe the devious stratagems and drug-fuelled paranoia involved in trying to dodge the draft. This Guthrie successfully does, twice in fact, since he first gains deferment for some ambiguously 'higher' education; a couple of years later, he again beats the military rap. These particular passages Terry Southern himself might have chuckled at, and I'm sure readers will find them as blackly humorous as I did.
The rest of Guthrie's eastward odyssey, taking him to Europe - London, Amsterdam, North Africa - is well over 200 pages long, with a second instalment promised. Unfortunately, since the author's primarily an artist rather than a writer, and neither editor nor copy-editor seems to have worked on his manuscript, the book as a whole proves hard going. Floating apostrophes, dangling participles, sub-Joycean neologisms - Guthrie lets them hang extra-loose: the ungrammatical gang's all here, alongside much misspelling of proper and place names. A brief sample: La Grand Chaumier, Jeu du Pomme, Innsbruk, St Germaine des Pres, Cafe du Paris, Boulevard St Michele. People? - Valazquez, Bruegal, Gene Kruppa, avant-trumpter Don Cherry, Generalismo Franco, la garda civil, closhards. And what exactly is nefarity? Or acclimating to prison life? You can follow the general drift of what's struggling to be said, via some often awkward prose: quite literally no-one (including most of the street urchins), or the brittle psychosphere surrounding my grief continued to expand for the worse. Although such clumsiness can prove exasperating, we may allow Guthrie a friendly-freak's modicum of prosaic licence, for it's staggering that he can manage to write anything at all coherent after the vast pharmacopia consumed over the years.
Guthrie briefly encounters or somehow fails to engage with, various of the talented American expatriates of that era - Burroughs, Bowles, Tennessee Williams, Alfred Chester - but they or he are either too drunk or drugged for any genuinely interesting exchange to take place. Of a soothsayer's patch near the Asilah souk he notes: "Some time later I learned that this was the very spot where the noted surrealist, author Alfred Chester (Behold Goliath and The Exquisite Corpse), then in residence, had himself tied to a tree by the villagers of Asilah in a vain attempt to conquer his significantly paranoid delusions." Interesting enough, now that poor Chester may be overdue for reprinting, but Guthrie's brief mention here will scarcely accelerate any such literary revival.
There were other, equally odd - perhaps less ingenuous (or more disingenuous) - American expats-in-Europe at that time, ultra-keen to brandish their radical credentials and seemingly ubiquitous in the metropolis. Though not necessarily frequenters of what Guthrie disarmingly calls London's Chelsea district, the likes of Ralph Schoenman, Ed Victor and Harvey Matusow were busy sussing the capital's cultural-political scene. Guthrie is informative on the latter character, whom he tolerantly and naively regards as rather a likeable rogue: American victims of the blacklist might beg to differ. Matusow, convicted fink for the infamous Joe McCarthy, had by then more or less successfully re-invented himself for the younger generation and the British market.
That Matusow, teller of tall tales and dodgy survivalist, should (coincidentally?) have found himself in the very prison cell next to a far greater man - the dying Wilhelm Reich - is one of the more extraordinary anecdotes recounted here, a tale as sinister as it's blackly humorous. Indeed, it seems a poignant parable for those deceptive, bigoted times - how destructive fraudster and creative genius alike could get caught within, and end up paying for, American Cold War paranoia. Guthrie provides a final weird glimpse of Matusow in his latter millennial days, and "who at seventy-three years of age (and now going by the name of Job) has taken a vow of poverty and devotes himself to Native American community service and public broadcasting in rural Utah."
There are though, snapshots of more straightforwardly talented people - the Guthries' former landlord, journalist and author Kenneth Allsop; the Dutch resistance hero, art-collector and patron Willem Sandberg - plus a few unusual insights into the Amsterdam avant-garde scene in the 60s and 70s. Too much of the personal material presented - marital spats, highs and lows, etcetera - is so subjective and opaque that younger, more detached readers may now find these bygone shenanigans trivial or exasperating.
That said, the book is attractively produced, if hardly an essential read. A colourful, exciting and excitable decade still flickers here fitfully, but these reminiscences - probably of greater interest to social historians than to either of those invidious categories, 'ordinary' or 'literary' readers - aren't in the end particularly inspiring or stimulating. Hammond Guthrie plans to treat us to a second volume. Fair enough, but in that case, a pinch more self-criticism and some rigorous editing would come in handy.