Scott Saul’s Be­com­ing Richard Pryor

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Glenda R. Car­pio

A Re­view of Scott Saul’s Be­com­ing Richard Pryor

Be­com­ing Richard Pryor is a long book. And thank God it is. A pen­e­trat­ing por­trait of the artist in for­ma­tion, Scott Saul’s bi­og­ra­phy charts Pryor’s as­cent from his painful child­hood in Peo­ria, Illi­nois, through his first years as an as­pir­ing co­me­dian, to his most pas­sion­ate, dar­ing, and crazy pe­riod. That is, when he was at his most ex­per­i­men­tal, hon­ing his tal­ent, and learn­ing to un­leash his skills of im­pro­vi­sa­tion to pro­duce such rev­o­lu­tion­ary al­bums as That Nig­ger’s Crazy (1974). With this al­bum, as with his other work from the 1970s, Pryor blew up the world of com­edy and re­made it in his im­age. Ac­tor­co­me­dian Paul Ro­driguez does not ex­ag­ger­ate when he claims that “there are two pe­ri­ods in com­edy in Amer­ica: be­fore Richard Pryor and af­ter Richard Pryor.” Saul gives us Pryor at his most crazy in another sense. The pe­riod of his artis­tic be­com­ing—from his twen­ties through his thir­ties—is also when Pryor was most in­ti­mate with self-sab­o­tage. His heavy and long-stand­ing drug use (mostly co­caine), paired with al­co­hol, led to his reck­less­ness in show busi­ness and cul­mi­nated with his dra­matic self-im­mo­la­tion, his tu­mul­tuous re­la­tion­ship with his many lovers and wives (many of whom he beat vi­o­lently), and his acts of fury (he made a man lose an eye in a fight), all of which seemed to be in­ter­twined with Pryor’s de­sire to in­vent and rein­vent him­self over and over again. And above all, his self-de­struc­tive­ness seems in­ti­mately tied to the fierce­ness of his tal­ent. This is, of course, a story we’ve heard be­fore—that of the self-de­struc­tive ge­nius. But Saul lets us ex­am­ine the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of Pryor’s life path, im­plic­itly ask­ing how and why Pryor’s dark­ness was bound to his fire­ball cre­ativ­ity. Did it have to be? Si­t­u­at­ing Pryor within a his­tor­i­cal con­text, Saul gives us fully drawn por­traits of the peo­ple, time, and places that shaped him while ex­plor­ing the many phases of ex­per­i­ment, fail­ure, and suc­cess that Pryor ex­pe­ri­enced. He cov­ers some of the same ground as Pryor’s mem­oir, Pryor Con­vic­tions and Other Life Sen­tences (1995), and the au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal film Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Call­ing (1986), but he lifts the man­tle off the myths that Pryor pro­duced about him­self af­ter the fire and when, al­ready suf­fer­ing from mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis, he be­gan to take stock of his

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