Halfway through Céline’s Death on the Installment Plan the ellipses started floating under my eyelids like retinal flotsam. I needed a break, a breezy intermission. Browsing the stacks I came across Richard Fariña’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me:
My copy of Richard Fariña’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. New York: Dell Publishing, 1969
Oh yeah. I keep meaning to read that. It’s got a Pynchon quote on the back. As it turns out, Been Down So Long has some of the most haunting prose I’ve ever read. Why did I neglect this book for so long?
I will admit that Been Down So Long’s influence on me is in part due to what I’ve learned about Fariña himself. Much about him can be gleaned from his book, as it is largely autobiographical. It was originally published on April 28, 1966. Two days later Fariña died in a motorcycle accident near Carmel, CA. He was 29. Pynchon met Fariña at Cornell in the late 50s, where they critiqued each others’ writing. Pynchon wrote about Been Down So Long within the context of his memories of Fariña at Cornell as well as a cursory bio here.
In addition to being a gifted writer, Fariña was also a musician. He and his wife were an emerging folk act known as Mimi & Richard Fariña, with Mimi (née Baez, younger sister of Joan) on guitar and Richard on the Appalachian dulcimer. Both of their albums, Celebrations for a Grey Day and Reflections in a Crystal Wind were released in 1965. On Celebrations for a Grey Day Fariña wrote an instrumental song called “V.” after Pynchon’s first novel, and in his cryptic liner notes describes it as follows:
Call it an East-West dreamsong in the Underground Mode for Tom Pynchon and Benny Profane. The literary listener will no doubt find clues to the geographical coordinates of Vheissu, the maternal antecedents of the younger Stencil, and a three-dimensional counter-part of Botticelli’s Venus on the half shell. May they hang again on a western wall.
Richard Fariña, Joan Baez and Joan’s little sister Mimi Fariña in Big Sur, CA, 1964. “A Swallow Song” from the Reflections in a Crystal Wind album is dedicated to Joan. From the liner notes: “For Joanie, who coaxed the creatures from the Big Sur wind, and eased the trembling of their wings.”
Here are the Fariñas performing “House Un-American Blues Activity Dream” on Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest (with Seeger watching awkwardly from the floor):
Ah. Back to Death on the Installment Plan. So much for that breezy intermission.