“He’s down,” said Motherball, mixing again, chopping some buds.
“How long, baby?”
“Long enough,” from Gnossos.
Gnossos said, “It looks like up is all.”
Richard Fariña “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me”
I found this book entirely by accident one day. I can’t remember when, exactly, but how I remember it is that I was a student and browsing in my university book shop one day as a first year undergraduate student.
Maybe I was looking for something in particular, or maybe I was just killing time in a bookshop, as I’ve enjoyed doing for so long.
In my memory, I saw this book on a shelf, and I was intrigued. I’d never heard of the book or of Richard Fariña, but I think something about the title appealed to me — as I had my bouts of depression at university, I liked the idea of being so far down that down begins to look like up.
The book is a semi-autobiographical account of a summer in the late 1950s when Fariña was at Cornell University in New York. I won’t retell the whole story or try and analyse what it’s really about, because what it’s about is adventure. I bet that surprised you — a story about adventure, in my blog about adventure?! Also, this post may contain some plot spoilers — so be warned.
The book opens with the protagonist Gnossos Pappadopoulis returning to New York, where rumours have been circulating wildly about his untimely death. He’s spent some time adventuring out in the real world, and I guess for many people in their safe university campus the idea is terrifying — anything could happen out there.
And it turns out nearly all of the stories shared about Gnossos’ death have been true, but obviously the victim wasn’t him — as in the case of the Pachuco gang — or a near miss. It seems almost as if nearly being eaten by a shark, and nearly being burned to death by a Pachuco gang, and nearly freezing to death in the Adirondack mountains or being eaten by a wolf is all part of the great adventure for Gnossos.
There is a lot of talk in the book from Gnossos about being immune or exempt, without the terms or their context ever really being explained. Does he think he is immune to the rules of nature, having cheated death several times? Greater minds than my own have suggested that exemption is “from the rules of society” but also “exemption from being required to care about the person on the other side of sex”.
The biggest of all Gnossos’ adventures is his quest for love. At one point, a friend criticises Gnossos for always expecting or hoping he might meet the great love of his life at the next party. Gnossos isn’t just hoping to fall in love, he seems altogether a little too eager to believe it when he finds it in a girl called Kristin McCleod. It’s a whole new adventure for Gnossos, giving up a part of himself he has always kept carefully guarded before — but it seems too quick, and too convenient. Whether or not the reader is meant to think this, it’s not clear, but Kristin does turn out to be manipulating Gnossos for political ends.
The political/sexual revolution subplot is interesting in that it’s an adventure that Gnossos entirely tries to avoid being involved in — he wants to stay out of the entire thing, just as at first he isn’t interested in joining his friend on a trip to join in the revolution in Cuba. Kristin manipulates Gnossos into getting involved in the student politics, and then effectively dumps him — whereupon he tries to deliberately get her pregnant, then joins the trip to Cuba after all.
The adventure in Cuba is a personal one for Gnossos, he’s less interested in the revolution and more interested in running away — and seeking a mysterious “Buddha”, a drug lord character, who forms yet another sub-plot of adventure — a kind of drug-fuelled quest for enlightenment, through opium, mescaline and pot. Gnossos seeks perhaps the ultimate immunity — a disconnection from the physical world, but he is warned by a friend “You can’t stay wherever it takes you, you have to come back”.
In many ways, the book is about an end of innocence — Gnossos’ friend gets killed, while Gnossos has his heart broken and gets drafted. I like to think that Gnossos would have continued to have his adventures after the book ends. As I’ve reread the book over the years I’ve read different things into it and felt differently about Gnossos, much like with Kerouac’s On The Road. At 20 I though the books and the characters were just about the coolest things ever. At 31, I see the characters flaws more clearly and like to imagine that in the years that followed Gnossos would have learned some lessons and done things differently.
It’s unfortunate we’ll never know what might have been, since it was Richard Fariña’s only novel: he died in a motorcycle accident a couple of days after it was published, although he released several records of folk music recorded with his wife Mimi Baez, and a post-humously published collection of his other writing — Long Time Coming And A Long Time Gone. Check out that book, too — if only for his short poems on the idea of nothing.