Aaron's Reviews > Last Words

Last Words by George Carlin
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Aug 23, 11

bookshelves: life-story, general, language
Read from August 06 to 23, 2011

It's a strange experience to watch a god turn into a man.

George Carlin has not only been a hero and an inspiration, but one of the key formative figures in my life. Even though I never met the man personally (although I did once catch him in concert back in 2006), he shaped my thoughts and my personality with his words and style. I wouldn't say he opened any new doors to me, but he certainly gave me the confidence to trust my own gut feeling about the world, that I was right to question the evil, the bizarre, the just plain fucked up things in the world around me. I got Back in Town as a teenager in the late 90's, and that still forms my gut sense of what's the "real" George Carlin; in a sense it's what I would compare the rest of his career and material against, if I somehow ever needed to. Somehow that seems especially important to mention in order to explain my thoughts on this book.

What is Last Words. It's George Carlin's autobiography. Well, it's really his unfinished biography. Well, if we're going to get into it, it's really his friend and colleague Tony Hendra's edited, revised, compiled finished product that came out of some 2 decades or so of collaborative effort with George trying to put his life and work down on the page. It's George's effort to show a side of himself that wasn't in (or at least obvious in) his acts. It's his attempt to show the progression of his thinking, his attitude, his style, his craft, his development as an artist, his growth as a person, and certainly his drug abuse. Heavy drug abuse is a common theme. I wasn't entirely sure if he was just trying to give a fair and accurate description of how this really went, or to explain something of what happened to him (and is career) in those really dark years when he faded into obscurity (mostly between mid-70's and mid-80's). Whatever his motive, at least he's never preachy when he does it. But back to what this book is.

If I have to whip up some simple way of summing it up, like all sincere and deep autobiographies worth reading, it's his attempt to better understand himself and the course his life has taken by the major events and relationships that shaped us, and work out a way of telling it to people who weren't there so they'll take something away from it. So what the hell does that really mean? It's not a journal of ideas, or a diary of daily, monthly, yearly happenings; it's much to revised (though "raw" enough I can't call it polished, like his best routines are). It's not a neat-and-tidy summary of his life and work; there are too many loose ends and brief stories that look like they couldn't be left out, but weren't totally wrapped up. I think the stand out example of that is when he talks about his first wife Brenda's death (p. 272), how he didn't perseverate on it or get lost in grief, and in the next paragraph he makes the only reference to his second wife whom he met shortly after. The bridge between these major pillars in his life? A one-line paragraph: "One reason that I don't worry too much about these things is that I'm happy in love." I'm not making any criticism of what kind of man, husband, father, or lover he was, and this was probably the best way to introduce his second wife, but it shows what I would the call unevenness of the book. He calls Sally the true love of his live, the one that makes him lovey-dovey inside, or however he puts it, but she only gets passing reference in a single paragraph. Brenda gets a whole chapter and is a "recurring character" throughout the book. Was it intentional? I doubt it. Probably a mix of editing compromises and the limitations of the source material to draw from. Let's not forget, he fuckin' died!

Hendra describes his first attempt at editing (p. xvi) by reviewing the first 100 pages he received - chapter 1, covering up to age 6. "I pointed out that by this math, his first sixty years would run 1000 pages. Even in an era of morbidly obese memoirs it would stand out. That was why I was reading the fucking think, said George. He needed someone to help." That's a handful. The book is great for all the detail and backstory that was absent from, or hinted at in, his other writing, stand-up and interviews. If George was one thing, it was consistent with the story telling. Nothing in the book stood out as contracting anything he ever said in any of the many interviews I've seen of him. In many ways this is like a very long, elaborate interview. Never the "full" story, or the polished version, but very interesting and certainly covers the big questions you had going in.

So who is this book for? I think most George Carlin fans will like it, and some people with a passing interest. As I said above, it really shows him as a man and not the god of humor and social wisdom that he holds in my life (still!), and the lives of many others. It's great to see the evolution as he describes it. The good luck, the bad luck, the good choices, the bad choices, the success, the hardship, the friends, the adversaries. This book might have checked my admiration, but it certainly grounded my respect for him. If you're not a GC fan, you probably won't be won over with this one. But if you have always been curious about this crazy, funny, reckless, foul-mouthed man, I don't think you can go wrong. Now I think we might not have been good friends if we'd known each other, but it's like I have a crazy uncle I understand a little better.
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