Saturday, September 8, 2007

Notes on a Jack Kerouac

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photo by John Cohen
The idea that Jack Kerouac is a great American writer and that On the Road is a great American novel has been an ongoing hard sell by his publishers and those who own the copyrights on his books ever since I can remember. It seemed that way since I first encountered his name in high school. One read the books one was supposed to in one’s teens—Slaughterhouse 5, Steppenwolf, Naked Lunch—and however much one might have changed their estimation of their youthful heroes, one was also expected to hold their first opinion of Kerouac and his particular book for all the time. One only grew to love it more over the decades, so the gestalt went, and it was unthinkable that a literate person from the boomer generation would have less than glorious things to say about Kerouac and the revolution he inspired. But all this is too much, and enough already.I never liked the novel, I never cared for Kerouac, although I lied that I liked him in deference to peer pressure and the prospects of scoring with hip young girls I wanted to bed, but it was a lie extracting a cost, and now I say that one might write an article of those who didn’t care for Kerouac, thought him a mediocre scribe, a balled-up novelist, an indulgent you crossed the street if you saw him coming toward you.

The look on his face would be a smirk, maybe a half grin, the eyes swimming as if in a jar of viscous fluid, with just a glint of hope radiating from his jellied irises that he might borrow some money from you. On the Road by Jack Kerouac was a book I detested when I read in high school, and it remains the most overrated book by an American writer I've encountered. There are moments of real poetry here, yes, but the waxing and waning in dated and contrived hip argot were embarrassing to read through. It was during a bloody argument about merits of Jack Kerouac's writing when the woman I was arguing with, a twenty-five year old who planned to be a penniless, wine drinking mooch like her hero Jack told me “You know Ted, your very extreme opinion of him stinks of jealousy.”Resentment is the better term, the sort of anger arising when you realize that you've uncountable hours under siege by the Kerouac cult as the thick weave of truisms and sagging homages to the spirit of rebellion poured forth. This is all time you can never reclaim. I have no reason to be jealous of a man who drank himself to death before the age of fifty while living with his mother. It is impossible to be jealous of a man who wrote so poorly. The truth is that after spending nearly twenty years trying to accommodate Kerouac's work with by reading many of his books and a good many biographies and secondary sources about he and his fellow beats, I admitted to my innermost self that my gut instinct was right, Jack wasn't a good writer and that his continued popularity has more to do with a cultist hype that surrounds the work and persona of Ayn Rand; there's an invested interest in making sure that the author is always spoken of in the most regaling terms.

Others like me, cursed with literature degrees, broad readings and an appreciation of craft in the service of real inspiration, regale him far less, finding his writings charmless, undercooked, ill-prepared, all sizzle and no steak. Those willing to say that Kerouac's oeuvre was wholesale bullshit are in the minority, as the Jack Kerouac Industry shows no sign of slowing down. Every smokestack is fired up, and what might have been clear skies are blackened all the more with his loopy circumlocutions. So much of what has passed as analysis and informed commentary on Kerouac's work has been in the form of undigested memoir and idealized recollection when the author would recall their first encounter with "On the Road" or "The Subterraneans" and how the experience changed their lives, changed the way they thought about experience, changed the very culture of American Life. Personal anecdotes and testimonials, at best, multiplied by decades, nearly all exhibiting soft thinking regarding Kerouac's skills as a writer. Such easy estimations of who I think are better, greater writers (Mailer, Pynchon, DeLillo, and Gaddis) would be unacceptable to the demanding reader, Kerouac's critical reputation gets a pass. My compressed gripe, grumpy autobiography as much as condensed criticism, is personal, sure, but no more than the love notes Kerouac receives from his fans. In this context, my squib is of no less value, and it still makes a point.

And it's not all Jack, of course, otherwise, I wouldn't have included that brief bit of pretending to like his writing for reasons extraneous to literary appreciation. I was petty, vain, insecure, the whole teenage/college freshman shot, but as fucked up as I was in my unintellectual use of Kerouac's name, it typifies what I think consumers of the counterculture name brands were actually doing, using the Beats, Buddhism, drugs and varying degrees of political cant to satisfy baser desires. What people saw in Kerouac wasn't literature or art but an invitation to indulge The Fuck Up Within.
Image result for jack kerouac
photo by John Cohen
it reads to me like Kerouac was still chasing after the rapid stream style of both Joyce and Thomas Wolfe; there is the quality of someone beset with twitches and jitters who is talking in a charging rush of language, attempting to get everything, everyone and every idea in the confines of a few single, very long sentences, but who hasn't the capacity to leave himself a frame of reference and imagine the qualities and textures of things other than himself. Joyce gives us Dublin in a single day, Virginia Woolf conveyed a mind negotiating the harder edges of a real world, and Thomas Wolfe, I think, offered a richer record of his narrator's experience as his novels moved slowly through their rhapsodic, if glacial paces. Growth, ambiguity, an increasing complexity of spirit and worldview are variously witnessed by the reader, and it's these qualities that make the novels moving. And dumbfounding, in the best sense. Kerouac for me rarely sounded as if he ever got up out of his chair, for all his rapid chatter about trains, highways, hitchhiking. The failure of his work is that he sounds like a man who's trying to convince himself that he's having a good time. All the same, the assumption is that all these varied, subjective responses to OtR need to be positive ones and that a subjective reaction, loudly and assertively put forward, is not allowed.

