Review of Now Dig This: The Unspeakable Writings of Terry Southern, 1950-1995

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/22/07


  Let me state up front, one of the greatest films ever made, in any genre or form, and one of my all time personal favorites, is Dr Strangelove, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb. Stanley Kubrick’s Camelot Era satire on mutually assured destruction and nuclear brinksmanship is not only one of the funniest films ever made, but one of the most important. Its brilliant screenplay was penned by Terry Southern, with some help from Kubrick, and for many years I had tried to find other writings by Southern, to little avail, as most of his work had long fallen out of print. Then, in 2001 (Kubrick’s cinematic annus mirabilis), Grove Press brought forth a collection of Southern’s writing, Now Dig This: The Unspeakable Writings of Terry Southern, 1950-1995. When I stumbled upon a copy in a discount book store, a while back, I was excited….until I read what was within.

  To say that Southern was a one hit wonder may be too much, for he was lauded for his modernization of Candide with his novel Candy, and also penned a couple of Fonda family hits: Barbarella and Easy Rider, the latter of which was Oscar nominated, as was Dr. Strangelove. He even did anonymous revisions of a screenplay draft on the underrated quintessential 1960s comedy spy spoof Casino Royale. Yet, this book is simply the literary equivalent of scree: pointless and insider-based interviews, an ode to Edgar Allan Poe which only highlights the light year or more of writing stature between the revered and the reverer, meandering hipster rants on trivia, and wan encomia on pop cult figures like comic Lenny Bruce, poet Frank O’Hara, Beatnik writer William S. Burroughs, yippy scum Abbie Hoffman, and satirist supreme Kurt Vonnegut. Its subtitle would be better, and more accurate, to read The Unreadable Writings of Terry Southern. It’s that bad, and no amount of hagiography about Southern’s writing impact on National Lampoon or Saturday Night Live can change that fact. The book is a prime example of a publisher merely cashing in on a ‘name’. At 261 pages, this book, if any good, might have been called an Omnibus, but as it is it is merely an ill edited attempt to wring every once of cash from its fan base that it can.

  The mid-Twentieth Century seemed to thrive on terrible art that was easy to create and then endlessly alibied for- think of the Abstract Expressionists, the Beatniks, Pop Art, and dozens of other –Isms. Most artists in this vein were never lauded for their ‘art’ wrought, but for their political or philosophical posits that the ‘art’ seemed to represent, even if bad, trite, or dull. They were called ‘revolutionaries’ or ‘anarchists’- two words that dot this book, and there are plenty of vapid, humorless pieces that are the writing equivalents of preteen fart jokes. There is a poorly written proposed scene for an earlier draft of a screenplay of Arthur Schnitzler’s Rhapsody: A Dream Novel, for the film that would later morph into Eyes Wide Shut, uninsightful reviews for The Nation, and several weak short stories, including Heavy Put-Away; Or, A Hustle Not Wholly Devoid Of A Certain Grossness, Granted, which has a raconteur going on and on in a circular manner for several pages. Here is a snippet, with unedited and rambling pointlessness:


