catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 14 :: 2008.07.11 — 2008.07.25


Answering to the Coca-Cola Company

Or how can lemonade be made with 0% juice?

It was just another one of those typical days, a standard one-foot-in-front-of-the- other kind of day, checking off errands with new ones cropping up. The musty heat of summer had almost completely subsided and the brisk cool air of fall was sneaking in, making the hairs on my arms stand up.

What made this day more unique than the casual day-to-day hustle and bustle was a new discovery, a man who tugged at my gut with every page of his biting satire and eloquent prose: Terry Southern.

There, lounging on my grungy second-hand couch, a dumpster-diamond my wife and I found after college, I began a journey of uncovering the writing of a man who bridged the Beats with the Counterculture and who challenged the newfound age of American consumerism to its ridiculous nerve endings, all with one lifelong swoop of his caustic pen.

Buried in a bundle of sentences, in parentheses, was the name, and one of the more baffling anecdotes of my life. I couldn’t have imagined that I’d garner such a grand intrigue from the simple BFI collective on the history of Easy Rider by Lee Hill—not a mind bender by any stretch. I thought it was a misprint at first, like confusing Hollywood, Florida or Paris, Texas with their counterparts, but there it was: Alvarado, Texas, my hometown.  

Needless to say, I dug right into finding out who this man was and how this happened—I mean how can anyone of significance be from Alvarado, Texas, a little prairie town nestled in Johnson County, a blip on the interstate between Waco and Ft. Worth?  Who was he? How did he come to prominence? How or when did he fall? These questions and many began to form a personal journey, an unlikely trail through the pages of the turbulent post-war period at the height of the Cold War right into the pop-cult flavor-of-the-month Counterculture.

I started with his first novel Flash and Filigree. Then, I dabbled with the ingenious wit of Dr. Strangelove and moved on to The Cincinnati Kid. I devoured The Magic Christian and I quaffed Red Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes like a tall tankard of lemonade on a hot summer day. On the shelf: Blue Movie, Candy and the recent collection Now Dig This: The Unspeakable Writings of Terry Southern.

It had become an addiction of sorts. Not Southern necessarily, but learning, the serendipitous stumble onto a page that leads you to an album, to another book, to a film, without end. I was drawn to writers like Henry Green and William Faulkner, to my love of blues and jazz, and to my home state of Texas. Eventually, I tried to track down his only son Nile and we began exchanging e-mails. It’s led me into exchanges and conversations with various writers like John Flores and Larry McMurtry and a variety of scholars. It’s awakened in me thoughts that I’ve never had, ones I’ve suppressed and ones that I need to reprogram.

Southern is a name that is almost always met with blank stares and nil recognition. It’s a phenomenon that’s baffling but all the more reason to stir the fire. So, with the same intensions that Woody Allen laid out for dating couples in Annie Hall—kissing early in the date to avoid the late-evening qualms and sweaty palms—let me lay the bottom-line premise on. Pucker up: (big breath) Terry Southern was a phenomenal talent whose work became trodden under an impetuous culture of hyper-consumerism and rigid censorship masked behind a full-fledged smiling caricature of American complacency. His work is worth discovering, re-discovering and re-creating, in spirit, to address the epidemic smugness of our culture’s sanctimoniousness.

Again and again, Southern’s name keeps popping up and down, in and out of the American cultural landscape, and yet his work is almost insultingly forgotten or unknown.  It’s not like this guy is an antediluvian figure or something, deciphered from ancient papyrus. He’s a pop-culture icon whose handprint is limned on both cheeks of America’s countenance. I fear his work, like some old box of dust-laden shirts buried in a storage shed is all that remains of his pen.

You can find him on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album, along with a myriad of cultural icons (he’s the one wearing shades). He was a friend to photographer Michael Cooper (who turned Southern onto Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, who in turn, turned it onto Stanley Kubrick), Peter Sellers (who bought a hundred copies of The Magic Christian and gave it to all his friends, of which one was Kubrick), and William S. Burroughs (whose Naked Lunch was published in part due to the persuasion of Terry to Olympia Press). His circle of friends seems like a parrying of one-up hyperboles between two pimple-faced wannabes. He befriended his literary heroes like William Faulkner and Henry Green, crossing paths with T.S. Eliot at a cocktail party and hanging with Andy Warhol. He was a friend to the great Peter Sellers. He had a full-fledged hand in two of the most significant films of the 1960’s, Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider. He helped spark the Paris Review with George Plimpton—the list is long and distinguished and impossible to cover here. Again, all the more reason to discover the man behind the pen through his pen. It’s time to reintroduce the incomparable Terry Southern.  