The sheer popularity of the book does not confer innate brilliance upon it; this is herd-think, and it's an ironic situation at odds with a book extolling non-conformism. The attempt is to inoculate the book against criticism, whether as abrasively subjective like mine or subtler and more considered another reader might offer up, and this turns Kerouac and the mindset his core adherents into something resembling zealots. There’s been a cottage industry of Kerouac biographies and commentary over the last twenty years—the bookstore I worked in prior to my current job had a least thirty recent, in print secondary sources on the man, nearly all of it subscribing to Kerouac’s greatness. The recent coverage of Kerouac and the anniversary of On the Road has more or less with what’s taken to be a given as to the book’s high merit. It’s my experience, over many years, that saying you don’t like On the Road causes makes many folks give you the stink eye. Some act threatened and treat me like I’m mentally ill. And it gets rather predictable, speaking of which, for Kerouacians to try to get me to change my mind with the usual dogma of liberation, freedom, non-conformism, bizarrely.

This makes me suspect all the more that those enamored of On the Road from an early age did so because they wanted to a non-conformist just like everybody else. This is hero worship and a cult of personality stuff, and an undiluted form of celebrity obsession. It is less Kerouac's talent the readership is responding than the image he represents, carefully manufactured and maintained by publishers and the owners of his estate.A defender of the novel wrote me that “Life doesn't have any structure. It doesn't have any narrative arc. And Kerouac blows away all that rigid contrivance with one brilliant explosion of language. “ I scratched an itch, considered the statement, and got long-winded all over again. Life, actually, does have structure, in the communities we create and the institutions we formulate to hold them together, and in the culture that is shared that provides a diverse citizenry with a sense that there is a purpose to where and the way we live, and that there are the means to improve, correct, or change the conditions of our lives. This is the structure. While life has no narrative arc, per se, literature certainly does, and it is in the art of that narrative that the contingencies of life, all those things that one cannot predict (let alone prevent from happening) are contained in fictive form and which can be appreciated as drama, comedy, moral instruction, what have you. Literature is a means to make sense of life, to provide resolutions to brief joys and large traumas, and it is a way to prepare a reader for whatever strange turn one's life might come to. It's funny that some of us get antsy when Kerouac's legacy is challenged.

In any event, I'm hardly alone among readers who've had enough of the uncritical attention Kerouac continues to get. No doubt this thread will be overwhelmed with lovers of Kerouac's work, but let it not be said that a dissenting vote wasn't cast when this curious coronation was taking place. One can’t diminish the quality of the camaraderie, though. Their friendships were and continue to be strong and powerful. I've had the good fortune to meet some of the Beats --Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti--and what became obvious as they indulged my pesky questions was that these writers spoke to one another, and what they talked about was literally everything that came to mind. Each poet's works inform the work of the others, and all of them were quick to acknowledge the influences their friends had on the respective bodies of work. My particular gripe to the side--that too much of the first-thought-best-thought stuff found its way between book covers--this is a fellowship to be admired. On the Road is a book one ought to read, I think, in order to know something of a part of a generation responded to the post- WWll experience, and with any luck one does not stop there, thinking they've read the definitive book of the time. Other Beat writings are more crucial, especially Howl by Allen Ginsberg, one of the great American poems of the 20th century; in line, rhythm, imagery, and the contrasting and clashing elements of rage, despair and eureka! quality laughs, Ginsberg's poem supersedes the best of Kerouac's prose and is a fully convincing evocation of the deadened conformity of 50s culture that agitated and motivated he and his fellow writers,.


  1. A spirited and heartfelt attack upon an icon like Jack Kerouac demands a serious response. A blast of off-the-cuff hero-worship is not called for here. To defend the King of the Beats, a good deal of ground must be conceded before the case can be made.

    It strikes me that your post is as much an attack upon Kerouac’s devotees as upon the man himself. Obviously, he is no more responsible for his cult than Jesus Christ, Woody Guthrie or Jack Lord are for theirs. It’s well-established that Kerouac disliked the kids who took On the Road as an instruction manual for juvenile delinquency or irreverence. Cultists usually find a way to invert and sour the best things about their objects of worship. The idea that Kerouac’s way of writing – much less his approach to life – is applicable to everyone is foolish.

