“Standing on the street corner waiting for no-one is Power” – Gregory Corso
I first read On the Road when I was 17. That’s the perfect age to read Kerouac, to discover the Beats, and from the Beats to find Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, William Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson and so on. At 17 you’re pretty much an adult (you can get married in Scotland at 16), but not quite.
If you live in a small town there’s something particularly seductive about escaping your confines: hopping in a car and hitting the road. The knowledge that in this country such a journey would likely end just a few hours later on the waterfront in Ardrossan, rather than by the glittering waves of the Pacific, does nothing to dispel the lure.
On the Road hit me like electricity. Its free-flowing, associative, jazz-inspired text was dazzling. Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise were the coolest cats ever. Age seventeen you’re perhaps less likely to notice that Moriarty, for all his exuberance and though he is possessed of redeeming qualities, comes across as a monumental prick; or that Paradise – Kerouac’s alter-ego – is a very passive character shambling along and observing the whirlwind.
I read it four or five years later as part of my degree and the exuberance and naivety embarrassed me; I found it hard-going. What had seemed alluringly free-footed and unconventional seemed callow and shapeless. And that was before I considered his attitude to women and race.
I revisited On The Road in 2010 and my opinion hadn’t changed; I re-read it last year (why all these re-reads? Am I trying to recapture a vicarious sense of lost youth?) and felt more reconciled to its ups and downs, its qualities and failings. I went from wanting to somehow emulate the book, to being disappointed and embarrassed (at my own callowness), before finally understanding Kerouac on his own terms. I appreciate his Art now, rather than his Life.
I expect I’m not alone in having suffered the baleful influence of Kerouac. Has anyone since Joyce made so many young writers mistakenly believe they could rearrange the English language on their terms? Kerouac inspired a year of bad poetry and worse prose from me, written under the assumption that stream of consciousness tales of what few of my late teenage experiences I thought worth relating would make me a Beat, or a Modernist, or both. Surprise! It didn’t.
Kerouac wrote in what he called “spontaneous prose”. He didn’t believe in rewrites and mistrusted “craft”: all very appealing to a neophyte writer. The direct expression of the vital moment was what mattered to him. In Desolation Angels one of his friends holds him to account on technique:
“How can you get any refined or well gestated thoughts into a spontaneous flow as you call it? It can all end up gibberish…”
to which Kerouac (or his alter-ego, Jack Duluoz) responds:
“If it’s gibberish, it’s gibberish. There’s a certain amount of control going on like a man telling a story in a bar without interruptions or even one pause.”
As Ann Charters writes in her introduction to the Penguin On The Road,
“the rush of events and chaos of personal encounters…move so swiftly that emotions are bypassed and short-circuited, submerged in Sal’s feelings as he narrates his story. The effect on the reader is exhilarating…one thing follows another without reflection or explanation”
Kerouac’s prose bursts at the seams to express; a literary cousin of the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock. Kerouac tests the limits of language’s ability to convey the ineffable, or moments of epiphany. Even when his charging, adjective-fuelled prose falls short, the failure can be beautiful. Indeed he can be psychedelic in his intense focus on the moment; what happened seconds ago is no longer relevant, only this, now this, and now this…
Everything he sees, as in a psychedelic state, is loaded with meaning. Everything may be a symbol:
“somewhere outside Chittenden where one morning all dew pink I saw a little bird sitting on a piece of stanchion straight up wood in the wild tangle, and it was the Bird of Chittenden, and the meaning of morning.”
Things always stand for other things and words constantly try, fail, and try again to capture their essence.
Jazz plays a large part in his work: this is the bebop era of the late 40s and early 50s. His prose can be likened to a jazz solo, forever riding a knife edge of improvisation. At any moment it may fail, and there may be fluffed notes here and there, but as long as the mood is sustained, that’s all that counts. As Bill Evans wrote in the sleevenotes to Miles Davis’s classic Kind of Blue, improvisation in jazz is like a Japanese visual art which involves the
“practice [of] a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere”
This leads, in literature, to a freer attitude toward sentence structure and indeed storytelling, because the voice itself becomes the important thing. Freer, but not shapeless: as he alludes in the quote above, this technique still needs the acute writer’s mind to know which notes to play.
What does the technique aim to convey? What is the life he leads? On The Road is the original road book, the precursor to every road movie you’ve ever seen. Cars, the wide-open panoramas of Amercia, jazz, sex, dope and amphetamines: all are different means to a fleeting unreachable end.
His books are all autobiographical and form what he called the “Duluoz legend”, which he planned in his old age to combine into one huge volume in which all the characters’ names were restored (so “Irwin Garden” would revert to Allen Ginsberg, “Old Bull Lee” to William Burroughs, and so on).
