Jack Kerouac - On The Road
Buddhas, Beatitudes, Bennies & Booze
The Sixties began in 1957 with the publication of On The Road. The author, Jean-Louis ‘Jack’ Lebris de Kerouac, ‘Ti-Jean’, ‘Oedipus Jack’, was a French-Canadian of Breton (Cornish maybe – Ker(n)ouak?) descent, born in Lowell, MA in 1922 to Leo and Gabrielle (Mémère) Kerouac: he was to become the ‘King of the Beats’, the absent father to the flower children a generation later, still widely read today, over 35 years after his death.
On the Road, Kerouac’s magnum opus, was written in 1952 in a lunatic, 20-day burst on a continuous roll of teletype paper. The manic energy required to type it was fuelled partly by coffee and partly by the stimulant, benzedrine (bennies). It eventually stretched 120 yards, a kind of masculine counterpoint to Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses. Heavily cut and the names changed, it took 5 bitter years to find a publisher in Viking, the literary world unsure how a novel about hobos, sex and drugs would be received in post-war USA.
(This roll is now being exhibited across the States over the next couple of years in various universities and museums, stretched to its full, dog-bitten length, like some latter-day Bayeux Tapestry).
Kerouac was a mess of contradictions: a Buddhist, benny-toking, free-thinking, jazz-loving, bi-sexual poet, novelist, singer and hard drinker as a young man: a bitter, right-wing, alcoholic, born-again-Catholic mummy’s boy, twice divorced and thrice married, by the time of his death; pro-Vietnam war, anti-hippy. He despised what the Beat Generation had turned into. ‘Beat’, he theorised, was the beat-up-by-life underclass of American society, imbued with beatitude, blessed by the Grace of God.
His mother, with whom he spent his final years in Florida, with his wife and childhood sweetheart, Stella Sampas, was his guardian, vituperatively turning away old friends and the hopeful flower children who would fetch up, unannounced, at their door.
Kerouac didn’t start speaking English till his 6th birthday, having spoken the local French-Canadian dialect up to that point. Like Samuel Beckett, it was possibly the sense of writing in a tongue that was not his own that gave his books their free-flowing style, the uninhibited jamming together of sounds and meaning, which lent a musicality and fluency to his prose. He blew away the old, polite edifice of American literature that had been implicit since the days of Henry James.
Kerouac’s early life was also marked with tragedy. At the age of 4, his brother, Gerard, 5 years older, died. Like Elvis with his twin, Jesse, Kerouac took on the burden of his parents’ heightened expectations and grief and used them to fuel his work, abetted by a large dollop of Catholic guilt, anger and raw energy.
The literary side of his nature was partly encouraged by his father, a typographer with a wide-ranging vocabulary. Even as a young boy ‘Ti Jean’ wrote journals and novels.
However, in his early years, it was his sporting prowess that moved him forward in life. He excelled at athletics, baseball and football. Before attending the University at Columbia in 1940, through a sports scholarship, he did a preliminary year at Horace Mann in NYC. There he met many of the friends who would become an integral part of the ‘Beat Generation’ and whom he would use as inspiration for the characters in his novels – amongst others, William Burroughs (Naked Lunch), Allen Ginsberg (Howl) and the manic Neal Cassady, who had nothing published in his lifetime, but whom Kerouac saw as the wild, untrammelled spirit of America: restless, searching, with boundless energy and ceaseless talk. He used Cassady as the model for Dean Moriarty in On The Road.
His sporting life unravelled after a broken leg and a fall-out with his football coach, and, as WWII was at its apogee in 1943, on a drunken bender, he enlisted in the Navy, the Army, The Coast Guards and the Marines, all in one night. Eventually settling for the Navy, he gave less than his best and was discharged, according to psychiatric reports, as being of ‘indifferent disposition’.
After the war, he wrote his first novel proper, an experimentation in traditional prose, a Thomas-Wolfe-style novel - The Town and the City, (There was a previous, collaborative effort with Burroughs called And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tank which was never published. This was based on a murder they had witnessed but failed to report to the police).
After reading A Buddhist Bible by Dwight Goddard he began to follow the path from erstwhile Catholic choirboy to Eastern enlightenment. His reaches into Buddhism and the friendships he made are chronicled in The Dharma Bums; less manic, less wild, as a follow-on to On the Road, it gives further insights into a world far removed from Madison Avenue. The time he spent in solitude as a firewatcher on Desolation Lookout Mountain, chronicled in the book, were to be an inspiration to him for the rest of his life.
The Dharma Bums was published in 1958, after On the Road, and there are passages where the spiral into alcoholism is plain to read. What started as a method of overcoming his shyness and freeing the true, deep-down nature of his soul, ended up turning him into a shambling wreck.
Two TV appearances which are available on DVD show the contrast, the before and after images of fame and drink:
1/ The Steve Allen Show – Date: 1959 - Reading extracts from On The Road to Allen’s accompanying jazz-inflected piano tinklings, Jack is cool, in control and sober.
2/ The Firing Line – Date: 1969 (the year of Kerouac’s death) - William F. Buckley and Kerouac in discussion about Beats and Hippies, with Kerouac drunk, bloated and rambling, the once-handsome young man ravaged and haunted yet still only 47 years old.