    Kerouac admittedly does have many failings to answer for. His career trajectory is a sorry one – years of literary gestation, a strong breakthrough (On the Road), then an acceptable follow-up (The Dharma Bums) followed by a rapid, depressing decline. He did not husband his talents well, to say the least. Whatever command of form he had went soft as he became overwhelmed by his sorrows and inability to cope with life. Kerouac let the world break his heart. Novels like Big Sur and Vanity of Duluoz are inarguably maudlin and messy. I’d guess that most of the Kerouac-fanatics you meet don’t talk much about those books. They probably freeze Jack in his late 20s and early 30s, before his troubles choked off his talent.

    That said, there’s a point where my criticism ends and my praise begins. To appreciate what Kerouac did, it’s probably best to dispense with the idea that he wrote fiction or novels in the conventional sense. You have to call what you do something, and any other name but fiction didn’t seem to fit what he did at the time. But comparing him with the likes of a Pyncheon or a DiLillo seems a bit off the mark. It might be more apt to class him with essayists like Emerson or Thoreau (though these well-mannered Yankees might blanch at being lumped in with a wine-spattered Canuck). Kerouac had certain personal longings and religious views he wanted to express and he did it through “characters” who were slightly-altered versions of people he knew. In a sense, his “novels” were essays, or more accurately, expanded letters. Don’t forget that one of his main inspirations for On the Road were the maniacal effusions Neal Cassidy used to mail him. Take away the requirements of good fiction-writings and Kerouac’s virtues are easier to see. It’s significant that his greatest influence was upon writers who were not novelists: Bob Dylan and Hunter S. Thompson especially come to mind.

    Kerouac did say that he wanted to rattle off a string of masterpieces like Shakespeare did, but intentions aside, I don’t think he truly wanted to be a great novelist. In On the Road, he doesn’t even try to sustain a sense of drama or construct a well-balanced plot. Perhaps the book is a kind of fractured picaresque tale, without real victories or defeats, just incidents. There’s something pathological about the blind spots in the book – Jack cannot admit to Sal Paradise’s erotic attachment to Dean Moriarty, cannot square his desire to marry a good woman and settle down with his manic and irresponsible way of life. If a novel is a work of considered wisdom laid down along accepted patterns of craftsmanship, On the Road is a dubious effort. But I would argue that – consciously or not – it was not Kerouac’s intention to write a book along those lines.

    Some of your more specific criticisms about Kerouac are perceptive, though I might take them to different conclusions. To say that he led some of his admirers to “indulge The Fuck Up Within” is accurate – in fact, Jack pays homage to Dean as “The Holy Goof” in On the Road. Of course, the fact that he makes a hero out of a reckless goofball is not a bad artistic choice, even if it is a bad moral one. I’d go further and say that his admiration for punks, grelbs and slackers allowed him to point out some larger truths about the world around him. In On the Road, Sal steals large quantities of food from the military base while on duty as a security guard. “I suddenly realized that everybody in America is a natural-born thief,” Sal says – which, if you know the history (and present state) of our country, seems like a defensible statement. The sort of primal amorality Kerouac puts into Sal, Dean and their friends is a part of the American character, and to portray it unashamedly, with a sort of adolescent giggle, captures something real.

    Kerouac’s lack of responsibility – to the novelist’s craft, to conventional decency and to his own well-being – can be seen as offensive. But I think it has value as confession and as art, even if it advocates something harmful. I largely agree with your statement that in his writing Kerouac “hasn’t the capacity to leave himself a frame of reference and imagine the qualities and textures of things other than himself.” For all his desire to celebrate common folk and the American landscape, he was a subjectivist who fused immediate experience with memories and dreams. He didn’t love any particular road as much as The Road, the idealized platonic road beyond the physical ones. In this tendency, he resembled Emerson, who felt that the natural world had no meaning outside individual perception. It’s not particularly important that Kerouac may or may not resemble the Sage of Concord. But I would say further that Kerouac’s subjectivism is very much in the American grain and probably accounts for some of his enduring popularity. His vision of “joy, kicks, darkness” is self-centered, in accord with the sort of stubborn Don’t-Tread-on-Me ideal of freedom that has prevailed in this country since its founding and mitigated against any tendencies towards collective social action. It’s no accident Kerouac ended his life as a cranky reactionary. On the Road may not be a book of liberation, but it is a book of libertarianism. And as such, it tells us something valuable about our country.

