|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.
|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,.