To get you started, I give you, Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), a film that has and is still sending shock waves through the American psyche. We can surely credit, as is standard, the hyper-auteur sentiments of Stanley Kubrick, but just how how many strokes of Southern’s pen rendered the already volatile material headlong into satiric genius?

These are questions that can never truly be answered but regardless, Southern brought to the table an inchoate but significant skill for satire and surrealism that is fertile for the expansion of our minds. The complexity of the period seemed to heighten the skill of his writing. His work depicted America in an arabesque frame with pristine glass and then purposefully slammed it onto the sidewalk and danced on its shards. This was Southern’s self-proclaimed goal, “to upset complacency.”

This is no clearer understood than in Dr. Strangelove. It was here that his incipient wit started captivating the American public, with fresh thoughts for the cynics—the ones they’d had but couldn’t articulate—and contemptible material for conservatives to castigate and discard without so much as a thought.

In one of the more memorable scenes, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), under the gun of Col. “Bat” Guano (Keenan Wynn), begins to reason with Guano to convince him of the situation’s severity. Mandrake’s able to finagle a call to the President of the United States from a telephone-box, only to end up fifty-five cents short, leading him to urge Guano to shoot open a Coca-Cola machine for change, to which he quips rhetorically, “…you don’t think I’d go into combat with loose change in my pocket—do you?” Mandrake, urging Guano to shoot the lock off, is turned away with, “that’s private property” and the immortal line, “You’re going to have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company.”  Self-reflexive or not, I love this scene, its austere simplicity alongside its biting sarcasm is pure and hilariously liberating.

Of all the great bits Terry has strewn across pulp pages and screens, the Coca-Cola line emerges as one of the most intriguing for me because of its rousing skepticism of American consumerism, a mindless compliance, a manufactured consent to borrow from Noam Chomsky.

It’s a phrase I recall often when I ‘m scouring the soda fountain section, sifting through plastic rimmed tops and paper wrapped straws. The scene’s the same every time: I stare it down, I shake my head and I mutter irascibly while it mocks me: “Minute Maid Lemonade: Contains 0% Juice.” I can hear its scorn: “You’re the one who drinks me.”

Immediately, I’m bellowing internal obscenities. How is this possible? The Coca-Cola Company, the world’s largest beverage company, complete with Minute Maid, Vitamin Water, Dasani, PowerAde, etc. etc. can manufacture and distribute lemonade made with 0% juice. Is that possible? Am I missing something? Aren’t lemons a fruit? Have I gone mad?

This is exactly the kind of consumerism and absurdity that Southern would have reveled in, perhaps turning that Strangelove idiom on its head a bit.  It’s time for the Coca-Cola Company to answer to us, so what’s up with the lemonade—huh?

I know—I know they’ve got a line of juices, health conscience drinks, etc. all with the same high-fructose corn syrup, water with 30g of simple sugars. The point is, American complacency is as sturdy as it ever was, more so it seems, and in the vein of Horace, Juvenal, Swift, Voltaire, Twain and modern writers like Vonnegut, Thompson and Southern, smug complacency is leaning, jaw-forward with a sinister simper, waiting to be walloped.

I invite you—regardless of your race, creed, or political platform complete with soap-box heels—to meander through the pages of Southern’s work for a refreshing caustic wit.  There’s nothing like ole Terry Southern to get the cognition and emotions stimulated.

Recommended films: Dr. Strangelove, Easy Rider, The Cincinnati Kid, Barbarella, The Loved One, End of the Road, Casino Royale (un-credited)

Recommended novels: Flash and Filigree, The Magic Christian, Blue Movie, Candy, Red Dirt Marijuana and Other Tastes, The Donkey and the Darling, Texas Summer

Terry’s vast array of work can be found in various journals and magazines, many of which are located at his web site.

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