  ‘Well, there was this chick- name of Sally- very cute, twenty-three, twenty-four years old, worked as a kind of hat-check cigarette-girl at a small club on the Strip. I forget the actual name of the club….it was like the Crescendo, one of those, you know, with a piano-player, and maybe a combo in for weekends- that kind of place, small but legit….just your ‘average American bar.’ Anyway, this guy- let’s call him Al- starts coming in, almost every night. Nice-looking guy, about thirty-five, sharp dresser, leased Lincoln Continental parked outside. And he’s always quite friendly- not pushy about it, just friendly- you know: ‘Hi, Ted,’ ‘Hello Tom,’ ‘Hi Sally,’ and blah-blah-blah. And so finally he’s like a regular customer, coming in nearly every evening. Comes in before dinner, has a couple of drinks, and splits. Now he’s gradually getting fairly tight with Sally, the hat-check cigarette-girl- no heavy come-on, nothing like that, just sort of a pal. And one night, a slow night, she’s sitting at the bar with him, having a drink, and he lays this story on her….about a friend of his- an older guy, a terrific guy, friend of the family, a sort of ‘surrogate father’ is the way he put it- who’s coming in from New York in a week or so. And he goes on to describe this guy, in very flattering terms- an important businessman, a well-known financier, a major executive of a huge corporation, on the board of directors of several big companies, seat on the New York Stock Exchange, private plane, and so forth. And he tells her how the guy comes to California on business two or three times a year, and that when he does, he likes to have a discreet affair with someone- not a hooker, he isn’t interested in that at all- he wants someone, well, like someone to talk to, and to spend a pleasant evening with. ‘He’s good for a thou,’ Al said, ‘a thousand bucks for the evening, and usually a nice gift of some kind besides.’ Al knows all about it, because he has arranged it for him before, several times- so he was able to assure her that it was ‘strictly legit,’ and what's more that if she didn’t like the guy she could just split, she didn't actually have to make it with him. Naturally, he hoped it would happen, but it wasn’t really critical, I mean it wasn't going to be a deal-breaker if she didn’t let him fuck her- because he was happily married, had a wonderful family-wife, children, grandchildren, the whole bit-it was just that he liked the excitement of, you know, meeting a nice young girl from time to time, and so on….made him feel younger, whatever. Anyway, he went on to say that he, Al, knew that the guy would like Sally, and he wondered if she would be interested- a thousand bucks for a couple of hours, probably a nice present, and after she got there, if she decided she didn’t want to make it with him, that would be okay, she could just leave. Well, right away she said no, it wasn’t the sort of thing she would be interested in, ever, and he said ‘Well, no offense,’ and she said ‘None taken,’ and he took her to dinner, never mentioned it again, took her home, didn’t hit on her in any way, didn't come in for coffee or a drink, said he had an early appointment, had to get to bed, and that was that. Saw her the next few nights at the club, never referred to it again.

  ‘Now then, parallel to this, there was a young couple living in the Valley - the guy was a stunt man, or let’s say an ex-stunt man, with a broken back….had taken a fall, a big fall, landed on a Chapman crane….crushed his back. So he’s laid up- totalled. Now the tie-in is that the stunt man had married this girl’s best friend, Sally’s best friend, about a year and a half before this. Bill and Mary, that was their names, and they had this kid, and the kid was about a month old- a one-month-old kid- like an infant. Now the guy, Bill, had broken his back about six or seven months ago….


  Putting aside the atrocious run on sentences, grammar, and punctuation, the piece is just horridly dull and worse- utterly generic. A thousand other writers from that and this era could have penned this tripe, and they have. It simply goes on and one with no point, as Southern, like many other wannabe writers, does not realize that to portray a boor and a bore one need not have one’s writing be boorish and boring. There are also predictable and severely dated articles, such as an Esquire piece on the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and police misconduct. Yes, it was written in the milieu of the times, but Southern’s lack of depth and insight into events and people puzzles, even as many far more mainstream writers penned far better examinations of the era. Even Strangelove Outtake: Notes From The War Room, which details many aspects of the film, including the deleted pie throwing sequence, has some relevance only because of what it references, not because of any immanent quality. Perhaps the most ridiculous entry in this book is an ill wrought letter Southern wrote to a Saturday Night Live staffer proposing a skit called Worm-ball Man, which was based upon outrageous tabloid headlines. Simply put, not only is the idea fairly sterile and stale, but the letter proposing it is a mish-mash of indecipherable ideas and incoherent ramblings.

  Most people and critics have bought into the fact that Southern, born in 1924, in Texas, of all places, and died in 1995, simply lost it as his life entered its last two decades, due to drug and alcohol abuse, but the thing this book manifests is that he may never really have ‘had it’, for his two greatest screenplays- Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider, as well as his most famed novel, Candy, all had one or more co-writers to their credit. This sterile book makes it much easier to surmise that Southern may have just benefited from knowing the right folks to latch on to, ride to financial and artistic heights, then when they, one by one, were done with him, he was left to his own stale devices, such as penning the late 1980s critically savaged Whoopi Goldberg film The Telephone.

  While these ill crafted pieces might be deserving of some minor commemoration online, such as the posthumous website founded by his son, www.terrysouthern.com, that paper had to be wasted on this project is sad, for the New York Times unwittingly nailed this man’s and book’s flaws perfectly, when, in a typically blurb-laced review it claimed ‘this is porous writing.’ It obviously meant that statement to be positive, but it’s really not, for nothing within sticks in the mind of the reader afterward, save the nagging notion that they could have been doing something more productive with their hour or two of reading time; something like napping….or fluoridating water.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Van Der Galien Gazette website.]


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