No writer—not Kesey, not Wolfe, not even Tolkien—owned the 1960s more completely than Terry Southern, the Texas-born curmudgeon who turned an acid eye on all that surrounded him. He knew everyone, read everything, ingested all that there was to be ingested, and kept plugging away until the very day of his death at the age of 71. So famous was he in his day that The Beatles put him on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, right next to Lenny Bruce and Edgar Allen Poe.
The books for which he is best known, Candy and The Magic Christian, were published in the late 1950s, though they took some years to percolate into the culture. Candy was, infamously, a riff on Voltaire’s Candide; published in Paris by the soft-porn-y Olympia Press, it was considered a “dirty book” and widely banned until, in 1964, an American house reissued it to coincide with the release of Stanley Kubrick’s zeitgeist-defining film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Southern wrote the screenplay for that arch film, and afterward he would spend most of the decade working on movies, among them The Loved One, Easy Rider, and Barbarella.
The real dirty book—literally, in spots—was The Magic Christian, published 60 years ago and made into a decisively transgressive film 10 years after that. The Magic Christian is a romp in the halls of the idle rich—in this instance, of multibillionaire Guy Grand, who crisscrosses the nation on slow trains and, courtesy of his unimaginably vast fortune, prompts the people he meets to do outlandish things in order to gauge the prices of their souls—or simply to embarrass them in the face of money.
He taunts a hot dog vendor by demanding change for a $500 bill. (You may have seen such a bill if you were around before 1969, when it was discontinued.) He secures “three hundred cubic feet of manure, a hundred gallons of urine, and fifty gallons of blood,” buys a chunk of property at the busiest corner of Chicago’s Loop, has a concrete vat built and mixes into the stinking mess “ten thousand one-hundred-dollar bills, slowly stirring them in with his wooden paddle”—then watches in delight as passersby dive into the muck to grab what they can of the literally filthy lucre.
That’s just the first 25 pages. Grand does worse still, reveling in what he calls “making things hot for people” and proving Southern’s variation on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s remark, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” Yes, they are, and Southern’s point, so obvious in our time, is that they can do whatever they want.
Southern would be 95 today. His books live on, though younger people seem to be less current with them than are the gray hairs. That’s as it should be, we suppose, but given events in the decades since it first bowed, The Magic Christian seems altogether timely 60 years on.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.