Where’s the Revolutionary Punch? Richard Fariña’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me at 50

Books Features
Where’s the Revolutionary Punch? Richard Fariña’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me at 50

On May 23, 1958, Cornell University’s serene, gorge-encircled campus exploded in anarchic student demonstrations that presaged the widespread campus upheaval of the 1960s. Less disciplined and more inward-looking than the civil rights, antiwar and Black Power-focused demonstrations of the next decade, the Cornell protests erupted in response to the university’s crackdown on campus socializing—over the objections of students and faculty—and in particular the coeds-only curfew and restrictions on female students’ presence in off-campus apartments. Though the rules were introduced with some high-minded language about the university’s in loco parentis responsibilities, and the students’ obligation to “conform to the mores of the society in which we live,” eventually the administration admitted that they simply didn’t want students having sex.

Listen to Down So Long: A Richard Fariña Playlist here, and scroll to the end of the article for more information on the chosen songs.

Leading the protest was Cornell Daily Sun editor Kirkpatrick Sale, who 18 months earlier had exhorted his fellow students to shake off the blinders of student apathy and challenge the repressive status quo of Cold War America: “Cannot Cornell take its place with other people across the country in refuting the abominable notion of The Silent Generation?” Sale, who went on to write the definitive history of the 1960s student activist organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), seemed to know what he was doing, and approached the protest with a clarity of purpose that other students appeared to lack. What began as a fairly disciplined day/night protest (culminating in a group of female students publicly breaking curfew), eventually devolved into storming and egging the president’s house. Sale, along with three other students identified as leaders of the protest, was arrested and suspended from school.

Also arrested was Sale’s one-time roommate: a wild-haired, strikingly charismatic, half-Cuban, half-Irish beatnik named Richard Fariña, who seems to have approached the protests with an audacious dose of ironic detachment. Fariña (a future novelist, folksinger, brother-in-law of Joan Baez and crony of Bob Dylan) might have joined the protest because he thought getting kicked out of college for civil disobedience would bolster his self-mythologizing résumé of improbable swashbuckling achievements, which already included drug smuggling, running guns for Castro and throwing bombs in Belfast; or maybe he took part because he envisioned writing about it one day. Whatever Fariña’s motivations at the time, he did indeed transmute the Cornell student uprising into fiction; the events of May 1958 play a prominent role in his novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, a cult classic published 50 years ago today. This week also marks the 50th anniversary of Fariña’s death. In a tragic demise that remains inseparable from his legend, Fariña died two days after his book’s publication, thrown off the back of a friend’s motorcycle while rounding a curve in California’s Carmel Highlands.

Hailed and promoted as a generation-defining “campus” novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me creates an indelible character and the often-phantasmagoric world that blossoms in and around his hopped-up mind. Unapologetically uneven and loose in narrative structure, but written with a relentless, frenetic energy, Been Down So Long picks up the story of “Young Gnossos Pappadopoulis, furry Pooh Bear, keeper of the flame,” at the moment Gnossos returns, talisman-stuffed rucksack on his back, “from the asphalt seas of the great wasted lands” to slip surreptitiously back into the fringes of campus life following an undetermined absence. Introducing an impressionistically rendered version of Cornell and its Ithaca, New York surroundings, Gnossos proclaims, “I am home to the glacier-gnawed gorges, the fingers of lakes, the golden girls of Westchester and Shaker Heights. See me loud with lies, big boots stomping, mind awash with schemes.”

FarinaProper.jpgThus begins Gnossos’ by turns hyper-perceptive, drug-addled and deranged assault on the insular college world he once left behind and never entirely returns to, even as he reconnects with old friends; casually “bangs” coeds from whom he emphatically withholds himself; falls head-over-heels, frolicking-in-the-gorges in love with a girl in green knee-socks; finds himself duped into joining the protest fracas; and begins to see the matrix of sinister connections between his underworld contacts in Cuba and the on-campus power-brokers who seem inappropriately keen on his involvement.

All of this paranoid, conspiracy-theory stuff might seem pretty ridiculous. But Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me is a book that never insists on not being regarded as ridiculous. It deftly evades such hang-ups at some times and steamrolls them at others. Besides his monkey-demon, mandrill-at-the-window hallucinations (which apparently haunted Fariña in life), and comical quests for visionary enlightenment through mescaline and the mythic paregoric Pall Mall, Gnossos mostly keeps his head high above the fray by never losing his cool. Gnossos’ concept of “cool” is a doozy, encompassing broad swaths of Blaisdell, the reluctant gun-slinging hero of Oakley Hall’s genre-busting 1958 western novel Warlock; Sebastian Dangerfield, the feckless, untouchable anti-hero of J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man; and, of course, Fariña himself.

What makes Gnossos at times irresistible is the notion of exemption that springs from his concept of cool, his almost inhuman ability to avoid the earth-bound snares endemic to his life and times simply by standing apart from them. “I am invisible, he thinks often,” Fariña writes of Gnossos. “And Exempt. Immunity has been granted to me, for I do not lose my cool.”

