A compassionate survey of the life and times of Dr. Strangelove screenwriter and 1960s bad boy Southern, revealed here as a man of great kindness and personal excess.
Arts writer Hill draws on a decade-long association with Southern as deep background for his biography, which is supported by the cooperation of the writer’s estate and dozens of interviews. Beginning with Southern’s rowdy, literary Texas youth, Hill charts his years (after WWII service) amidst the hip in Paris and Greenwich Village, highlighted by publication of novels—including The Magic Christian (whose outrageous protagonist, Guy Grand, shadowed Southern throughout his life). A summons to London from Stanley Kubrick to work on Dr. Strangelove inaugurated Southern’s retreat from the “Quality Lit” game into the bigger canvas of international filmmaking and the “real-life movie called the sixties.” Accomplishments ranging from Easy Rider to teaching at Columbia followed, as did drugs, liquor, and, finally, his death at 71 in 1995. Throughout, Hill is informed and low-key about Southern’s starry world, providing restrained briefs for newcomers on the people of the moment (like Henry Green), happening restaurants like Elaine’s, and the importance of appearing on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (as Southern did). The only problem with such vividness is that Hill’s discussions of Southern’s literary efforts pale in comparison, leaving his concluding analysis of “enduring influence” unconvincing. But Hill’s ability to capture the “blur of movement from one groovy scene to the next” points to how potent the high life was and how it must have affected Southern.
May not prompt readers to devour the novels, but succeeds in recreating a reckless era and shows Southern as one of its merry players. (illustrations not seen)