by Steven O’Sullivan
Being a street urchin in New York’s Little Italy around the 40s you would typically follow fabulous cinematic example and team up with the fat kid, the tough kid, and some kind of leader and you’d all run around snatching candy and purses and grow up to run jobs for the Five Families. Right?
Fortunately for us, Nunzio Corso turned to books instead of Hollywood stereotypes. At 17, serving three years in New York’s Siberia(Clinton Correctional) he was a prime target for getting fucked with, but with the protection of Mafioso inmates looking out for one of their own, he was able to soak in Clinton’s rather extensive library. This library had been mostly donated by Lucky Luciano, who had been the just previous occupant of Corso’s cell. How quaint.
Now let me tell you what is great about this:
Are you listening? I doubt it.
Here is what is great about this: when you take an Italian street urchin rolling in subways and food stands, throw him in prison for a few years of hardboiled treatment, but give him the classics along the way you get one powerful motherfucker. The kind of motherfucker that takes Scorcese’s supposed mean streets, goes looking for them all over Europe with a head full of Shelley, and lets every single detail of it explode along the way in terse, biting, notebooked lines.
Corso is perpetually referred to as the bad boy of the Beat circle. I suppose ultimately this makes sense. Kerouac was the tag-along, documenting all the madness he could get his hands on. Most of this madness was perpetrated by Cassady, the pure embodiment of Beat mania. Burroughs: the old tom-cat of the crowd. Spending most of his time alone or in travels searching for exotic young boys. Yet he would, from time to time, meet up with the rest of the group for collaborative or observational purposes.
Then there was that inner-circle of Beats that primarily exemplified themselves as poets. Corso, Ginsberg, and Orlovsky. Hanging around Ginsberg and Orlovsky, Corso seemed to straddle the line of sexuality. For a while the trio shared a bed in the Beat Hotel in Paris even, but Corso secured his own room (more of a triangular closet) shortly thereafter.
So, be it covering rented room walls in absurd oil paintings to the raving dismay of a landlord or calling out nonsensical fried shoe sentiments to those looking for a statement of purpose in his work, Corso pulled himself along as a literary pirate.
Now why exactly is this great?
Look at that picture of Corso. Thick head of hair, rough and tumble face all set in charisma, and a cocky grin. Stumbling all around Europe. When the rest of the Beats show up, he places them at the soon-to-be-named Beat Hotel in Paris and sets all of them up with content and experience for plenty of output. But off he goes again, looking for that always elusive muse. Desperately searching every coke line crevice of every abandoned back alley from Morocco to Paris.
Turns out the muse was back in Trenton. His mother. That was the question mark of his life. And he claims to have been searching for his muse all throughout his wanderings. But it was the search that ultimately was his muse. After all, once he finally tracked the muse down in Trenton . . . death caught up with him a few steps later. He had his muse all along. Where do you think that spitfire output came from? The SEARCH. The HEART. The absolute down trodden emptiness of not knowing. That’s where the hell it came from. Mean street upbringing, obsession with but not obeisance to classics, and madness. You need that goddamn madness, don’t you think?
You need to jump in a rubber raft, float it all the way down the Brazos, and see where it takes you. Probably to a surf shop in Freeport that poses as a vegetarian cafe on the side; which is really just three tables crammed in a corner with a trailer park butch bitch that would rather be watching COPS. Pretty sure it was steak and eggs for breakfast.
So you swallow down their stale bread for $6.95. Where the hell’s the bus station in this town?
Go back to minimum wage shot-pulling in the cafe and see every suburban housewife float in for their lattes. The owner’s not in today and you’re too scary looking with your scruffy beard to talk shop to so they take their coffee and hit the fuckin’ road. At least there’s a tanning salon next door. Hallelujah.
You try to explain the Beats to your boss. What am I writing? Some bat-shit piece that will probably get rejected by this literary mag. What’s it about? The whole mag is about the Beats. What are the Beats? Jesus lady, didn’t you go to college? Yes, but in Cuba! So, what? You didn’t explore literature in your free time? Isn’t education in any country other than America supposed to be fantastic (except maybe, I don’t know, Cameroon)? Apparently she was too busy running around the jungle with a rifle and camo shorts for the Cuban Internationale on weekends to read anything extracurricular.
So you have her read Howl and Bomb. She says it’s interesting and I don’t think she’s lying. But what does it matter? Shove along. We’re running out of ice in here.
But back to the point I guess . . .
Coming out of jail Corso could have gone straight for the Five Families. He definitely had the chutzpah for it. Instead he got hung up on Shelley and did his best to show the rest of us the road. Kerouac was always on the road I guess, but it seems Corso was the street light. Finding other roads and trying to show the ugly and the damned which streets to slip along. You know? Sure he was there for Mexico and everything, but mostly he was floating along finding his own little way and leaving some bread crumbs for the hungriest of us to pick up.
In the late spring of 1939, Weldon Kees, his wife Ann, and his parents, John…