It’s in this sense of exemption—as tenuous as it is enticing—that Gnossos most resembles Donleavy’s Sebastian Dangerfield. But because Gnossos is less self-satisfied, more fallible, more introspective, more questing, and more unfinished than Dangerfield—and only at times as much of a contemptible cad—his exemption seems both more appealing and more attainable.

The two books intersect stylistically as well. Though identified more with the experimental works of his close friend Thomas Pynchon, Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and counterculture and gonzo contemporaries such as Ken Kesey, Richard Brautigan, Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe, Fariña clearly owed a deep debt to J.P. Donleavy. Particularly in its meandering and expository first half (“Book the First”), rich in wildly funny character sketches, sex and drug-fueled mayhem, but mostly unencumbered by plot development, Been Down So Long rolls along with much of The Ginger Man’s gorgeously offhand poetic lilt. Fariña invokes Donleavy’s subtle stylistic innovations with snippet-length poetic asides and the subversion of traditional sentence structure through the frequent substitution of participles for verbs (a technique much less clinical than it sounds). As in Gnossos’ description of a Ravi Shankar raga absorbed as his mescaline high kicks in: “Sitar hunting a scale. Me on the tamboura, droning, wire in the wind, easy undulation. Soft.”

Fifty years later, decades after bigger-impact books and more fully realized careers defined the ’60s literary zeitgeist, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, for all its pleasures, packs little revolutionary punch. And the idea of a kid who takes some time away from college, sees a bit of the world, and returns to position himself outside the self-satisfied bubble of campus life looking in with smug amusement and hipster derision, is certainly not a new one.

Thumbnail image for 871a1f79b2ccec5d9cacb3d8b9b8b6d5.jpg But Fariña juices it with remarkable power when he flashes back to the moment that informed Gnossos’ corrosive cynicism and intimations of mortality and impending doom: “I’ve seen fire and pestilence, symptoms of a great disease.” During a rowdy binge in Las Vegas, he witnesses an atomic bomb exploding in the Nevada desert during the military’s Operation Plumbbob nuclear tests of 1957. As his motley crew of companions—movie star, oil-cowboy, strawberry blonde, Radcliffe muse—chattily laugh at the “all-night diversion,” delighting in the spectacle, “Gnossos watched the flaming sky, his mouth contorted in a twisted grin he could no longer bring under control, his shoulders hunched, teeth chattering, rucksack gone weightless, the stem of his glass clamped perilously in a needle-thin vise of thumb and forefinger. God Bless America, he thought finally, clamping his eyes shut, unable to do anything physical about the demonic, possessed expression in his soul.”

Fariña’s Cornell classmate Thomas Pynchon, best man at his wedding, and ever his most loyal and fervent fan, characterized Been Down So Long as “coming on like the Hallelujah Chorus done by 200 kazoo players with perfect pitch… hilarious, chilling, sexy, profound, maniacal, beautiful and outrageous all at the same time.”

Perhaps the gentlest critique one could apply to Been Down So Long is that it wasn’t everything that Pynchon said. Some of the harshest criticism came from Kirkpatrick Sale himself. In addition to editing the Cornell Daily Sun, Sale also helmed the university’s literary magazine, and at one point acclaimed Fariña as the only writer on campus worth his salt. Sale is represented in the novel by two characters: Youngblood, a self-righteous, humorless, wearyingly political campus newspaper editor; and Oeuf, who after 10 years of college has achieved mafia kingpin status, and acquired a pernicious, penicillin-proof STD that Gnossos describes as “Oeuf Clap.” Quoted in a 1991 article about Fariña in the Cornell alumni magazine titled “The King of Cool” (in which other old friends and admirers lovingly chime in on Fariña and his legacy), Sale was predictably dismissive: “Listen. His single accomplishment was writing that—novel. A willful and extensive distortion of history to further his own self-serving purposes.”

Although it’s hard to imagine any scenario in which Sale might have actually liked this book, in describing such an outré novel as a “willful and extensive distortion of history” he seems to have willfully missed the point. Of course it distorts history; it’s fiction. At worst it’s a misappropriation of history. University historians Glenn Altschuler and Isaac Kramnick, in Cornell: A History, 1940-2015, seem to have missed Fariña’s drift as well, treating the novel as first-hand reportage, a sort of primary document of the uprising: “The novel described endless drug- and drink-filled planning sessions in the spring of 1958 with campus anarchists and the editor of the Sun.” Maybe they read about Tom Wolfe following Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, stone-cold sober, notebook in hand, as he researched The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to report it accurately, and imagined Fariña did the same.

