Growing up out of place

Feelgood: a trip in time and outFeelgood: a trip in time and out by Peter de Lissovoy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Semi-autobiographical novel about a sweet-natured, dope-dealing, white middle-class youth from a northern suburb who drops out of Harvard in 1962 and heads south to join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the premier civil rights activist organization, in violently racist rural Georgia. In the next year and a half he also drops out of the movement but learns much about life, trouble and sex from the blacks of southwest Georgia, and about the capacity for brutality and violence, not excluding murder, by whites who see their hegemony threatened — until he comes to fear death himself as a "nigger lover" and knows it's time to leave. The book is notable for the honesty and frankness about the narrator's often confused feelings, the sensuous descriptions of places and people, and especially the sensitive and detailed portrayals of a wide range of personalities black and white, especially the blacks— a deacon and his wife, a rebel ill-disposed to nonviolence, a too-clever thief and conman, winos and various hustlers, a couple of women happy to love him but not so dumb as to trust him, and finally the gentle, wise old marijuana-expert and healer he knows as Dr. Feelgood. De Lissovoy by his own account was not of much service to the civil rights movement— too easily distracted, too ready to follow another's lead — but he was a superb witness and narrator.

This is not really autobiography, but a novel about somebody (the unnamed narrator) a lot like Peter de Lissovoy but not entirely. The real Pete de Lissovoy had already been a correspondent in Africa while still a student at Harvard, and when I knew him, he may have been getting stoned more frequently than most of us (mostly because he seemed to have better contacts) but was still a functioning and articulate intellectual. And while most of what he tells us in the book probably resembles things that really happened, some of the turns in the story  (the fate of Yellow, for example, or the unexpected but very narratively-neat reappearance of Knight) make the kind of sense that's only possible in good fiction. (See the remarks Mark Twain made on the subject, especially “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn't.”- Following the Equator, Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar.)

So there's some, maybe even a lot, of invention here. De Lissovoy is a writer, after all. But the basic story of the complex humanity of southern blacks, and the fear and rage of many of the whites, is absolutely true and beautifully described.

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