Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Prankster and the Conspiracy
Adam Gorightly’s Excursion into Fringe History

Although Kerry Thornley is a minor player in world history, he is something of a key figure in the culture of underground literature, and is now the subject of a new biography by fringe writer Adam Gorightly: The Prankster and the Conspiracy: The Story of Kerry Thornley and How He Met Oswald and Inspired the Counterculture. Reading the book, it quickly becomes clear that Thornley is almost impossible to pin down, ideologically, professionally, or otherwise, and to his credit, Gorightly doesn’t even try put his subject into any kind of box. He seems less interested in writing a conventional biography than mapping (however roughly) a specific period in countercultural history using his subject as a departure point. The result is one of the few (non-autobiographical) accounts of those “freewheeling 60s” that fully captures the bizarre blend of optimism and paranoia, freedom and dementia, that characterized the period. Gorightly doesn’t pretend to be an impartial researcher of factoids, though the book is full of them (as well as hearsay and a generous concession to Thornley’s own self-mythologizing). He writes loose and easy, with an obvious regard but a suitable lack of reverence for his subject to do full justice to him.

The central thread of the book (as the sub-title makes plain), and perhaps the primary reason for Thornley’s minor celebrity in the conspiracy subculture, is his early acquaintance with Lee Harvey Oswald, whom he served next to in the Marines. Besides this, Thornley was a living anomaly: a writer, soldier, huckster, drugee, drop-out, bum, possible victim of mind control, occasional visionary and co-founder of Discordianism (perhaps best known to fans of Robert Anton Wilson, a supporting player in Prankster) and the Church of Sub-Genius. Thornley was also an early proponent of “paranoid awareness,” of which, ironically, he eventually became a victim (of too much paranoia, not enough awareness). In the period following the JFK assassination, during which Thornley was questioned by the Warren commission and under investigation by Jim Garrison (the dubious hero of Oliver Stone’s JFK), Thornley slowly became convinced that he was a victim of government mind control and microchip implantation, and even began to wonder if he wasn’t involved in the assassination without knowing it, a kind of “Manchurian Candidate” programmed killer. He also began to suspect that many if not most of his friends and associates (especially Wilson, who bore the brunt of Thornley’s persecution mania for a period) were government agents, keeping tabs on him and plotting against him.

Closer to an astral interloper than a historian, Gorightly explores Thornley’s labyrinth of paranoia from the inside, willing, perhaps even happy, to let the weirdness of his subject infuse him, until, like a good anthropologist, he has been all-but assimilated by it. Even though he never partook of the events described, by the end of the book Gorightly seems to have grown quite intimate with the spirit behind them. The writer’s sympathetic magic allows him to more or less seamlessly enter into the zeitgeist and weltanschauung of the period and its protagonists, and to take the reader along for the ride. It’s a twisty trail, all right, but fortunately Gorightly (for the most part, barring a few misguided attempts at drollery) keeps his eyes on the road and his hands on the wheel. As befits his subject, he manages to always seek out the absurd in what is essentially a tragic tale, that of a talented individual driven to the edge (and over) by circumstances beyond his control.

Based on this work at least, Thornley seems most interesting as a kind of cipher, a black hole for weirdness, a person around whom all manner of bizarre events and personages seemed to gravitate. The book leaves it open as to whether or not Thornley had a hand—however peripheral—in the JFK assassination (highly doubtful), or whether he was ever employed (and mind-controlled) by the CIA or any other military/intelligence agency (somewhat more credible). By the time you’re done with the book, such nuts-and-bolts questions probably won’t matter much. Thornley’s “madness”(he was never actually certified insane) not only seems to have resulted from having gleaned too much truth, but even—in a way that belies rational understanding—his madness may have been a higher truth unto itself.

Judging by this insightful, melancholy account of one man’s tragically inspired personal odyssey, not only will the truth make you crazy, but going crazy may be the only way to get to the truth at all. God gave man reason, then hit him with a reality that no amount of rationality could make sense of? Wouldn’t that be the ultimate prank (and conspiracy) of them all. . .

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