The term beat means a state of “exalted exhaustion” which explains how even tugboats can be “beat”. He constantly tries to capture the Thingness of things. Like the Bird of Chittenden above, or the art of Van Gogh (of whom Kerouac was a fan), objects are eternally announcing their presence in the world. As Aldous Huxley put it in The Doors of Perception, the world for Kerouac is full of “symbolic dramas trembling perpetually on the verge of the ultimate revelation”.
What was less noticeable to the seventeen-year-old me was the religious aspect of Kerouac’s writing. He described himself as “actually not ‘beat’ but strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic”. His books are pilgrimages, stations on a restless search for epiphany. Later works – including his poetry – in which he pursues Buddhism don’t alter that. As he says in Satori in Paris, “I’m not a Buddhist, I’m a Catholic”. Buddhism is the map he uses to get closer to his own particular God. But nothing is ever reachable; anticipation beats realisation every time:
“”ah let’s go back to the sweet city”, I think, which is showing across the bay, full of promise that never takes place except in the mind”
He’s a pilgrim without destination, because revelation can be found anywhere. Kerouac was inspired by Joyce; remember Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses:
“– That is God.
Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee!
— What? Mr Deasy asked.
— A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders.”
After all, the “beat” in Beat Generation was from “beatific”. The Dharma Bums chronicles their voyage toward Buddhism, but in Kerouac this mutated into a form of nihilism: if, confronted with the Infinite void, everything is meaningless then what’s the point?
“turning from a youthful brave sense of adventure to a complete nausea concerning experience in the world at large…Avoid the world, it’s just a lot of dust and drag and means nothing in the end. But what to do instead?”
What to do? Into his own personal Void he pours wine and then whisky (“as I grew older I became a drunk. Why? Because I like ecstasy of the mind”), leading to his death at 47.
There’s a trajectory to the Duluoz legend, starting with the footloose days of On The Road and The Subterraneans, and culminating in the disenchantment of the later books. In Satori in Paris, chronicling his journey to France in 1965, he undertakes a quest to trace his Breton heritage (his full name was Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac), marking a shift from wanderlust to “roots”, as if to somehow ground himself at last1. He notes the etymology of his name which, given his lifestyle hitherto, is ironic: Ker = house; Ouac = field2.
It’s no surprise that Kerouac viewed with distaste the thousands of teenagers who, inspired by his work, dropped out of society in the 50s and 60s, and from whose own quests spirituality was generally absent.
“I’m supposed to be King of the Beatniks according to the newspapers, so but at the same time I’m sick and tired of all the endless enthusiasms of new young kids trying to know me and pour out all their lives into me”
In Desolation Angels (that late, bitter, dispirited book whose mood so shocked me after the freewheeling On The Road), he mentions his earlier ideal of
“a “rucksack revolution” with all over America “millions of Dharma Bums” going up to the hills to meditate and ignore society”
The fact that the “meditate” part of the brief was largely ignored by the lifestyle beatniks is no doubt part of what left him so fed up with the movement he’d helped to birth:
“at the very moment the manuscript of [On The] Road was being linotyped for publication…I was already sick of the whole subject”
To anyone reading Kerouac there’s no avoiding the downward arc of his life. What’s curious is how in Lonesome Traveler (published 1960), one of the stories is a brief retelling of his summer spent as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in Washington state. Titled “Alone on a Mountaintop” it climaxes with a moment of revelation:
“what exists is God in His Emanation, what does not exist in God in His Peaceful Neutrality, what neither exists nor does not exist is God’s immortal primordial dawn”
However, the first part of Desolation Angels (published 1965) is a more full account of that summer, from which the epiphany is absent, and instead is full of foreshadowings of the disenchantment that awaited on his descent into civilisation.
1 Wanderlust had now become aimlessness:
“always an ephemeral ‘visitor’ to the Coast never really involved with anyone’s lives there because I’m always ready to fly back across the country but not to any life of my own on the other end either” (Big Sur)
2 Though a native speaker of Quebecois, it’s a brave or foolish man who tries to tell Parisians how to “properly” pronounce French words. The ossified French of Canada may be more “authentic” in that it’s closer to a more primal form (a spurious argument) but what value does it have if no-one in France uses it?
Kerouac, Jack: Lonesome Traveler
Kerouac, Jack: On The Road
Kerouac, Jack: Desolation Angels
Kerouac, Jack: Satori in Paris
Kerouac, Jack: Big Sur
Huxley, Aldous: The Doors of Perception / Heaven and Hell
photo: Jamie Gorman