|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 combination 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. However, I lied that I liked him due to peer pressure and the prospects of scoring with hip young girls I wanted to bed. It was a lie extracting a cost. 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.
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 of dated and contrived hip argot were embarrassing to read through. It was during a bloody argument about the 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." 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. Resentment is the better term, the sort of anger arising when you realize that you have 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, and 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 by reading many of his books and a good many biographies and secondary sources about him 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 genuine 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 the incident, 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 whom I think are better, more extraordinary 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, and condensed criticism are personal, sure, but no more than the love notes Kerouac receives from his fans. My squib is of no less value in this context, 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 nonintellectual 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. In Kerouac, what people saw wasn't literature or art, but an invitation to indulge in The Fuck-Up Within.
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 which 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 apart from 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 more successful record of his narrator's experience as his novels moved slowly through their rhapsodic, if glacial paces. The reader witnessed growth, ambiguity, increasing complexity of spirit, and worldview variously, and these qualities make the novels move. 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 On the Road need to be positive ones and that a personal 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. This turns Kerouac and the mindset of 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 before my current job had a most minor thirty recent, in secondary print 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 acts threatened and treated me like I was mentally ill. And it gets somewhat 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 be non-conformist, just like everybody else. This is hero-worship, 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, by itself, literature certainly does. In the art of that narrative, the contingencies of life, all those things that one cannot predict (let alone prevent from happening) are contained in the fictive form and 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 significant 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.
One can't diminish the quality of the camaraderie, though. Their friendships were and continue to be solid and robust. I've had the good fortune to meet some Beats --Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti--and what became evident 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, to know something of a part of a generation responding 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; inline, 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 compelling evocation of the deadened conformity of 50s culture that agitated and motivated him and his fellow writers.
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 rushing. In a hurry he was, influenced by both the elusive notion of zen to be presently (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 heroes, both 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 than naturally forthcoming.