The High Life and High Times of Terry Southern

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A 1969 still from Columbia Pictures' "Easy Rider"

In the decade and a half that Terry Southern enjoyed fame as one of America's pre-eminent satirists, he tackled every "grand theme" he could get his hands on: greed ("The Magic Christian"), politics and war ("Dr. Strangelove"), drugs and youth rebellion ("Easy Rider"), death (the script for "The Loved One"), alienation and the media (the script for "End of the Road"), and, with particular relish, sex (the novels "Candy" and "Blue Movie").

What followed this period of critical and popular acclaim, however, was a quarter century in which Southern published a scant few articles and short stories, and one eloquent, compact novel that sank without a trace. During his "boom period" his screen credits included milestones like "Strangelove" and "Easy Rider," contributions to campy time capsules ("Barbarella"), and uncredited work on high-profile projects ("The Collector," "Casino Royale"). From 1971 until his death in 1995, only one movie - a dreadful Whoopi Goldberg vehicle called "The Telephone" (1988) -- had Southern's name attached to it. He was rumored to have "lost it," alcohol and drugs having blunted his satiric edge. When mentioned at all, his name was preceded by the amiable but career-killing sobriquet "swinging' sixties icon." Though his ardent admirers continued to stress the ways in which his best work continued to inspire later generations of humorists and screenwriters, the question remained: What the hell was Terry Southern doing all those years?

Two new books do much to answer that question. The first, "A Grand Guy: The Art and Life of Terry Southern" by Lee Hill, charts Southern's personal and professional highs and lows - and the star-studded array of folks with whom he shared them. The second, "Now Dig This: the Unspeakable Writings of Terry Southern," is an anthology of previously uncollected writings and interviews that appeared in a range of publications, from the "quality-lit" (Southern's phrase) mag "the Paris Review" to "Puritan" (the adult publication that was so explicit it was sold shrink-wrapped). Both books fill a significant void, offering evidence that Southern remained a potent, wildly creative scribe during his last 25 years on this planet. His skill in career-planning never matched his consummate wit and imagination (in fact he was a dismal dealmaker), but at least now his "invisible" years have yielded a number of characteristically strange and amusing stories, articles, and anecdotes.

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