In “Becoming Richard Pryor,” author Scott Saul chronicles the birth, rebirth, ascension, downfall, and death of a glorified screw up.

Tediously-researched and skillfully written, the book concludes with Pryor’s body engulfed in flames.

The tormented funnyman had been hanging by a thread, when he finally tipped over the proverbial edge.

His sanity, what was left of it anyway, collapsed under the pressure of a fully-developed addiction to freebase cocaine. At this point, he was more than crazy, he was crack-head crazy.

Pryor was on the tail end of a five-day freebasing marathon, coming down from a coke high so gnarly that it had melted his brain into silly putty. He was stuck in a daze, entranced by a swirl of voices impregnating his mind.

In “Becoming Richard Pryor, (Harper, 2015)” he delivers the following explanation:

“I heard people who had worked for me talking outside the bedroom window. They were loud, rude, laughing, [and] angry. They made fun of my helplessness. I yelled at them, louder and louder, and still they refused to answer.”

The bouts of schizophrenia that Pryor regularly experienced were often drug-related, or triggered by the suffocating demands of his profession. This time around, he felt as though a higher power was playing chicken with his mind, daring him to react.

“I’ll show you,” he laughed with a demented sense of gaiety.

In a passage from the book, Saul writes: “Richard poured [the] liquor over his head so that it soaked his hair, his neck and a shirt that, fatefully, was a polyester weave. He flicked a cigarette lighter once, twice, no spark. The third try was a success: his shirt blazed into flames that reached up to his head.”

Once the fire subsided, “[Richard], in a delirium of pain, bolted out of [his] house, down the estate’s curving driveway, through its 10 foot high iron gates, and into the street.”

Although his comedy would often push the boundaries of moral convention, Pryor secretly fantasized about retreating from show business to embark on a new and sanitized beginning. The ebb and flow of his erratic career transformed Pryor into a self-destructive cynic. He yearned for a change of pace; he needed to escape from the perpetual Hollywood grind.

In the book, Saul begins with a detailed journey through his subject’s imperiled childhood. Pryor’s comedic recollections of corporal punishment were derived from his grandmother’s no-nonsense approach to child-rearing. With a switch in one hand and whiskey in the other, she (Marie) would issue discipline by flogging her grandson’s hide with the ferocity of a Nazi enforcer.

With prostitution being the family business, Pryor recalls gazing through a peephole while his mother turned tricks for cash. His father, a pimp and a brawler, often reminded Richard that he was the only one of his children whom he chose to keep.

As a madam, Marie had a motto: “don’t mess with my money.” She concealed a pistol in her undergarments, spewed profanity at her enemies, and controlled her stable of whores with an iron fist. Her underground operation boomed for more than a decade until it was nixed by a federal edict to eradicate sex-trafficking in Peoria, Ill., where the Pryors lived. These experiences contaminated young Richard’s innocence and they later served as sources of material for his stand-up.

Saul somersaults through Pryor’s academic career, bouncing from one grade level to the next, revealing his natural magnetism as a class clown instead of a precocious high achiever. His inherent aversion to authority often resulted in his expulsion from school. He migrated from one campus to the next, causing mischief at every stop, shredding into pieces the patience of his teachers. If this book has a heroine, it is Juliette Whittaker, the drama teacher who recognized this shy kid as the true original that he was.

Before he discovered comedy, Pryor relied on black and white spaghetti westerns to provide him with an escape from the miseries of his youth. This temporary departure from reality served a second purpose for Pryor, fueling his ambition to become a leading man like the heroes he worshipped on the big screen. Pryor’s dogged obsession with the limelight waxed from this point until he reached a level of superstardom beyond which any of his contemporaries in comedy had ever achieved.

From the author’s vantage point, Pryor’s comedic talents yielded bittersweet results. His achievements and failures often coalesced with one another. In fact, Pryor made a pastime of playing Russian roulette with his life and reputation.

On the positive end, he overcame the restrictions of conformity and created a brand of gutbucket humor all his own. But in the process, Pryor’s vulnerabilities were exposed, exploited, and heavily scrutinized. More importantly, his intimate relationship with freebase cocaine—otherwise known as the “career killer” in Hollywood—prohibited Pryor from ever achieving the contentment he desperately desired.