by Ronald K. Collins and David M. Skover. $26.; Top Five Books; 464 pages
Since I really enjoyed their previous book, The Trials of Lenny Bruce, I was looking forward to the latest product of the writing partnership of Ronald Collins and David Skover, Mania. It's a look at the Beat Generation of mostly men (gay, bi and straight) and the women (and some men) they damaged along the way.
And "damage" could have been an alternate title for this book, because these men were both damaged and damaging. Drugs, sex, jazz and poetry fueled their lives, and they didn't care who they hurt on their way to attaining fame and acclaim. But that same fame burned like a crack pipe through their lives, causing many early deaths, or difficult later years.
The authors use a narrative style to take us through the pre-Beat years of these writers, and their scratching and clawing to get noticed. We hear details of Lucien Carr's murder of David Kammerer (and yet Carr was able to have a full career after serving some time in prison). We hear of William S. Burroughs' famous William Tell-style murder of his wife. And yet he lived a long and successful life. We hear of robberies, suicides, drugs and petty crimes. And yet most skipped the long jail time that would have likely been the end result for people of color and poor people of those decades (1940s—1960s).
Gay writer Allen Ginsberg, who perhaps survived the post-Beat years better than his peers, is a central figure of the book, which does a terrific job of documenting the censorship trials of his play "Howl," first performed in 1955. This was my favorite part of the book, as this was a key moment of the Beat Generation. The Jack Kerouac tales are far more depressing, and his life was forever plagued by the fame he once thought was the brass ring.
We also meet junkie Herbert Huncke (who turned Burroughs onto heroin; thanks for that), and Bill Cannastra and Neal Cassady, described as "two men who burned to live, one who suffered the consequences of his own reckless antics, and one who never seemed to suffer the consequences of anything."
Since I was born in 1963, most of what these men did in the 1950s seems quite distant to me. But their impact was quite remarkable on subsequent generations, and Ginsberg and Burroughs especially made their later years into careers as sage old gay men. But what I really got from the book was just how depressing their lives were when taken as a whole, and how atrocious they were to the people they loved, especially the women and children in their lives. The book ends with a recap of what happened to the men, but I really wanted to know what happened to their girlfriends, boyfriends, wives and children. What do their progeny really think of these cultural "heroes."
The book is well-researched and worth the read, if only as a warning bell. These men may have been critical and important, but they also literally got away with, in some cases, murder.