Little Boy is ostensibly a fictional memoir whose broad details follow the life of its author, the poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Born in 1919, Ferlinghetti co-founded San Francisco bookstore City Lights, which also published many canonical texts; he was arrested on obscenity charges in the late 1950s for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.
The book begins as a rapid recounting of protagonist Little Boy’s life, from his birth into poverty through to his enlistment in the navy at the start of World War II. These 26 years are covered in a mere 15 pages, after which Ferlinghetti invites the reader directly into the mind of Grown Boy.
The rest of the book is largely written in breathless free-associative prose with next to no punctuation. Paragraphs run for anywhere between three and 16 pages. This “word-hoard”, as the narrator calls it, is a barrage of philosophical musing laced with wordplay and internal rhyme. Its cacophonous voice would well suit a slam poetry stage.
Many literary figures are name-checked throughout the novel, including some clear influences on Ferlinghetti’s prose. Joyce, Proust and Eliot are quoted or alluded to over and again. There are also short pen portraits of the beat-generation writers, including Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and Corso.
The philosophical theses of Little Boy are the quest for meaning in a chaotic and selfish world, and mourning for a planet on the brink of self-destruction. Ferlinghetti writes about 21st-century concerns – the overuse of smartphones, the climate crisis, the sixth mass extinction – as well as timeless topics such as religion, sex and power. However, his takes on these issues, while effusively poetic, never go much further than their enumeration. In Little Boy, readers may find an impassioned affirmation of their own concerns, but those who want something deeper would do well to look elsewhere.
This seems a pity, considering Ferlinghetti’s involvement in so many important cultural and historical moments during his century of life experience. Although it is not the role of the poet-novelist to solve the world’s problems in a faux-memoir, it would have been interesting to hear his ideas. As he once wrote: “If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.”
Faber, 176pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 8, 2019 as "Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Little Boy". Subscribe here.