The question of how accurately Fariña recounted what actually happened at Cornell in 1958 seems a lot less interesting today than whether Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me holds up as well in 2016 as it did in 1966. I can’t really answer that question, having not been around in 1966, though I’ll take a stab at whether it works as well at 50 as it did at 20. I first encountered Been Down So Long in 1986 at a book and record store 11 miles from the lakeside camp where I had my first full-time summer job. Disaffected with Reaganomics, Yuppiedom, generational apathy, conspicuous consumption, synth-pop, Flock of Seagulls haircuts, MTV and other perceived ’80s excesses, encountering a book heralded as “The Classic Novel of the 1960s” that seemed to dangle the offer of exemption to anyone standing apart from the prevailing predilections and pre-occupations of his time, seemed absolutely irresistible. I gleaned all of that from standing in the bookstore devouring Thomas Pynchon’s epochal introduction—included with the 1983 Penguin Books edition—which sets the scene, describes the climate of Cornell at the time, and captures Fariña’s short, eventful life and remarkable charisma. Finding a 1965 album by Richard and Mimi Fariña titled Celebrations for a Grey Day in the same store on the same day sealed the deal.

Before hearing Celebrations for a Grey Day, I’d had some exposure to Appalachian dulcimer music, but Fariña approached the instrument with a rock ’n’ roll and bebop aficionado’s angularity and disregard for tradition. Fariña the earnest, Baez-allied folkie, as he presented himself in his best-known song, the gentle, plain-spoken “Pack Up Your Sorrows” (co-written with older Baez sister Pauline Baez Marden), never quite jibed with the ruthless, feckless hipster of Been Down So Long, but it’s part of the multitudes that made the man. Spurred on by an often-competitive friendship with Bob Dylan (detailed in David Hajdu’s absorbing group biography, Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña), Fariña also wrote enduring topical songs, such as “Birmingham Sunday,” inspired by the racist bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church in 1963, which killed four little girls attending Sunday school. Like Dylan, Fariña used his folkie persona as a hustle to make a scene that he gave quite a bit to, but probably would have abandoned in time.

If Fariña’s idea of exemption doesn’t resonate for me today as it did when I was 16, that’s no knock on Been Down So Long It Seems Like Up to Me. Fariña never promised it would. The mere possibility of exemption was always tenuous at best, paradoxical at worst—even for the freewheeling likes of Gnossos Pappadopoulis. If the plot-driven, often-convoluted second half of the book lacks much of the poetic pop of the first half—well, not every novelist quite gets there the first time around.

Fifty years later, it’s remarkable to see how close Fariña came to fulfilling his enormous talent in his first novel—certainly, a lot closer than he came to sustaining exemption itself, or eluding the date with death that lurked as the inescapable B-side of all the life he crammed restlessly into one deep-grooved side of a single record. Valhalla awaited; too bad it couldn’t have waited longer. As Pynchon notes in his introduction, “The cosmic humor in [Been Down So Long] is in Gnossos’ blundering attempts to make some kind of early arrangement with Thanatos, to find some kind of hustle that will get him out of the mortal contract we’re all stuck with. Nothing he tries works, but even funnier than that, he’s really too much in love with being alive… he feels so good he has to take chances, has to keep tempting death, only half-realizing that the more intensely he lives, the better the odds of his number finally coming up.”

Steve Nathans-Kelly is a writer and editor living in Ithaca, New York.

Down So Long: A Richard Fariña Playlist
(Listen to the Spotify playlist here.)

Though described by a Harvard Crimson writer in 1969 as “the first rock ’n’ roll novel,” Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me makes little mention of rock ’n’ roll, besides two unflattering references to Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue.” (The Crimson writer’s point, I think, was that Fariña was among the first literary talents inspired by rock ’n’ roll that actually poured that talent into novel-writing, rather than—or in addition to, in Fariña’s case—songwriting.) But that doesn’t mean the book ignores music entirely—far from it.

The novel’s title comes from a line in “I Will Turn Your Money Green,” a 1928 blues song by Furry Lewis. Gnossos also finds inspiration in jazz musicians of his era, including Miles Davis and Mose Allison, whose Back Country Suite he spins repeatedly. Gnossos also demonstrates a predilection to the Indian ragas of Ravi Shankar, particularly as an accompaniment to his enlightenment-seeking mescaline excursions. At one point, Gnossos also takes out the Hohner F harmonica that always accompanies him in his trusty rucksack and blows Josh White’s “Good Morning Blues.”

As a companion piece to this article and Fariña’s book, I’ve included Gnossos’ playlist, and appended selections from Fariña’s career as a folk musician and songwriter—tracks from an album he recorded in 1962 with Cambridge, Massachusetts bluesman Eric Von Schmidt, his two 1965 albums recorded with his wife, Mimi (Celebrations for a Grey Day and Reflections in a Crystal Wind, both of which feature Fariña’s exquisite dulcimer playing), and “Birmingham Sunday,” recorded by his sister-in-law Joan Baez.

As a coda, I’ve also included “Positively 4th Street,” Bob Dylan’s bitter 1965 kiss-off to the folk scene (from which David Hadju’s book on Dylan, Baez, and the Fariñas takes its title); and “Sweet Sir Galahad,” an elegy for Fariña that Joan Baez played at Woodstock and recorded for her 1970 album, One Day at a Time.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin