Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Wit Is Afire In 'Little Boy'
Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a literary gateway drug for me, as he was for many teenagers, generations of them — kids for whom books were life rafts, carrying us over the choppy waters between late adolescence and early adulthood. Pictures of the Gone World, A Coney Island of the Mind, and even its less promising 1997 sequel, A Far Rockaway of the Heart, were like instruction books in freethinking and nonconformity.
Next to Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti was always my favorite of the Beats. Like his compatriots, Ferlinghetti did an improvisatory dance over the floorboards of literary tradition, but his was a bit more graceful, a bit more orderly, with sharply stepped lines — which, I had the sense, he'd worked over a couple of times. In comparison, Kerouac's seminal On the Road always felt like a sudden brain fart.
So I came to this very late "novel" by Ferlinghetti (who turns 100 this month), which the marketing copy dubs "his literary last will and testament" with hope — because though I hadn't read him for years, I'd once loved Ferlinghetti — and caution, because much of the writing by his fellow Beats hasn't aged well, frozen in an eternal moment of adolescence.
Both approaches were warranted. Little Boy is not a novel, if that word connotes a book with characters and a story. I assume the publishers called it a novel because they didn't know what else to call it. Little Boy starts out surprisingly as a memoir, recounting, in a sort of charming third person, Ferlinghetti's earliest years as the child of an overburdened mother who couldn't take care of him and so gave him up to an aging wealthy couple: "Little Boy remembered especially the dinners every night in the formal dining room with the big-boned Dutch butler who also served as chauffeur and was not used to buttering." In this mode, Ferlinghetti has a playful way of recounting his origins, revealing his story as sad, lucky, and symptomatic of a particular early 20th century moment.
Then, after taking the story as far as page 15 and the author's post-WWII graduate study in Paris, which he also cites as the birthplace of his bohemian self, the book suddenly, and rather strangely, abandons all pretext of order, careening into an unpunctuated and rarely paragraphed free-associating diatribe. For the next 160 pages — except for a couple of minor interruptions to recount the night before the D-Day landing, in which the author participated ("in the whispering fields all around were great encampments and whole armies bivouacked in tents with small hooded cooking fires") and a handful of other notable events — Ferlinghetti maintains this unrelenting mental deluge, scraping the furthest edges of his memory and imagination, like a socially conscious John Ashbery on Benzedrine.
It's as if the author got a little ways in, abruptly tired of the rigors of organizing his memories into prose and gave up. It's also as if he joyfully abandoned himself to the frothing appetite of his wild Beat muse.
He covers everything from the myth of the "'greatest generation', indeed born, they told us, to make the world safe for democracy" to T.S. Eliot, a recurring foil and target (whom he at one point dubs "Tea Ass Eliot"). He rails against "the First Church of the Last Laugh" and the evils of capitalism, which he calls "the very enemy of democracy"; praises and laments his fellow Beats; and sarcastically wishes for "a society in which one would no longer have to be dissident."
It's as if the author got a little ways in, abruptly tired of the rigors of organizing his memories into prose and gave up. It's also as if he joyfully abandoned himself to the frothing appetite of his wild Beat muse. I wasn't wrong to be cautious — these pages are often a chore to read, and they continually circle back to a kind of adolescent bitterness at the world and at the powers that run it for their own gain. But is Ferlinghetti, angsty as he still may be at 100, really so wrong about that? Especially given the current toxic situation in Washington? And, to be fair, he's still got it: Ferlinghetti's wits are afire, his wisdom is wide and deep, and this little book is packed with incredible sentences, even if it's short on story.
Craig Morgan Teicher is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection The Trembling Answers and a collection of essays We Begin In Gladness: How Poets Progress.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.