    Finally, I’d like to say something about the actual quality of Kerouac’s prose. Let’s concentrate upon On the Road, because that’s his most sustained full-length performance as a writer. (“October in the Railroad Earth” would probably rank as his best shorter piece.) I can’t agree that, when he was functioning on all cylinders, his work was “charmless.” I would acknowledge some truth to your remark that his work was “all sizzle and no steak” – in fact, I think Jack would agree as well, though he’d probably do it with some goofy self-putdown. There’s a moment captured during a recording session where a musician ask Kerouac if style or content is the most important thing in writing. Style, Jack says – and, for what he was going for, he is exactly correct. The sizzle IS the steak; the flow and texture of the words are more important than what they are describing. When Kerouac could apply this principle to something he cared about – particularly when writing about music – he could be brilliant. Re-read his descriptions of jazz jam sessions in On the Road (particularly pages 163-168). See how he captures the silliness, the playfulness of music created spontaneously – beyond the actual events he talks about, he translates the freedom and irresponsibility(there’s that word again) of what these musicians are doing into language. This is not instructive, uplifting or even conventionally-insightful writing. But it does illuminate the experience of a given moment in a way that few writers before him were capable of doing. There are passages where Kerouac describes Dean Moriarty’s crazed driving style that are nearly as effective. It would be corny, maybe, to say there is something kinetic in his writing. It might be even cornier to say that his prose could be visionary. But I would say that his straining to capture something elusive beyond the frame of familiar reference is, at least – charming.

    “Life, actually, does have structure” – fair enough. But isn’t that structure renewed every day by fresh experience? William James stated that “My experience is what I agree to attend to” – a dictum informing his idea of a steam of consciousness moving ahead of the mind’s self-awareness. To deny the self-evident structure of an individual’s life is an act of, well, goofiness. But the imposed structure of society has no more reality than the assumption that one’s inner life is a chaos of feelings and impressions. It seems to me that a writer can do a service by chipping away at the structures of society – there are plenty of other forces around working night and day to keep that structure in place. Remember that the world Kerouac is describing in On the Road is not the 1950s, but the late 1940s, when the regimented atmosphere of wartime still hung in the air. The threat of personal disintegration is very real in the book – Dean dreams (fondly!) of a future where he and Sal are bums scrounging in alleys for food. What is the bedrock structure of a person’s life if they do not choose to accept the validity of American society? It’s a question worth asking and Kerouac asks it, both in the form and the content of his writing.

    Jack Kerouac surely is not a good role model for success as a writer or a human being. But in his own fitful and sloppy way, he was a man of vision who anticipated how we communicate in the 21st Century. Your own blog post about his work – a combination of personal confession, reminiscence, philosophical musing and factual reference, expressed in long, flowing prose lines – is not unlike something Kerouac might’ve written. You don’t have to worship Jack to see his long shadow across the road.

  2. I do appreciate your thoughtful and well written response, mm, and I do acknowledge that Kerouac did have a native genius for language that I think was, tragically, obscured by the writer's urge to embrace experience in a hurry. In a hurry he was, influenced by both the elusive notion of zen to be in the moment (or better, be the moment) and the zipping virtuosity of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell's jazz improvisations. Up tempo, crazy fast, instant configurations of genius adding up to a pulsing , nerve rattling kind of genius, these elements inspired Kerouac, but even at these speeds his heros, buth musicians, writers and even zen masters, were required to take their time and learn the dictates of their disciplines; Parker's or Coltrane's or James' fluidity and near perfection of instant creation are the result of endless hours of practice and learning to go beyond one's habit of relying on easy conclusions, tired tropes or fussy,pretentious, hyperventilated phrase making and considering the sound, the effect, the expressiveness of the words their putting together. One learns, hopefully,to be elegant, poetic and original with alacrity. Jack Kerouac could indeed be moving and genuinely beautiful in what he wrote, but these moments are exceptions--there is such a need in virtually all his work to make experience more vivid, more real with overwriting that his adventures through life seemed more strained that naturally forthcoming.

  3. I would like to add that Van Morrison’s much-esteemed Astral Weeks shows clear Kerouac influence. Think of the opening line of the album’s title song, how it flows out in one long impressionistic gush of words: “If I ventured in the slipstream between the viaducts of your dreams…” Some of the words don’t make sense and a lot of the sentiment is sticky and vague, but the sort of dewy-eyed mysticism of it is palpable –and very much Kerouacian in style. Astral Weeks’s obsession with childhood, the specificity of places named, the sort of furtive sexuality displayed, also harkens back to Jack. And check this odd phrasing, from “Madame George”: “Marching with the soldier boy behind/he much older now, with hat on, drinking wine…” This sort of clipped, present-tense language could be straight out of On the Road. (Burroughs sometimes adopted this kind of speech pattern, too). Morrison acknowledged Kerouac specifically as an influence in his song “Cleaning Windows” some 12 years later. I cite all this to underscore my point that Kerouac’s greatest influence may have been upon writers other than novelists. Song lyric language – which emphasizes emotion over scholarship, character development and clearly-focused intelligence – is more in keeping with the Kerouac spirit than the craft of novel-writing, probably.


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