A ‘Furious’ Pryor unveiled

Published: Wednesday, November 13, 2013 at 12:52 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 13, 2013 at 12:52 p.m.

Dirty, nasty, filthy.


“Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him” by David Henry & Joe Henry, c. 2013, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $25.95, 400 pages. (Special to the Guardian)

That's what your mother claimed "those words" were. You said them once and were never allowed to say them again in her presence. They were bad words.

They were dirty — unless, of course, Richard Pryor said them. Then they were hilarious and fall-down funny, and in the new book, "Furious Cool" by David Henry and Joe Henry, you will read a few of them, and more.

Peoria, Ill., is like "[w]hatever you think of when you hear the name," Richard Pryor once said in 1966 to an audience.

When he was just 19, Pryor married his pregnant 16-year-old girlfriend, the first of his many marriages. He was unemployed then, but "soaked up everything" he saw while lounging around and watching TV. Shortly after his son was delivered prematurely, he left his young wife, moved back to his father's house, and began performing at local Peoria clubs.

Embracing the "N" word and inspired to "speak truth," Pryor revolutionized comedy with the "raw language of the streets."

But though his stage career soared, Pryor's personal life was in shambles. He loved cocaine, cognac, women and guns, but the four together was a bad mix and his behavior "grew increasingly bizarre." With his addictions out of control, he sought help in 1979 and entered a hospital.

"Furious Cool" is a wonderful, wonderful book. But I was wrung out when I finished it, as if I had watched a car accident.

That's a testament to authors David Henry & Joe Henry, both of whom had a relationship with Pryor at the end of his life and who had access to his story. Here, Henry & Henry give us a sense of the once-in-a-lifetime genius that Pryor was, but because we know how this tale unfolds, it's painful to read. We watch his self-destruction through these pages and feel powerless.

And yet, "Furious Cool" is impossible not to enjoy. It's filled with history, memories, laughs, and yes, an abundance of profanity, but if you want to read a story of a complicated comedy genius, it would be a dirty shame to miss it.

Terri Schlichenmeyer never goes anywhere without a book. She lives in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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