Richard Fariña’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me turns fifty.
I am gazing, as I write, at a black-and-white photograph of Richard Fariña with his wife, Mimi (née Baez) Fariña, taken backstage at the Newport Folk Festival nine months before his death—fifty years ago this week—at the age of twenty-nine. To call the photo romantic would be an understatement. Mimi, her face a dark flower offered to an invisible sun, appears to be literally bursting out of her flip-flops as she executes some twirling, Isadora Duncan-y ballet step; while Richard, swarthy and black-haired, his eyes fondly delta’d (the Ray-Bans in his hand having apparently proven useless against all this brightness), looks like he can’t quite believe his luck, to have aligned his future with this lovely, exuberant sprite, a princess in folk’s royal family. He’s having a pretty good run of it for a guy who plays the dulcimer. And technically he doesn’t even play it that well.
Still, there’s something about his self-taught, feverishly percussive style—his modal tones, his Latin and Irish cadences, his propulsive intensity—that strikes people as original and fresh, and turns the instrument into a natural extension of his irrepressible lyricism and buoyancy of spirit. (“That was Fariña, man,” a musician friend attested later: “you thought he was full of shit, then he delivered the goods and knocked everybody out.”) He may not be a musician, exactly, but he’s an artist of some sort. Perhaps, as David Hajdu’s intriguing group portrait of the Village folk scene, Positively 4th Street, suggests, an important one. It’s not simply a matter of his talent and facility, his sturdy work ethic and prodigious charm; it’s his intuitive feel for the currencies of his time, along with his gift for friendships and/or competitive rivalries with his peers that make him seem in retrospect one of those magnetic, necessary figures whose sheer force of personality draws everything in his ambit into convergence. He’s a kind of super-connector, a not-so-invisible bridge between the fifties and sixties, folk and rock, and, via his elective affinities with them both, arguably the two most influential American artists of the last half century: Bob Dylan and Thomas Pynchon.
But what sort of artist, or performer, was Fariña himself? Novelist? Poet? Songwriter? Supreme bullshitter? None of this is clear that afternoon in Newport. Fact is, he’s been performing for years, telling tales, fabulating adventures, improvising a persona, or a succession of them, from the smoke and mirrors of his own mock-heroic bravado (“He walked and talked as if he had been born wearing a cape,” a college friend tells Hajdu), and practicing, it must be said, no small share of brazen opportunism along the way. Like Dylan, who shares many of the same traits—minus the sexual charisma and gregarious warmth—you get the sense that for Fariña the folk scene will be just one station on the journey. Other destinations await, not least among them an airy illuminated terminal called Literary Fame. All along he’s been writing like a madman, sending off chapters of his novel in progress to his college pal Pynchon, publishing poems and short stories in magazines, no longer hanging out at the White Horse with the other Dylan Thomas wannabes, as he used to, but working seriously and hard to make good on his promise.
And why not? Who better? Sheesh, look at the guy. Half Irish, half Cuban, he’s like some fiery, bristling Heathcliff, only more mischievous, more fun. He’s the life of every party. That PERFORMER badge on his belt is like a superhero’s insignia. Even the dimpled cleft on his chin seems a kind of grace note, the ornamental touch of God’s own finger. No wonder, signing copies of his just-published novel the following April, he’ll inscribe each one with the same brazen four-letter word: Zoom.
That Fariña will in fact be dead six hours after he leaves that signing—killed in full zoom, as it were, in a motorcycle crash on the Carmel Highway—is of course tragic and inconceivable: not just an unforeseeable tragedy but an unseeable one, a darkness that refuses to take shape no matter how hard you squint.
Me, I knew nothing about it. I was eight years old when Fariña died; I had no idea who he was. It was not until 1972, when I chanced upon a copy of that one and only novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, that I fell under his spell. I had stumbled upon his book the same way I stumbled upon everything else in those days, in the act of browsing my older brother’s shelves for pornographic inspirations. Happily, the good people at Dell had emblazoned the cover of Fariña’s book with the pale, sinuous geometries of a naked woman, and chosen a cool lowercase typographic font for the title—which looked like, and indeed was, a line from a blues song I’d never heard by an artist I’d never heard of. Above it ran a jazzy PR tagline claiming the book’s relevance to “today’s turned on, hung-up youth,” a claim that while misleading for a novel set in the late fifties managed to nail precisely the two salient features of my youth. There was also an audacious author bio that would be criminal to paraphrase, so here it is:
Richard Fariña was born of a Cuban father and Irish mother, both of whom came to this country during the thirties. He spent time with them in Brooklyn, Cuba, and Northern Ireland. At eighteen, he worked with members of the Irish Republican Army but eventually had to leave the country. Much the same for Cuba, which he visited often when Castro was still in the mountains, and again during the heavy fighting in Santa Clara and while the revolutionary army was entering Havana. After he left Cornell in ’59 until late ’63, he lived in London and Paris. The author writes that he made his living from “music, street singing, script-writing, acting, a little smuggling, anything to hang on. Lost thirty pounds.”
Naturally, I believed every word. No doubt I needed to believe it. I was a fourteen-year-old Jewish kid in the suburbs, a failed athlete, an indifferent musician, an uninspired student; I was desperate for a little audacity in my life. So far things did not look promising. All I had going for me was an addiction to books and a small, more or less self-generated reputation among the other spades-playing potheads in the cafeteria for gloomy wit, radical posturing, and formidable hair. Oh, and I sort of nurtured the idea of being a writer someday. I conceived of the vocation not in the narrow, literal sense but on a more platonic, metaphysical plane—that is, from the standpoint of someone who did not write much at all.
