Over the weekend I re-read Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries, his account of growing up on the streets of New York City, taking drugs and becoming a poet. It started me thinking about the line between truth and fiction.
Carroll was a basketball prodigy who lived a double existence in the mid-60s: high-school sports-star and self confessed ‘hip motherfucker’. During the day he’d be on the nod in class, while at night he roamed the streets, scoring drugs and trying to scratch enough money together for the next hit.
“I just want to be pure”
As his addiction worsened, the diaries recorded his descent with ice-cool detachment. Incredibly, Carroll was only twelve years old when he took his first shot - at the time he thought that marijuana was more addictive than heroin… Even more amazingly, he survived to become a well-known poet and musician.
He published his first book of poems, Organic Trains, at 16, after becoming a regular at the St Mark’s Poetry Project. Shortly afterwards, Ted Berrigan took Jim under his wing, and the pair made a pilgrimage to see Jack Kerouac, who observed of his diaries, “At thirteen years of age, Jim Carroll writes better prose than 89 percent of the novelists working today.”
The Basketball Diaries is a memoir, and like any memoir, the author takes liberties with what and how he chooses to remember. I’m not suggesting that Carroll made anything up - not that I would mind if he had. What’s more important to me is the power of the writing. Interestingly, Kerouac called it prose - avoiding generic conventions altogether.
As a writer who relied on his own life for material for his ‘novels’, Kerouac understood implicitly that notions of ‘truth’ in writing were more about the feeling than the facts. Carroll quotes a poem he finds in a pair of old pants:
Little kids shoot marbles
where the branches break the sun
into graceful shafts of light . . .
I just want to be pure.
Tomorrow I’m going to post a review I wrote in 2003 about James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. Originally published as a ‘memoir’, it was the centre of literary controversy when it was revealed that Frey had embellished many of the stories in the book. But truth or lies, it’s still an amazingly well-written book.