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 Filigree—appeared 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 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. Read More