(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2013)
“Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.” Jack Kerouac
More than fifty years after his novel was first published (in 1957), a movie has finally been made based on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I have not yet seen the film, but because the movie was written and directed by Walter Salles, the brilliant Brazilian filmmaker who made the most magnificent Central Station, I wager his movie of On the Road will be beautifully made. I will also wager that On the Road, the movie, will owe much more to Salles’s genius than to the text after which it is named.
“I have suffered a great deal from writers who have quoted this or that sentence of mine either out of its context or in juxtaposition to come incongruous matter which quit distorted my meaning, or destroyed it altogether.” Alfred North Whitehead
Any meaningful discussion of Kerouac’s On the Road must take into account when the book was written and published. The book is a loose-knit rambling account of male friendship set in America in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when automobiles and the advent of suburbia were swiftly reshaping the physical and social landscape of the country and accelerating the breakdown of the social mores that had defined America for generations. Outside of this specific historical context, much of the novel will have little or no relevancy for most contemporary readers.
I think many of the complaints (and they are legion) about On the Road being badly written, boring, misogynistic, juvenile, shallow, and a colossal waste of the reader’s time are the result of readers hoping the book will reveal itself to be a timeless masterpiece, a revelation that will elude the reader unless he is that rare bird who enjoys Kerouac’s speedy chatty name-dropping word flow that is short on plot and continuity and long on…word flow, which in the context of the literary style-revolution of the 1950’s is significant. I think it no coincidence that Samuel Beckett’s highly abstract existential play Waiting For Godot, about two guys hopelessly lost on the road, was written and produced at roughly the same historical moment that On the Road was written and published, both works eschewing many of the structural and grammatical rules that theretofore governed their respective literary forms.
“All our best men are laughed at in this nightmare land.” Jack Kerouac
I first tried to read On the Road when I was thirteen, a paperback edition being available on our living room bookshelf. I was hunting for sex scenes and hopeful of finding them because the cover illustration on the 25-cent paperback featured a sexy young stud in the foreground with little pictures of scantily clad women in the background, including one picture of a couple in bed making love. Racy! Alas, careful skimming of what was to my young mind nearly unintelligible prose, uncovered only a few references to people having sex or having had sex, with almost nothing remotely juicy or graphic or titillating. Even the Mexican whorehouse adventure—a sort of climax to On the Road—was not particularly sexy, but rather pathetic. Fortunately, I would soon discover Lady Chatterley’s Lover and need no other masturbatory aid for years to come.
“Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” Jack Kerouac
In 1966, when I was sixteen, I was introduced to the San Francisco Beat poets by my friend Rico, and over the next several years I attended poetry readings featuring Philip Whalen (my favorite), Lew Welch, David Meltzer, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Allen Ginsberg. In retrospect, I find it fascinating that though all these poets owed much of their notoriety to their intimate connections to the world-famous Jack Kerouac, I never heard a single mention of Jack at any of those readings. When I was twenty, and only because I was so enamored of Philip Whalen’s poetry, I attempted to read Kerouac’s Dharma Bums (starring fictionalized versions of Whalen and Snyder) but could not force myself to read more than a few pages, no matter how many times I tried. Then shortly after giving up on Dharma Bums, I learned that Kerouac had recently died at the age of forty-seven from cirrhosis of the liver caused by alcoholism.
“Write in recollection and amazement for yourself.” Jack Kerouac
And so I attained the ripe old age of thirty-two without ever having read any Kerouac (other than my teenaged skimming of On the Road). I was living in Sacramento and very much enjoying the local poetry scene when I was invited to participate in a show entitled October in the Railroad Earth, a celebration of Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets. My fellow readers were D.R. Wagner, Patrick Grizzell, and Bari Kennedy. The format of our show, which became an annual event for many years thereafter, was that we would read works by Kerouac and his Beat poet pals in the first act and our own work in the second act. The readings took place in October in various dives around Sacramento, and for the first few years one of us was assigned to read October in the Railroad Earth, Kerouac’s poetic prose account of riding the train from San Francisco to Gilroy in October.
When I confessed to D.R. Wagner (a great visionary poet) that I had never read any Kerouac and had no idea what to read for the show, D.R. suggested I find a little something in On the Road. So to find that little something I decided to read the book and see what jumped out at me. Alas, if Kerouac’s word flow was largely unintelligible to me as a thirteen-year-old, On the Road held even less interest for me at thirty-two. And so I resorted to skimming, which brought me to a passage in which the narrator (the fictional Kerouac) hooks up with a young woman he meets on a bus—a passage I hoped to perform with some success for an audience of inebriated poets and poetry lovers.
However, when I previewed my reading for an audience of friends after supper one night, the unanimous judgment was that despite my best efforts, the narrative was difficult to follow and essentially pointless. And so, though I knew I was committing a great sacrilege, I spent some time editing the passage, adding a descriptive line here and there, and clarifying the myriad antecedents therein, something Kerouac seemed little concerned with, as if he assumed his readers needed no such clarity.
“It is not my fault that certain so-called bohemian elements have found in my writings something to hang their peculiar beatnik theories on.” Jack Kerouac
When the night of our performance arrived—the venue appropriately a subterranean bar (appropriate because one of Kerouac’s novels is entitled The Subterraneans)—the place was packed with Kerouac aficionados and poets and the special sort of people drawn to such literary social alcoholic events. And as I listened to D.R. and Pat and Bari read their Kerouac selections, I was filled with dread about what I was about to do: read my rewritten Jack to some of the only people on earth who might know that I had dared revise the work of their god. Was I crazy? Well, I was young and arrogant, which sufficed, so I took my turn, read with zeal, and garnered loud applause for my perfidy.
During the interminable intermission, I was approached by an enormous man with a prodigious mustache and a menacing look in his eyes. I braced myself for condemnation, but none was forthcoming. On the contrary, he shook my hand and declared, “You nailed it, man. You got the rhythm of his words absolutely spot on. I could hear the bass line going as you read. Bravo.”
And hot on the heels of the mustachioed behemoth came a gorgeous woman wearing a slinky sheath that clung most pleasingly to her many admirable curves. She clasped both my hands in both of hers and gushed, “Wow, I hate to admit, but I never really got Kerouac until now. I just…he never made sense to me, but as you read that scene I saw everything so clearly, like a fabulous movie. Thank you.”
At the next year’s Kerouac reading, I read Jack’s October in the Railroad Earth, and I didn’t change a word; and as I read that lovely flow of words I really got what Jack was trying to do with language, which was, I think, to sing like a jazz musician, talking and emoting through his instrument of words while staying open, wide open, to the feelings of the moment.