Friday, January 29, 2010

THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN by TERRY SOUTHERN

Guy Grand--"Grand" Guy Grand--is a billionaire, and the dubious protagonist of The Magic Christian, Terry Southern's satire of American culture.  Grand Guy is a master of the elaborate, all-out, over-the-top practical joke, a mean-spirited prankster who believes that everyone has his price and who is willing to go any length (and pay any amount of money) to find that price.  He thinks of this as "making it hot for people." 


Grand Guy's pranks can be ranked on a sliding scale.  There is the relatively innocuous--say, offering thousands of dollars to a stranger on the street to eat Grand's parking ticket.  There is the grotesque--building a giant vat on a busy Chicago street, filling it with manure and urine from the stockyards (heated, so as to literally "make it hot for people"), stirring in tens of thousands of dollars and posting a sign advertising free money, then sitting back to watch the fun. There are the behavioral--paying off actors in a live television drama to break away during a climactic scene, address the camera directly, then walk off stage, or paying off both parties in a boxing match--the Champ to take a fall in an excessively effeminate manner and his challenger to win in an effeminate manner as well.  It's not always clear who or what Southern is sending up--boxing? the people who watch the sport? boxers? gays?--and the pranks are more likely to cause one to squirm uncomfortably than to laugh out loud.


But Grand Guy's most expensive, most elaborate, most unfathomable prank is that which gives title to the book. The Magic Christian is a giant cruise ship which Guy Grand has purchased, refitted as the ultimate in luxury, taken out on her maiden voyage, then orchestrated to...well, one doesn't want to be a spoiler.  Suffice to say, it's a voyage that doesn't end well. 


Although it's more bizarre than wonderful, more anxiety-producing than hilarious, still, Terry Southern gets the  American psyche, both in 1959 when this book was published and possibly even more so now, in this age of Fear Factor and SurvivorThe Magic Christian isn't as funny--and certainly not as delightful--as Candy, which Southern co-wrote with the poet Mason Hoffenberg. Still, it's worth a read.  And, if you get the chance, check out the movie version, a truly bizarre experience.  It stars Peter Sellers as Guy Grand, co-stars Ringo Starr as his adopted son Youngman Grand (a character created for the movie).  The screenplay was co-written by Southern, and then re-written by Graham Chapman and John Cleese.

No comments: