Saturday, June 07, 2008

On the Road (Again)

No, it's not about Willie Nelson ...

Sure, you read On the Road once, but have you read it lately? I decided it was time for me to look at it again after a pause for reflection that lasted about forty years.

The first time I read it I was in high school. Overlooking the fact that Jack Kerouac was the same age as my parents, I regarded him rather as an exciting big brother who was exploring the world ahead of me and sending back reports.

In this way I was like my buddy Jerry whose older brother was in college, had served in the Coast Guard, played folk guitar, and who introduced us to the Beats by passing along his cherished recording of Allen Ginsberg reading Howl with Kerouac reading from Visions of Cody on the flip side.

It's impossible to overstate the impact this had on us--though I think it had a greater effect on me, as an aspiring writer. This stimulus was all it took to send me out to the book stores in search of more material. Eventually I found On the Road as well as The Dharma Bums, The Subterrraneans, and an incredible collection simply called The Beats, which I still own, and which contained book extracts, articles, and poetry from a long list of authors including Diane DiPrima, Phillip Whalen, and many others. I also discovered a novel by Jean Genet and the hair raising Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, and Naked Lunch and Nova Express by William Burroughs. It was a whole new world.

Just a few years after I discovered him, and only twelve years after the publication of On the Road, Kerouac died at the age of 47 in St. Petersburg, a couple of hundred miles from my home in Miami. Over the years he and the rest became a fond memory, though periodically I revived my interest in their work.

Once, a recollection of Diane DiPrima's "13 Nightmares" sent me back to look at The Beats again. Then an article in The Herald about a visit to Kerouac in his last days by journalist Jack McClintock (who I met once) became the inspiration for a story of my own, called "Stalking Jack." In my version the first person narrator is a hippie whose encounter with his idol is both a disillusionment and a foreshadowing of his own dissolute future, a generational passing of the torch.

Researching the story led me to consume several Kerouac biographies. Perhaps the best is the one by Ann Charters, who knew him well, but Memory Babe by Gerald Nicosia is also great reading. This took me to some of Kerouac's other work that I had not read before: Tristessa, for example--a memoir of a sojourn in Mexico City in which the first 60 pages take place in the same hovel of a living room with Kerouac seated in the same chair, yet which is compelling to read. And his shorter pieces like "In the Railroad Earth," about his time with the Southern Pacific Railway, are some of his finest writing. Recently I re-read The Subterraneans, supposedly written in two weeks, which may be the best example of his stream-of-consciousness style.

At last I found my way back to On the Road where it all began--not his first novel, but the one that made his fame and the one that ignited the concept of the "beatnik" in American culture.

[Historical note: the -nik suffix was added to "beat" after the launch of Sputnik, the first space satellite, in 1959. The media meant it in a derogatory way, much the way "hip" and "hipster" became transformed later into "hippie." The origin of "beat" is attributed to Herbert Huncke, one of the less savory members of Kerouac's circle of intimates. Kerouac always claimed it meant beaten down in a saintly way, "beat as in beatific," which is how he described it in On the Road.]
All I remembered from my first encounter with the book was racing back and forth across the continent with Dean Moriarty (AKA Neal Cassady) in an orgy of wine, women, song, and life. So my first surprise was that Part One, the first 90 pages, is about Jack's own solo journey across America and back. By bus and hitching rides he makes his way to Denver to link up briefly with Dean and company, then on to San Francisco, which is revealed to be amazingly hip seeing as it is only 1947 (the year I was born). Bebop is in full swing at the jazz clubs, as is the drug culture that has not yet gone mainstream everywhere else.

Still restless, he decides to join Old Bull Lee (William Burroughs) and Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg) down in Louisiana. However he is quickly waylaid by meeting a cute Mexican girl on the bus, and instead ends up living with her in Southern California, hanging with her family and doing backbreaking work as a cotton picker for a buck fifty a day--that's one dollar and fifty cents, kids.

This interlude contains some wonderful lines, such as, "I made love to her under the tarantula." Naturally, because in the barn where he was staying a giant spider lived in the rafters overhead. This foreshadows the later memoir of his daughter, Jan [see Baby Driver], who lived for a time in Mexico in a thatched hut the roof of which was infested with scorpions.

Or how about this, as they are breaking up: "We turned at a dozen paces, because love is a duel, and looked at each other for the last time." But Kerouac sneaks another peek at a hundred feet and sees her walking back to her life as he goes back to his.

Money wired from his "aunt" (actually his mother) back in Patterson NJ buys him a bus ticket most of the way home. He says he has a book with him that he stole back in Hollywood, "but I preferred reading the American landscape as we went along." And transcribing it pretty well, I might add.

Incidentally, the Hollywood connection is that back in SF a friend had encouraged him to write a screenplay that he would help him sell to the movie studios. Kerouac went along with the idea but thought his attempt was "too sad" and did not expect success. Weeks and months later, after working in the cotton fields with the Mexicans, he drops by Columbia Pictures "just in time" to pick up his rejected manuscript, then it's off across the country again. The image of mad Jack scurrying unnoticed around the feet of the movie moguls is priceless.
[There's a movie we'll never see -- On the Road, starring Marlon Brando as Sal Paradise and James Dean as Dean Moriarty, that might have been directed by John Huston or Orson Welles. Just think.]
I'm leaving out so much -- like the connections and allusions to Steinbeck and the Grapes of Wrath dust bowl, Okies going west, grafting Jack firmly onto the American literary tree while rooting him with the working class he felt most at home with. Living with the hobos he is never a college boy slumming it. His affection for, and comprehension of, these people is always genuine and heartfelt.

"They thought I was a Mexican," he says of the townspeople when he was picking cotton. "And in a way I am."

Then along comes Part Two and the slim book gathers itself, winding up like a spring, for the Dean Moriarty voyages that will propel us to the end, six thousand miles and a hundred sixty pages further on. There is an orgiastic explosion up ahead in Mexico, and a crash of mutual abandonment in the end. But I'm going to leave you right there as they are poised to take off:

"He and I suddenly saw the country like an oyster for us to open; and the pearl was there, the pearl was there."

A repetition that would only occur to the poet that Jack was.

*Footnote: Just learned that in August Viking will be publishing the original version from the famous scroll -- one of the most unique artifacts in recent literary history -- so we'll get to read it yet again as if for the first time. Stay tuned.

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