Off-Beat

Iain Sinclair writes about Gregory Corso

There may be only two writers, currently at work in America, who can bring themselves, unblushing, to use the phrase ‘drinky poo’. Two Wodehousian renegades. One drops the words, like a pair of maraschino cherries, into his sunburst fiction. The other, a poet, whose work is his life, is happy to go either way: rhyme them or float them, with a winning question mark, at the conclusion of an in-your-face Greenwich Village monologue.

The novelist is the Miami-based eco dude, Carl Hiaasen, author of a number of slick, fast-moving, if increasingly formulaic, crime romps. Barbecued poodles, steroidal maniacs in sub-Disney pleasures parks, ugly plastic surgery retreads looking for vengeance, decent Hispanic cops, intelligent strippers with hearts of gold: a generically complacent agenda. But good fun to read from a few thousand miles away. You don’t have to worry, at that distance, about suspending disbelief. You’re happy to swallow an ex-state governor called Skink Tyree, a Vietnam vet liberal, who chooses to live on road kills, a swamp rat whose self-presentation is somewhere between Kris Kristofferson (in one of Peckinpah’s more unbuttoned ventures) and Gary Snyder. Neat prose to surf in short sharp bursts, each cross-cut segment with a hook in its tail. Impotent fantasies aimed against the ravages of developers and despoilers, incomers, fixers, quacks, swarthy New York hoods with misjudged tailoring. Exactly the kind of lowlife Gregory Corso once appeared to be: a 16-year-old member of the so-called Walkie-Talkie Gang who ripped off $64,000 from the soft-file safes of the money-lending Household Finance operation. Corso kitted himself out in a traffic-stopping zoot suit, squeezed $7000 into his pockets and took off for Florida. Later he would write about how money leaked away, slippery as mercury: ‘Money in every pocket, no wallet, no clip/I just bunch it up and stuff it.’ Cash for Corso was always a dangerously occult commodity. ‘Money,’ he acknowledged, ‘doesn’t come with instructions.’

Corso of course is the other ‘drinky poo’ laureate. In his latest novel, Stormy Weather, Hiaasen takes less than a hundred pages to dispose of Tony Torres, the scumbag mobile-home salesman who utters the fatal phrase: ‘Let’s have a drinky poo.’ But Corso is stuck with it for life, it’s part of the texture, the rap. Back in the late Forties and early Fifties, when he sat in coffee shops and dyke bars, Horn and Hardart’s, talking at Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac with feverish intensity, disconnected hipsters admired the vigour of their discourse. ‘Dig that aggression!’ Tony Torres goes out in baroque style, crucified inside a TV dish, ‘splayed and mounted like a butterfly’ by a Teamsters heavy, the son of a dissatisfied customer. Corso, paying his dues to his Catholic Italian heritage, rolls on for ever, the angelic bad boy, youngest of the Daddies. His teeth ‘lost in the service’.

Hiaasen’s teeth are so bright, they irradiate his author photo like a hole in the paper. His career is moving on an upward curve, through crusading journalism towards movie options, by way of song lyrics – ‘Rottweiler Blues’ – for Warren Zevon. He was never stuck in the paperback original ghetto, his mayhem justified by a care for indigenous wildlife and a surreal gift for disposing of unpleasant humans in inventive ways. But Gregory Corso is in danger of slipping quietly out of the scene. No book of his is in print in Britain. At a period of Beat Generation revivalism that threatens to turn the whole bunch into another Bloomsbury Group, Corso has succeeded in opting out – while producing ten large cardboard boxes of unpublished typescripts. Once he was the unnamed tyro on the cover of Newsweek, the Zeppo Marx who spoiled the original ‘triplicity’ (as he calls it) of Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg. The Kerouac Estate now has a six-figure annual turnover, expensive relics are sold to celebrity collectors. Ginsberg’s papers, a vast and valuable archive, have gone to Stanford University for more than a million dollars. Burroughs, in retirement, advertises Nike, and is visited like an Emersonian sage. Ginsberg and Burroughs have both been taken into the Establishment, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and are represented by the same high-profile literary agent. Corso remains agentless, a public orphan: ‘I’ve no mamma, no papa, no dente, no casa.’ Uninvited by Bill Clinton to join other high-achieving Italian-Americans, such as Nicolas Cage, Martin Scorsese and ex-baseball player Joe Garagiola, at the bean-feast held in honour of President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, Corso is typecast as an involuntary amnesia case, a sleeve-tugger of enormous charm. A street poet in an age that has no use for poets or streets. His worry was that his father, seeing him on the cover of a Luce empire magazine, would think he was going straight to the electric chair, a True Crime punk, a fastburn celebrity.

Gregory Nunzio Corso describes himself as a ‘graduate in orphancy’, abandoned by a youthful mother who fled back to Italy, abandoned also by a series of foster mothers. An early epiphany was the memory of bathing with one of these surrogates, golden light playing on her pubic fleece. ‘I remember the black hair on her cunt and the water. Now that’s a good shot for a two-year old.’ Corso the bedwetter was a runaway, living rough, discovering compensatory visions in the clouds, lions stalking the roofs of tenements. Inevitably, he matriculated in petty crime, thefts of radios, delinquency and institutional life. He was incarcerated briefly in the Tombs and defined as insane, spending ‘three frightening sad months’ in Bellevue mental hospital. As a full-blown Romantic he would read these years as a De Quincey-like apprenticeship: vignettes of poverty, endless movement around the same small nexus of streets, the Village, Little Italy. He was ‘God’s spy’, a poet fink keeping secret notebooks. The early poems are about his mother and the sea, their correspondence: ‘The sea ate her / Upon the shore I found a strange / yet beautiful food.’ Or about gangsters, death messengers, suicides: ‘When you’re dead you can’t talk / Yet you feel like you could.’

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