The troubles of Richard Pryor’s life are well known — from his childhood in a brothel to his self-immolation via crack pipe — but arranged in a biography their impact is renewed. So grotesque was his upbringing that an early encounter with a dead baby in a shoebox warrants but a single sentence in David Henry’s and Joe Henry’s addictive, frenzied book (Furious Cool, Algonquin Books,£17.99, Spectator Bookshop, £16.19).
The authors are fans who have the tendency to swoon, and they hold back from condemning Pryor’s numerous wrong turns (he was a serial wife-beater who fled responsibility wherever he found it). But that hardly matters when there’s so much to pack in. Enlivened by the 1960s counterculture, Pryor absorbed everything and made it his own. Even among Miles Davis, Lenny Bruce and Nina Simone, he was a giant.
What’s especially striking is how literary his stand-up style was — much sharper than the post-Beat poetry that was being recited in the hippest New York bars in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s a shame he starred in so many bad movies, but showbiz is intoxicating even for an artist, and Pryor’s second greatest talent was for sabotaging his own potential.
Rich in incident and anecdote — every page carries something either appalling or amusing — Furious Cool is an energetic contribution to the written history of stand-up comedy.