The Genius of Terry Southern


Arts & Culture

On April 2, The Paris Review and its supporters will meet at Cipriani 42nd Street for the Spring Revel, an annual celebration of the magazine and the enduring power of literature. That evening, Elif Batuman will present the Terry Southern Prize for Humor to Benjamin Nugent for his story “Safe Spaces.” Terry Southern, the namesake of the award, was the novelist and screenwriter behind the success of, among other things, Easy Rider and Dr. Strangelove. He acted as a crucial influence in the early years of The Paris Review;The Accident”—an excerpt from Southern’s debut novel, Flash and Filigreeappeared in the first issue. This week, Grove Atlantic will reissue Flash and Filigree with a new introduction by David L. Ulin. This introduction appears below.

Terry Southern.

Terry Southern hit me like a drug. He wasn’t the first—before him, there was Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, Joseph Heller—but he was certainly the weirdest, or maybe just the most intent on subverting the dominant narrative. He seemed to want to take the piss out of everything, writing novels that were fiercely and deliriously ironic, disdainful of material obsessions and the hypocrisies of the bourgeoisie. I first discovered him through the copy of Candy my father kept stashed in his bureau, as if Southern were a rumor or a ghost. But it was only after I made my way to college that I began to understand. One evening, in the row house I rented with six friends in West Philadelphia, I caught the 1969 film adaptation of his novel The Magic Christian (Southern had cowritten the screenplay) on after-hours TV. There was an image of a ten-pound note, so large it filled the screen, and then the voice of Peter Sellers, who played the billionaire Guy Grand, announcing in a clipped Oxbridge accent: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is what is commonly known as money. It comes in all sizes, colors, and denominations, like people. We’ll be using quite a bit of it in the next two hours. Luckily, I have enough for all of us.”

Southern was a genius, can we just say that? He was a vivid mimic, a writer of outlandish set pieces; just think of the demonically twisted “Mrs. Joyboy” scene he wrote for the film The Loved One. He liked to start simply, in something close to believable reality. Then he would push the boundaries, until the whole world seemed to explode. Take his first novel, Flash and Filigree, published in 1958. Influenced by his great hero Henry Green, the book opens as a young man, Felix Treevly, visits the “world’s foremost dermatologist,” Dr. Frederick Eichner, at his clinic on Wilshire Boulevard. Treevly is pretentious, arrogant; “a small boil,” he sniffs, referring to his ailment, “actually a cystic mass—or wen if you like, extremely small, no larger than the common variety of facial pustule.” He is, in other words, an almost perfect Southern target, so full of himself he is aware of little else. “Yes, of course,” the doctor murmurs, then slams a padded paperweight into the top of the patient’s skull. The act appears to have erupted out of nowhere, as if the poles of the narrative have been reversed. Protagonist? Antagonist? What’s the difference? In Southern’s universe, how would we know? This is the point, a world without, in any real sense, heroes, in which the disrupters (Treevly, Guy Grand in The Magic Christian, Blue Movie’s Boris Adrian) and the disrupted are equally complicit.

To write like this reflects a serious moral vision, fueled by equal parts humor and rage. Southern, however, works his anger slowly, letting it emerge out of his scenes. Later in the novel, Eichner finds himself at a police station after an accident, where he is treated as a suspect, in part because of his name. “Well, well, well! How long have you been in this country, Mister?” asks the precinct captain. “What are you, Doctor? Dutch or German-Jew?” Eventually, Eichner arrives at a television studio for a taping of the quiz show What’s My Disease? Contestants are wheeled onstage “completely obscured in a sort of raised, shrouded cage … ‘Can you speak?’ asked the moderator … ‘Yes,’ was the muted reply.” As the audience gasps and cheers, a panel including “a prominent woman columnist, a professional football coach, an actress, and a Professor of Logic from the University of Chicago” asks a series of questions to determine the disease. “ ‘Is it elephantiasis?’ demanded the Professor … ‘Yes, it IS elephantiasis!’ and at that moment, as the shroud was dropped and the contestant revealed to them all, the audience took in its breath.”

Here, Southern defines a whole hipster style, putting on his characters and his readers until the boundaries between fantasy and reality are effectively erased. With its outlandish believability, the way it takes our fascination with the grotesque and turns it back on us, What’s My Disease? sits at the center of the novel, the funhouse mirror that reflects the truth. It’s a gag, of course it is, a strategy for poking fun at a culture that makes entertainment out of illness. And yet, if that seems outrageous, it only means we’ve missed the point. Take a look around: sixty years after Flash and Filigree was published, a generation past its author’s death at seventy-one, in 1995, we now have a president (a real one) who, among other outrages, mocked a disabled reporter on the campaign trail. We are living in a Terry Southern novel, in which insanity has been reframed as normal, so often, so astonishingly, that we barely notice anymore.

This, of course, represents another kind of complicity, one that implicates us as much as any character, which was Southern’s point all along. Treevly, for all his posturing, his self-importance, is more or less dangerous mostly to himself. Less so the doctor, who arranges (no spoiler here, you’ll have to read it) his nemesis’s final fate. And yet, who are we supposed to side with? Whom do we see as aggrieved? It is a kind of transference Southern is provoking, a way to cast our innocence into question, to lay bare our contradictions, our most private, and conflicted, selves. He’s a humorist, yes, but the real joke is on us, the way his novel turns it around, leaving us uncomfortably revealed. His touch is so light we barely notice. And when we do, we laugh knowingly at the recognition, even as it makes us bleed.

I never got over Terry Southern. I never got over Flash and Filigree. For me, it is the finest of his novels, a twisted parable about hypocrisy—a collective condition, like amnesia, from which there is, there can be, no escape. “After a point,” Southern writes, describing an encounter between a hospital supply salesman and the senior service nurse at Dr. Eichner’s clinic, “it was no longer a genuine laugh but some unnerved noise of control as she forcibly seized the rhythm of the laugh and propelled it, in the illusion of riding it out; as if that dead laugh were this same laugh dying; or yet, again, as how past the brief wildness of un-reined flats, horses slow and mounted men gain control at last beginning to ride, but do know then, in their heart of hearts, that the race is over.” This is who, and where, we are.


David L. Ulin is the former book critic of the Los Angeles Times. A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, he is the author or editor of ten books, including Sidewalking and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a California Book Award.

“Introduction to the New Edition,” copyright © 2019 by David L. Ulin. Excerpted from Flash and Filigree, copyright © 1958 by Terry Southern. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.