The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carrol

basketball-diariesI read this back in 1995, when I was going to the Pratt Manhattan summer program. I wasn’t accustomed to being in the city every day of summer, and it was definitely a life-changing experience. It’s like you become a different person by living in this borough; you start to expect more from everything in your life, whether it’s food, clothing, the apartment where you live, or the people around. The kids in the city are much more independent, and they’re used to getting around on their own. I think this is what I envied most about the characters in this book-they’re totally independent and they do exactly as they please.

The diary begins in 1963, when Jim Carrol was attending Trinity School, playing basketball and running around with the hip kids (mostly from poor families.) He was definitely attending the exclusive private school on a scholarship, because there’s no way a working-class Irish American parent could afford to send his son there. It would’ve been an athletic scholarship, because this boy doesn’t seem to be much of a student.

As far as basketball goes, he gets to play with a Harlem team where one of the players is Lew Alcendor (later Kareem Abdul Jabar.) As for his skills, he’s great, but he gets left out of the team photo because they can’t risk having a white kid in the picture. Is it racism? Sure it is, but then you also have to wonder if Trinity School gave Jim Carrol a scholarship based on color. There had to have been hundreds of black boys in the city who could play basketball AND were top students.

As the story goes, Jim gets hooked on heroin, hustles gay men to support his habit, and things get dirty. Washington Heights had a sizable Irish population at the time, though it wasn’t thought of as Manhattan because it was built up much later than other areas. The fact that Harlem is to the south doesn’t figure much in the book, because Jim moves between the Irish, black, and Puerto Rican groups seamlessly. Perhaps they’re all united by sleaze, drugs, and filth?

Basketball Diaries is the opposite of Prozac Nation, written by fellow Manhattanite Elizabeth Wurtzel. Despite having three things in common-drugs, risky sex, and crazy parents-the two characters are opposites. Wurtzel dreams of being anyplace other than Manhattan (and doesn’t seem to enjoy any of them when she does) while Jim really enjoys his life in the city! Whether it’s making out with a hooker in the balcony of a movie theater, running across rooftops, or swimming in the Harlem River, he really has quite a time. He doesn’t fantasize about living in Hackensack or being poor (even though his family is) and at the same time doesn’t get jealous of kids who have more. In fact, despite going to Trinity School, he has few dealings with the rich kids.

Like fellow uptown-born writer Priri Thomas, Jim Carrol spends his childhood swimming in filth. Unlike Piri Thomas, he has his color on his side, which allows him to get away with a lot more.

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