It’s difficult from a distance of nearly 50 years to gauge the impact On The Road must have had. For this piece, I re-read it, trying to imagine the effect it might have engendered in the public at the time; that initial encounter of a novel where the first-person voice, Sal Paradise, is a drifter who indulges in casual sex, boozing epics, consorts with junkies, and yet a book where no moral judgement is made.
His best friend, the hero, if such a term can be applied to Dean Moriarty, is a womaniser out of a Denver reform school, a car thief, son of an alcoholic bum, and possessed of a manic energy that borders on insanity.
Sal hitchhikes in pursuit of Dean, catching up with him, losing him, finding him again. This takes place across the great, sprawling geography of the USA, from NYC to San Francisco, through Denver, Texas, Chicago and the mid-west. In the pre-rock & roll era the musical accompaniment is jazz: the hard bebop of ‘Bird, Birth of the Cool Miles, Stan Getz & Dizzy. Along the line they take in a gig by Slim Gaillard.
The Fifties, of course, were a period of post-war growth in the USA, when consumerism was king, when The American Dream was being pushed into every home (try to find copies of National Geographic from this period and see how things were from the adverts at the front – Fridges, Cars, Boats for glamorous ‘square’ WASPs in perfect American-apple-pie-order homes). Although the Beats eschewed consumerism on the grand scale, Sal and Dean certainly loved their cars; Dean, the better driver, typically gunning the Chevys and Cadillacs to 110 in their onward rush across the States.
A continuing undercurrent in On the Road is, paradoxically, the way in which work still had to fund the lifestyle: getting the next dollar was paramount. Some scrounging, an occasional cheque from his aunt (in real life his mother, Gabrielle) helped, supplemented by Sal’s small WWII pension; but mostly it was menial work, like night-guard or cotton picking, that paid the bills; a little bit of slavery for a lot of freedom. Work a little, move on – the jobs were tough, and scantily paid, but you could score your next hit, go on your next bender, purchase some cheese and bread to keep body and soul together.
Another striking element is the innocence, the openness and beatitude that lay at the heart of America – the ease with which a man like Dean got lifts from respectable couples, farmers, travelling salesmen: people just being friendly to strangers.
My badly foxed Pan paperback (5’-) of 1963 shouts: ‘Explosive epic of the Beat Generation’. The back cover, quoting the Manchester Evening News, sneers: ‘Crazy mixed-up novel about frustrated youth getting nowhere fast’. As Grandpa Simpson would say, ‘A little from Column A and a little from Column B’. Best is, ‘Great raw slices of America… Unmatched descriptive excitement… A stunning achievement.’ Take your pick.
18 books published in his lifetime, and more posthumously. Some are highly readable, (The Dharma Bums and Big Sur), some are passable, (Vanity of Duluoz and Dr. Sax), some are hard work (Visions of Cody: recorded chit-chat with Neal Cassady taken from 100s of reel-to-reel tapes and laid down verbatim). I managed about a third before, like my stabs at Finnegan’s Wake, deciding life was too short.
None of his books is without merit, and his prose style, even when performing the literary equivalent of Rahsaan-Roland-Kirk-continuous-breathing-free-form impersonations is never as opaque as his friend’s, William Burroughs, who, through his cut-up techniques, tried to move literature away from grammar and meaning into a world of no-sense (sic). Kerouac makes sense. He illuminates a world that doesn’t involve the shiniest iPod, the costliest wide-screen TV or sobriety, a world where only a certain courage is required for entry.
On The Road has become the cliché of purposeless, youthful hedonism, but Kerouac felt this interpretation travestied his life, his friends and his intent. It drove Jack’s fragile psyche on a downward path - ‘slow capitulation’ as Jim Morrison, another Kerouac fan and Olympian drunk, described his own drinking habits… ‘suicide or slow capitulation’; the choice was stark, yet for those sympathetic to his personality, easy enough to comprehend.
Kerouac moved with his mum and third wife, Stella, from Lowell to Florida. By now, a shell of a man, he pursued his hobby of painting - Pope Paul VI was a favourite icon of the former iconoclast - and visiting whisky and titty-bars in Tampa. The rare interviews he gave were lengthy diatribes opposing the youth of that time and supporting the war in Vietnam. He died on October 21st, 1969 of a stomach haemorrhage brought on by the drink. He was aged 47. The world had passed him by, or he had chosen to leave the world behind.
While researching this piece, I discovered that Neal Cassady’s wife and, at Cassady’s behest, Kerouac’s lover, Carolyn Cassady, was spending her remaining years (she’d be in her mid-eighties) in Bracknell, England. From the landscape of Fifties’ America, muse, lover and wife, present at the greatest literary shebang ever, to end up in Bracknell with the Berkshire Blues again… leave the curtain closed on your thoughts, my friends, or desolation will overpower you!
But, in truth, the last word should go to Bob Dylan. (Was the first thing they ever showed on Channel 4, ‘Renaldo & Clara’? Dylan visits Kerouac’s grave at Edson Cemetery in Lowell with Allen Ginsberg? Memory, babe!’)
I quote: ‘I read On the Road in maybe 1959. It changed my life like it changed everyone else's.’
Brian Williams – tMx 24 – 04/06