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Now Dig This:

and Josh Alan Friedman

Grove Press, 263 pages, $25

Terry Southern’s fame rests primarily on the firm ground of three culturally significant milestones: adapting the screenplay for Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb with Stanley Kubrick and Peter George, penning the lion’s share of the script (and getting screwed out of the credit) for Easy Rider, and writing the colorful and highly underrated 1958 novel The Magic Christian. That’s certainly a contribution to American film and letters that many would envy.

Southern’s acolytes, however, would claim much more for their hero—who also churned out vastly inferior novels (Candy and Blue Movie), the screenplay for Roger Vadim’s 1968 kitsch icon, Barbarella, and largely unremarkable bits of occasional journalism and fiction of the sort now collected into Now Dig This, which is edited by his son, Nile, and novelist and musician Josh Alan Friedman.

There is a clear surface-level appeal to the pieces in Now Dig This. Like Woody Allen’s Zelig (though with a touch less anonymity), Southern seems to have been everywhere that anything significant was happening: Paris in the ’50s with Maurice Girodias, on the cover (with his sunglasses) of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, witness at the infamous 1968 trial of the Chicago Seven, on the plane with the Stones for the “Cocksucker Blues Tour,” writing for an early incarnation of Saturday Night Live. Southern’s entourage of famous friends is worthy of a Sgt. Pepper cover of its own—Kubrick, George Plimpton, Abbie Hoffman, Frank O’ Hara, Kurt Vonnegut, William Burroughs. (Oops! Burroughs was on the Sgt. Pepper cover! And another pal, British art gallery owner and scenester Michael Cooper, collaborated with Peter Blake on the album cover!)

That breathless rush of cool is a hard tide to buck when you’re trying to assess Southern’s career (not to mention this book) in any even-handed fashion. If Southern was indeed everywhere, then he’s got to be brilliant. Right? Not quite. What struck this reader of Now Dig This most strongly about the pieces therein was the congealed hipsterism of Southern’s writing. The book is a time capsule of sorts; open it up and what comes tumbling out is the playful misogyny of its era’s Playboy, cross-fertilized with the camp seriousness of the Beats, daubed with psychedelic colors, and redolent of hookah smoke. There’s a lot of playful goofing on the Establishment, too, such as a ’50s-era piece (“Placing an MS. with New Yorker Mag”) in which Southern drops by the magazine to needle essayist E.B. White. The problem with collecting such dated stuff is encapsulated in the brief editorial note preceding the piece, which helpfully notes that “Terry’s hipster sensibility, and his capacity to shock and outrage, were antithetical to The New Yorker zeitgeist of the time.” Wow, dude.

But even more irritating is the persistent panting after “experience” in Southern’s writing in Now Dig This. On the surface, of course, this tendency plays itself out in his breathless relations of encounters with famous pals like Burroughs and the Stones. Southern’s kind of hopeless kowtowing to the subject helped provide a template for the celebrity-driven profile that we know and loathe today. Everyone in Southern’s world is impossibly cool. Thus, he is, too.

At times, this lust for kicks dives deeper, into a kind of intellectual fraud. Southern’s essay/interview “The Beautiful-Ugly Art of Lotte Lenya” is a case in point. In the piece, Southern writes:

What the work of Brecht and Weill, and its interpretation by Lenya, offer the audience of today, particularly the young audience, is the chance for a genuine emotional experience, in contrast to the ordinary, purely cerebral, experience—in contrast, that is, to the experience which, instead of being, merely represents.

It’s hard to turn what Brecht was trying to accomplish through drama on its head more decidedly than this gobbledygook. One wishes, as Allen did with Marshall McCluhan in Annie Hall, that one could pull Brecht out of thin air to set the writer straight.

What’s best in Now Dig This, in fact, is when Southern writes or talks (via interviews) about his own experiences, pulling the reader past the surface of art into the difficulties of its creation. Southern on the making of Strangelove, for instance, or on screenwriting in general, is a consummate commentator. “I have a proverbial trunkful of award-winning box-office-smash screenplays which were reduced to garbage by the idiocy of producers and second-rate directors,” he complains in one interview. In another, Southern boils down the pitfalls of screenwriting to the most succinct rendering that I have ever come across:

If a writer is overly sensitive about his work being treated like Moe, Larry, and Curly working over the Sistine Chapel with a crowbar, then he would do well to avoid screenwriting altogether. On the other hand, if he is irresistibly drawn to the medium of films, the wise thing, of course, is to become a filmmaker.

In fact, it’s easy to wish that Now Dig This had been a book called Southern on Film. Alas, it isn’t. Instead, it’s a wannabe encomium that reads more like an envoi. CP