Nonetheless, I wanted to be a writer. And not just any writer: I wanted to be Richard Fariña. Not a writer like Fariña, but Fariña himself. By then that damn book of his, which I’d read six or seven times already, had laid siege to my head, planting its colorful little flags all over the gray matter until I could no longer tell where Fariña’s sensibility left off and my own, such as it was, began. I was conversant not just with its sex scenes and politics and wealth of musical references but with its phantasmagoric weirdness of style. I had long since worn out the grooves, with my blunted stylus, of his two gorgeous folk albums with Mimi. I had resourcefully snagged a copy of his posthumous collection, Long Time Coming and a Long Time Gone and committed most of its not-entirely-publication-worthy pieces—pastiches for the most part of Hemingway and Dylan Thomas—to memory. An alarming quotient of my imaginative territory was ceded over to Fariña. So why not just go ahead and be the guy? To write Fariña’s book, play Fariña’s music, marry Fariña’s wife, live Fariña’s life; perhaps even on some level I wasn’t ready to acknowledge, die Fariña’s death. But mostly, write Fariña’s book.
I took Been Down So Long very, very personally—so personally that I’d resisted rereading it for the past thirty-odd years, lest I discover it was not in fact all that good.
As it happens it is quite good. A darkly comic picaresque in the vein of J. P. Donleavy’s Ginger Man, a campus satire/roman à clef of a barely-fictionalized Cornell, Been Down So Long, like its hipster protagonist Gnossos Pappadopoulis, gurgles and fizzes like a fountain of youth. In its mists are bountiful dispensations of sex (polymorphous), drugs (hallucinogenic), cocktails (potent), music (Miles, Mose Allison), pop-culture references (Captain Midnight, the Shadow), revolutionary politics (suspect), weird Pynchonian names (Louie Motherball, G. Alonso Oeuf, Oswald Mojo), and a showy vocabulary (the word phthisic gets a workout), along with a sense of occult evil, paranoid suspicion, and incipient defeat. Though Gnossos begins in full mock-heroic mode, returning like Odysseus from a long litany of exotic adventures, “mind awash in schemes,” his return to the campus womb proves to be not quite the spiritual safe haven he expected. An occult shadow of Thanatos hangs everywhere, some foul emanation of the culture to which, it being the late fifties, no one seems to be paying proper attention. Fariña, in one of the songs he wrote around this time, “Children of Darkness,” sniffed some of this sulfur in the air:
It’s once I was free to go roaming in
The wind of the springtime mind
And once the clouds I sailed upon
Were sweet as lilac wine
Then why have the breezes of summer, dear
Enlaced with a grim design?
Gnossos, like any good superhero, wades forth to do battle, but for all his cool and his pretense of exemption—“I am not ionized,” he proclaims, “and I possess not valence”—he proves no more immune, in the end, than anyone else. A letter from the draft board arrives. All his careless ecstasies turn rancid. Fariña worked on the novel for half a dozen years; possibly given the progression, if we can call it that, of the era’s politics, it darkened somewhat over time. Or is it only the lens through which we read it that’s darkened? Whatever the case, the novel, for all its lyric high spirits, turns out to be something more of a bummer than I remembered.
It’s also blatantly derivative, racially simplistic, full of smug, often bullshit insights—“life is a celluloid passion”—and rather promiscuous in its embrace of what one character calls “a whole lot of doodley-shit.” But so what? It’s a very pleasurable read. Like a lot of foundational first novels we love, its appeal remains primarily sonic and chemical, atmospheric. We don’t succumb to them in spite of their flaws and excesses, but because of them.
“You want it all without the discipline,” an older mentor figure tells Gnossos. Maybe the author was talking to himself a little, too. Anyway, Fariña was only twenty-nine. He was growing; he had plenty of time. “You know what I want to be when I grow up?” Gnossos asks at one point. “A maker of mirrors, that’s what.”
Maybe Gnossos, had Fariña lived long enough for a sequel, would have wound up on a commune in Canada, nibbling feta and blissed out on retsina, exhaling paregoric joints in some lush and fragrant garden. Or maybe Fariña would have ditched him altogether, and become, like Pynchon, a visionary, entirely original novelist. Or he might have given up fiction altogether, moved back to Paris, taken up painting or sculpting or developed some new computer code that braided all other previous computer codes together. Anything with that guy seems possible, except the idea of him as a long-lived mediocrity, an eighty-year-old man with bad knees and an air of disappointment.
But he died in his twenties, like a lot of energetic young men of his era. It was the kind of romantic death we feel we understand almost too well, a promising talent suspended, that sense of exemption he wrote about—from mediocrity, from bourgeois compromise and midlife disappointment—a membrane forever intact. Discovering Fariña when I did, his death looked not so much like a random accident as a function of some vast subterranean conspiracy, a counter-counterculture comprising uptight engineers and military technocrats pulling levers behind black curtains, turning off lights, snuffing out all the hard, gemlike flames.
At the time, I fancied that I was nurturing one of those flames myself, way down deep. So I took Fariña’s death, and his life, but most of all that wild, corrosive novel of his, which seemed to have been brewed from that same smoking cauldron of neo-Manichean paranoia, weirdly personally. To me, the paradoxical duality it represented—the intersecting parabolas of a vital, daring sensibility and a heavily foreshadowed, multiply determined death—looked like the ominous geometry of the adult world: a net comprising as many holes as string. But the strings, wow, there was a buoyancy that surprised you. Even years later you looked down and there they still were, holding you up.
Robert Cohen’s novels include Amateur Barbarians and Inspired Sleep. He teaches at Middlebury College.