In April 1966, Richard Faina was returning from a party celebrating the publication of his first novel when he was thrown off the back of a friend’s motorcycle and killed. He was 29.
This incident ended a restless lifelong journey that had taken him from a boyhood in Brooklyn to Cornell University to extended stays in Ireland and Cuba, the countries of his family origin. His life included a bad marriage, a winter in Tangier, the drug scene, the protest folk song scene, the writing of his novel, “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me,” and the shorter pieces, fiction and nonfiction now posthumously collected in “Long Time Coming and a Long Time Gone.”
The Cornell campus that Farina wrote about in “Been Down So Long,” represents a rambling and tangled situation different from the Cornell of today. The name of the novel is taken from an old blues song. Then, drugs or marijuana were found off campus in rundown sections of the city in rundown sections of the city where they were used by people who had largely given up hope and where the novel’s adventurous heroes goes to get his kicks. Otherwise, the college, with its young men in Harris tweed and little white MG’s parked outside fraternity houses, might have still be chosen as Playboy magazine’s ideal.
Farina began working on “Been Down So Long” in a room in Paris on the Rue St. Andes des Arts. The book was completed in California in a one room cabin between Carmel and Big Sur. In California, he married again – Joan Baez’s younger sister, Mimi.
The America Farina came back to was a country first beginning to feel the stirrings of a new generation of politically conscious youths. As the male head of America’s first family of protest, Farina took an active part in what was happening. On the literary side, he wrote a short story on the civil rights movements in the Deep South, and chronicled in an essay a run-in with a member of the John Birch Society at the Monterey Fair. It’s when touching Monterey Fair. It’s when touching on the increasing polarization of Left and Right that Farina reveals himself as a writer of sharp talents.
Farina may have had the temperament of a revolutionary, but his imagination was that of a romantic. In Europe he had seen and was moved by the revolt that erupted in Algeria and the one that simmered below the surface in Ireland. But when he wrote about a young American who fights with the IRA, in a story really a daydream thinly disguised as fiction, he wrote more abut drinking Jamesons served by an attractive waitress in a pub that about war.
It is futile, however, to speculate about the writer Farina might have matured into, or even about his place in American literature. Thomas Mann has said that in order to leave a trace behind, a writer must produce bulk as well as quality. For Farina there was not enough time to leave much of either. There were too many places to see, causes to fight for, and California highways to ride down. As he once wrote, he loved riding in fast cars or on new motorcycles, his head held high in the wind being fooled into feeling “a restless sense of freedom and an evasion of responsibility.”