The similarities between authors Jim Carroll and George Cain seem obvious from a cursory example of their backgrounds. Both Carroll and Cain grew up in New York City during the 60’s, were high school basketball stars, and became junkies soon after. Both attended a prestigious Manhattan private school on a scholarship, experiencing the disconnect of being the only street kid among a school full of mansion dwellers. And both chronicled this experience in autobiographical novels, Carroll in The Basketball Diaries (published in 1978 but edited from journal entries Carroll wrote in the early 60’s) and Cain in his 1970 book Blueschild Baby.
I love The Basketball Diaries (the book, not the movie, suckers!) in the way I love Taxi Driver or the Sex Pistols: because I first experienced them as a disenfranchised Junior High school kid and they showed me there was a whole world out there that was probably better, and definitely more interesting, than the one I was living in. I revisit these memories now and I can see plenty of flaws in them, but their overall effect is still powerful. However, as a novel, Blueschild Baby is a more effective work than The Basketball Diaries. Carroll is a great storyteller, but ultimately The Basketball Diaries is just a series of scenes with no overwhelming arc or sense of greater meaning. Blueschild Baby is the work of a novelist. Although it is a book written by George Cain about a protagonist named George Cain, there is a sense that time, place, and events are being manipulated to showcase a truth that is greater than the literal description of one man’s life. It is definitely a book of its era (and suffers from a few agitprop Black Power moments, as well the fact that the Cain character appears to force himself on multiple women in a way that would be considered rape now if it wasn’t in 1970), the overall quality of Cain’s prose transcends it being a historical footnote. When it was published in 1969, Addison Gayle Jr. of the New York Times called it “the most important work of fiction by an Afro-American since Native Son,” which I can’t argue with. Cain’s book touches on many different facets of the experience of being Black in New York City in the late 60’s. Musing about the difference between the Black New York experience and the one down South, Cain’s New York bred characters go ice skating and listen to free jazz:
Walk down ’16th and eat dinner in a Spanish restaurant. On the way back to the hotel start coming down. The world goes in stop time, but I decide to go to the Playhouse anyway. Want to hear the music of the dream before I wake. Jazz. Live and loud. One of them young monsters blowing. City-bred nigger. Sounds like he heard the tongue spoken by Trane’s terrible voice. He cooks, the place is smoke-filled and garish.
“Jazz is the city. Only city niggers can feel this thing. I never liked it much, never listened really, hadn’t been here long enough. To my country ear it was mad noise. But, I’m a part of the tremendous pressure that generates that sound and I feel it so good now.”
The character speaking about jazz is not Cain, but his girlfriend Nandy, who is one of the New Yorkers who goes down South every summer to visit relatives and comes back “sun-browned, fat, and talking niggerish until Christmas.”
From the opening page, Cain’s New York is a place full of hidden worlds and their barriers: “I’m at 63rd on Amsterdam and must make it to 81st Street, past the Red Cross on 66th, faggots’ 72nd and the police station on 68th” (Incidentally, this is the exact same stretch of neighborhood portrayed in the 1971 movie Panic In Needle Park starring Al Pacino). But, no barrier is more apparent in this book than the one between Black and White America. Sometimes this barrier is metaphorical, as in the disconnect the Cain character feels towards the white mother of his child. Sometimes it is all too real, as when Cain discusses the relief he feels when he passes 110th Street going south in a cab when fleeing a man named Broadway who attempted to rob him in a Harlem drug spot:
The black brick wall bordering the park on 110th Street is only three feet high, but unscalable and impenetrable as any wall closing off a prison guarded by towers and guns. I’m safe beyond it. Broadway cannot chase here. He had lived beyond the wall all his life and is imbued with its lifeway, which so contradicts his world, that he is rendered impotent and unable to function.
Cain’s Harlem has the menace of Chester Himes‘, but instead of writing from the perspective of the police, Cain gives us the view of the man on the street:
’15 and Lenox is the mouth of the sewer where the junkies from the block wash up. A play street kept from traffic by wooden barriers at each end. In summer till late night crowded with people. Kids Playing. Dope dealers occupy the halls and stoops surrounded by lookouts, lieutenants, and customers. Crap game against the curb holds the sports, two white cops on the corner. If you stand here ten minutes, someone you once knew and wondered what happened to will come by.
“No accident, like this all the time, all these people standing round are junkies.”
A young kid comes strolling by, bout twelve years old in a black beaver hat, bright colored knit, matching silk pants and alligator shoes, counting a wad of money, unafraid as his little partners watch his back. He sings his sale, “I got it, the smoker, my bag killed Frankie Lyman (sic) last week.”
Nandy looks at him disbelieving as he joins the crap game of old men.
So why is The Basketball Diaries on the reading list of every alienated teenager in America, but Cain’s book is forgotten? Perhaps it’s due to the voices used. Carroll writes with an adolescent playfulness and Cain sounds weary by his mid 20’s. Although their books both share a sex and drugs subject matter, Cain does not display the cockiness that Carroll does. Even the most joyous passages in Blueschild Baby have traces of sadness in them. The Afrocentric elements of Blueschild Baby may turn off white Americans and the Eldridge Cleaver-style revenge rapes of white women will certainly make many a citizen of the 21st century cringe. The fact that Carroll went on to a successful career as a musician and poet, and Cain disappeared into a world of drugs and never published another book cannot be ignored. Ultimately, bookstores and libraries are littered with writers who wrote an amazing debut novel and then faded away (Leonard Gardner’s Fat City springs to mind), so maybe this is just the fate of the man who has one great book in him.
Perhaps it isn’t Carroll who Cain really resembles, but another scholarship product of an elite Manhattan private school, Gil Scott-Heron. The idea of a city being a snare that traps junkies is one equally evoked by Cain’s book and Scott-Heron’s song “Home Is Where The Hatred Is.”
A lump sticks in my throat, can’t breathe or swallow. Gagging, run to the toilet and vomit. Live things, frogs and insects kick in the liquid coming out. The empty stomach dry heaves like it’s coming inside out, ups juices and yellow bile, knocks me to my knees with pain.
Carroll, Cain, and Gil Scott-Heron were all born with six years of each other in the 1940’s (Cain in 1943, Carroll and Scott-Heron in 1949). They died within two years of each other in Manhattan between 2009-2011, all suffering from illnesses related to their drug addiction (Carroll had Hepatitis C, Cain had kidney disease, and Scott-Heron was HIV positive). Both Carroll and Scott-Heron left behind lengthly legacies in both published writing and music. It’s tragic that Cain, after showing as much ability as either of the other two, left nothing else to the world besides Blueschild Baby.