Flipping College Upside Down: Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me by Richard Fariña

Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to MeBeen Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me by Richard Fariña

An interesting, occasionally funny and very 60s novel about campus life, Richard Farina’s Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me is something of an overlooked classic by the sadly ill-fated Richard Farina.

Set at Athene College in 1958, it follows Gnossos Papadopoulos as he skips classes, gets swept up in campus politics and drug-dealers and smokes an awful lot of pot. Most of action hinges around opposition to a new college president who wants to keep female students from hooking up. But Gnossos largely tries to keep his way out of that: he avoids a vengeful ex, falls in love and keeps away from cops, all while keeping a joint in one hand and a beer in the other. Some of the novel’s funniest scenes have him trying to talk his way out of a bad situation with a heaping helping of 60s slang. If nothing else, Gnossos is a charmer.

But only when he wants to be: while it’s occasionally, Gnossos dark side comes out as the novel progresses: I cringed on the way Gnossos treats women, which lurches between outright cruelty and passive misogyny. For all his cool and street-smarts, he soon finds himself wrapped in events outside his control; he’s much more naive than you’d think from the novel’s first half. And as the book goes on, he increasingly seems out of his element. But then again, everyone (Gnossos included) has to grow up sometime.

The rest of the novel’s cast isn’t quite as well-shaped as him, but they’re an interesting bunch: a hispanic Catholic convert, a crazed ex who attacks Gnossos with a stiletto, a scheming invalid who speaks in French and Latin terminology, a closeted lesbian who hangs out with the boys. It’s a fun cast, although they sometimes feel like little more than players there to move Gnossos along.

There are occasional moments of genuine pathos, though. After spending most of it’s time in the cozy confines of his college, the novel takes a trip to Cuba during the Revolution and the fun, free-spirited innocent of the cast gets blown away with a harsh dose of reality. Farina really snaps the reader back to attention here, reminding everyone that while college is a lot of fun, it’s certainly not the real deal.

As a writer, Farina was a capable novelist, although his prose has a couple irks. One is how often he runs into lists, listing everything in a kitchen or hanging in a busy music room. And I don’t really care for his treatment of the female characters here, who generally lurch between extremes that seem ripped from a Greek tragedy. Although maybe that’s the point: there’s quite a few Greek puns at work in the novel, right down to Gnossos himself (see: Knossos).

Farina himself hangs out at the fringes of this book: his interest in folk music, the singing sisters of a teacher seeming to echo his then-wife Mimi Baez and her sister Joan, for example. And according to Thomas Pynchon’s introduction, the novel was heavily inspired by their shared time in university. And the saddest thing of all is what happened as the book saw release: just a few days after it hit shelves, Farina died in a motorcycle accident.

Rating: 7/10. As a whole, it’s a fun, free-wheeling college novel: occasionally poignant, sometimes frustrating but generally pretty funny. But it’s a different kind of funny from, say, Animal House: this isn’t quite a campus comedy. It reminds me a little bit of Thomas Pynchon’s California novels, especially Vineland (Zoyd Wheeler seems like a grown-up Gnossos sometimes). And Pynchon himself has a nice introduction, setting the scene for the novel’s background. Recommended, but generally if you’re a fan of that style of novel.


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