In this country we now have a permanent counterculture. The symbols of rebellion may change with the generations, but the dialectical swing has become constant. To the gray flannel suit and attache case, the 1950s counterposed the beret and the black turtleneck. To long hair, leisure suits and peace medallions, we more recently added shaved heads, studded leather and swastikas. Now, of course, we have the return of the gray flannel suit. It's hip to be square.
For most of us, cultural trends come and go, fashions rise and fall. They touch us and amuse us--they're fun. We take on the plumage of a colorful age, then shed it when it's time to grow and move on. From bop to Boesky, as individuals we somehow continue to molt and re-feather with the seasons of life and history. But we all know people so captivated by their era that they become captives of it. In the two books at hand, we see how the cultural moment can have a catalytic influence on society while exercising its own peculiar drag on individuals.
In "Down and In: Life in the Underground" by Ronald Sukenick, we get a solemn and sometimes vainglorious account of the rise of bohemianism in postwar America. Against the '50s cult of gray flannel and success, Sukenick celebrates the seedy, beer-splashed splendor of the American demimonde, as it emerged in Greenwich Village and environs. His story is peopled with familiar heroes--Jack Kerouac, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Lenny Bruce, Allen Ginsberg, Dylan Thomas, Norman Mailer--drinking, brawling and creating with barbaric intensity. But it's about mere dropouts as well as those who made a handsome living out of dropping out. And it is very much about the bars they dropped into: the San Remo, the Cedar Tavern, the White Horse and Max's Kansas City.
Indeed, Sukenick's tale is a real elbow-bender, a bar story--smoke-filled, sawdusty and mythic--with the kind of boozy garrulousness and emphasis on fellow-feeling that one tends to associate with first the beatnik age and later the age of Aquarius. It all goes to show that the so-called "underground" was just as violent, insecure and preening as any fraternity house scene of that period or this--but with a different set of rules and expectations.
Both a creature and an observer of this raucous milieu, Sukenick carefully traces the evolution of the underground in music, poetry and art, from the Village jazz scene of Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus et al. at the Five Spot and other venues, through the formation of the Fugs, the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol's back-room court at Max's Kansas City, where downtown cool cats encountered uptown cash. Here the underground elite discovered that the avant-garde could be a vehicle for "making it"--the title of a well-known book by Norman Podhoretz (a whole '60s-'80s epic in himself) and the ultimate no-no in Sukenick's moral spectrum.
Is it possible to be hip and successful at the same time? This is the question that obsesses the author. He informs us that "The myth of Bohemia . . . can be devastating for hangers-on who have no strong artistic vocation providing a purpose for that kind of life." But then he hammers away relentlessly at "middle-class values," whatever they are. An artful polemicist first makes his target formidable and worthy of attack, then tears it to pieces. Sukenick's middle class is simply a bogey, a faceless evil characterized at best by a style of dress ("seersucker") or a profession (anything other than poet, jazz musician or bar owner seems to constitute "selling out"). You begin to wonder what he's really driving at.
An interesting footnote to his larger concerns can be found in an interview with the self-described real-life model for the Jade Butterfield character in the novel "Endless Love" (played by Brooke Shields in the film). According to this woman, Jill Littlewood, the product, in the story and in real life, of an ultraliberated 1960s Chicago household, her parents abet and encourage her torrid sexual relationship with a 17-year-old boyfriend, even buying her a double bed so he can sleep over comfortably. Eventually, Littlewood revolts against the permissiveness. At 16, she buys herself an expensive briefcase and a "secretary suit" and decides she is "gonna do well in high school." As her parents were "getting kinkier and kinkier," she was "getting straighter and straighter." To make her rebellion complete, she is now married to a doctor and living in the Los Angeles area.