Although he is a battle-scarred veteran of the major social and political conflicts of our time who enlisted way back before anyone imagined such a thing as a culture war, Paul Krassner is probably not so well known to today's readers as he should be. His memoir, "Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut," should correct that situation.
Mr. Krassner belongs with the biggest stars of the counterculture and alternative journalism, two phenomena he helped create. His book describes several decades on the edge of contemporary chaos -- by chance or design, the author managed always to be at the right place at the right time with the right people, which often meant being arrested at protest meetings and demonstrations from coast to coast and landing on all the wrong police and FBI lists and then writing about it.
From his first moment of self- awareness, as a child prodigy playing the violin at Carnegie Hall, Mr. Krassner shows that his life has been governed by stubborn independence, a consequent rebelliousness and a highly developed sense of injustice, all of it mixed with a crazy sense of humor.
Before Roe vs. Wade, he crusaded for abortion rights; before Vietnam he protested against the military establishment; before the various Supreme Court decisions, he fought against censorship and for freedom of speech.
As founder of The Realist, that journal of investigative satire (his phrase), he chronicled the major events of his time and published work so bold and outrageous that none of the establishment media -- occasionally for good reason -- would even consider.
Given his considerable intelligence, his inherent rebelliousness and his penchant for absurdity, it seems entirely appropriate that much of Mr. Krassner's life and career (and the book) move with a certain random whimsicality -- one thing keeps leading, mostly through chance association, to another, generating any number of anecdotes along the way.
He more or less stumbled through all areas of the profession, ranging from editing The Realist to serving as publisher of Hustler. He formed close friendships with such important writers as Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey and with such political revolutionaries as Abbie Hoffmann, Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale. He frequently performed as a stand-up comic and helped found and name the Yippies, whose relentless devotion to irreverence struck terror in the hearts of the FBI.
Mr. Krassner also participated enthusiastically in the two other major revolutionary activities of the '60s -- sex and drugs. A late starter, he lost his virginity in the offices of Mad magazine at the age of 26, but according to his book has been making up for lost time ever since.
Although he inveighs against alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and sugar, he recounts innumerable instances of drug use, commencing with his initiation into psychedelics through the ministrations of Timothy Leary, the archbishop of acid. He mentions many experiences with marijuana, cocaine and other substances, but mostly dwells on memorable LSD occasions, such as dropping acid with Groucho Marx or some of Charles Manson's disciples, or testifying at the trial of the Chicago Seven with his mind seriously distorted by chemicals.
A friend and admirer of some outstanding comic talents -- Lenny Bruce, Steve Allen, Dick Gregory -- Mr. Krassner even injects humor into serious personal matters, like his marriage and his unusual but loving relationship with his daughter.
He is not afraid to make fun of himself, most entertainingly in a long, intricate chapter on his obsession with conspiracy theories that seem to account for everything from the Kennedy and King assassinations to the Manson family's murders to Watergate to the Iran-contra affair; he weaves a seamless web of interlocking connections that may even be absolutely true. In the process, he reminds of the entirely valid reasons behind the general paranoia of contemporary America.
The book's humor reminds us that the put-on always figured importantly in the public utterances of the counterculture. Even at his most earnest, Mr. Krassner will not hesitate to crack a joke, even if it's at the expense of his cause.
The comic, jittery, random movement of "Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut" suits the personality of the author and perhaps even the drug-influenced thinking of many of his contemporaries, but also provides both the feel and the substance of an era he lived through and helped create. It ranks with Tom Wolfe's "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" as one of the most informative and entertaining studies of a time and place that now seem, like it or not, long ago and far away.
(Dr. Grella teaches English at the University of Rochester.)
Title: "Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures JTC in the Counter-Culture"
Author: Paul Krassner
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
-! Length, price: 337 pages, $23