Talking to your selves

PRYOR CONVICTIONS by Richard Pryor, with Todd Gold Heinemann pounds 16. 99
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The Independent Culture
THERE are three little words on this book's cover guaranteed to strike fear into the sturdiest seeker after autobiographical insight: "With Todd Gold". Experienced "co-writer" and People magazine scribe that he is, Gold has already been in on the intimate confessions of Drew Barrymore and Brian Wilson. It is easy to understand why these people would need a little help organising their thoughts into coherent sentences, but Richard Pryor's razor-sharp mind should make him the last to need an interpreter.

A self-destructive streak wider than Lake Michigan makes it a miracle he didn't need a medium. A cheery check-list on the inside cover marks the staging posts in a chaotic life: "The money, the women, the cocaine addiction, the attempt at self-immolation, the six marriages, the quadruple- bypass surgery, the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis." And among the tributes on the back is one from Bill Cosby, who says Pryor "finds laughter where none has a right to exist", which as celebrity encomiums go seems to be pretty near the mark.

The most enduring images in Pryor Convictions are profoundly grim. Sexually abused at the age of six by a local 16-year-old, Pryor is never able to tell anyone; years later his abuser turns up at his film trailer with a young son in tow, and calmly asks for an autograph. In 1980, in a cocaine funk, Pryor douses himself with cognac, sets himself on fire and runs through the streets as a human torch. And yet these stories and others like them tell you very little about what made Pryor a great comedian. The power of his finest material - whether fearlessly facing down his own demons, or simply being silly giving animals voices and so inspiring Eddie Izzard - was to make light of such miseries.

Raised in a whorehouse in Peoria, Illinois, it was hardly surprising that Pryor's comedic concerns should tend towards the earthier end of the spectrum. He got his first laugh as a young child, falling off a pile of bricks dressed in a cowboy suit, and then deliberately trod in dog excrement to get his second. The world that Pryor saw in his early years shaped not only his rough and ready attitude to sex, but also his scathing take on respectable hypocrisy: "White dude used to come down and ask 'do you have any girls who'll cover you with ice cream and little boys that'll lick it off?' And he was the mayor."

The routines for which Pryor is best known - laughing in the face of sexual and racial taboos - took a while to work out. By his own admission, he started in the early 1960s as a craven Bill Cosby copyist. Groucho Marx and Miles Davis were among those who encouraged him to wake up and smell the coffee, and he gradually established a unique and category-defying comic persona. Yet even as he was boldly striving "to lob comedic hand- grenades at an unfair, discriminatory system", Pryor's personal life became the embodiment of domestic repression, as he subjected his various wives to a series of appalling degradations and eagerly enslaved himself to alcohol and freebase cocaine.

Confessing to these addictions in group therapy was "Like saying adios to the greatest, funniest character I'd ever created". The abusive behaviour for which Pryor became notorious - emptying a magazine of bullets into one wife's car was just the best publicised of the catalogue of misdeeds recounted here - was bound up in the same self-hatred that his comedy heroically attempted to wrestle with. The problem for this book is that Pryor has already addressed this fact in his act, which at its best was, as he describes it, "a dialogue between his inner and outer selves", and he does not really have anything to add in print.

What's more, the special quality of his voice and the momentum of his stand-up - the exhilaration of one-man call and response - have just not translated onto the page. And even though lengthy tracts of Pryor Convictions are lifted wholesale from Wanted..., one of his best concert films, the irresistible life-force that propels his finest work into the stratosphere of greatness is sadly absent. Pryor's assertion that "If you tell the truth, it's going to be funny" certainly held true for his career. But it does not hold true for his autobiography. If you want to find out about him, buy an album.