Review: Last Words
I love to read a biography in which an old man, in the waning days of his life, reflects on the lessons he has learned in the seven or eight decades given to him. There is something inspiring about hearing a man reminisce about the past and pass along the wisdom of the years. I hate to read a biography in which an old man, in the waning days of his life, describes a life given over only to his own pleasure. Unfortunately, Last Words, George Carlin’s posthumously-published autobiography, falls squarely into the latter category.
Carlin was, of course, a stand-up comedian, for decades one of the most famous comics and one who is regarded as among the America’s greatest. He filled concert halls, was a regular guest on the most popular television shows, recorded bestselling albums and taped live performances that continue to air today. His name was known around the world and he made himself a wealthy man. By some standards this made him a singularly successful individual.
Yet this is a story of an utterly wasted life. Carlin shows himself to be utterly self-focused, self-centered, self-obsessed. Shaped by his Irish Roman Catholic heritage, he turned quickly against the faith of his childhood and gave himself up to whatever pleasures the world could offer. The decades, the years of his greatest successes, were full of hard living that included a crushing drug addiction, alcoholism and the inevitable physical effects of both. Even when he fell in love he lived life for no higher power or purpose than himself and his own success. He was away from home so much that his wife filled the emptiness with alcohol, and still he did not lessen his workload; he and his wife did drugs and fought viciously in front of their young daughter who soon got into drugs as well, even sharing with her parents; even when his wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he stayed on the road, ending up far away when she slipped into unconsciousness and died.
Not surprisingly, by the end of his life Carlin had succumbed to despair. “I no longer identify with my species. I haven’t for a long time. I identify more with carbon atoms. I don’t feel comfortable or safe on this planet. From the standpoint of my work and peace of mind, the safest thing, the thing that gives me most comfort, is to identify with the atoms and the stars and simply contemplate the folly of my fellow species members. I can divorce myself from the pain of it all. Once, if I identified with individuals I felt pain; if I identified with groups I saw people who repelled me. So now I identify with no one. I have no passion anymore for any of them, victims or perpetrators, Right or Left, women or men.”
In the end, Carlin did not live long enough to finish his memoirs. Someone had to piece together his notes, fill in the relevant details, and send them out to the publisher. He died in 2008 at the age of 71. He went to stand before the God he denied, the God he despised (funny, isn’t it, how you can so despise someone you insist does not exist), the God he made a career out of mocking and belittling.
Some memoirs are written for fans only while others transcend only the most loyal audience. Last Words is definitely for fans only. Profane, loud, over-the-top, this book is an apt reflection of the man himself. A man who was driven by the desire to shock others, this book gives him the last laugh, one last chance to make his audience gasp at his own profanity, his own baseness. But somehow, when read in the context of his life, the jokes no longer seem so funny.
Verdict: Buy it if you’d like to learn how to waste a life.