Monday, October 22, 2007

You Don't Know Jack...Kerouac, That Is

Guest post from Gary today:

Been reading a new book, Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They’re Not What You Think), by John Leland. In it, he argues for a reading of On the Road as not only an adult coming-of-age novel, but as one which purposefully promotes a certain kind of maturity. This of course flies in the face of the book’s established status as a mid-century icon of American hedonism and resistance to authority. As Leland writes:

“’My writing is a teaching,’ Kerouac noted in his journal, and this was the point, even if readers didn’t get it at first. “One of the greatest incentives of the writer is the long business of getting his teachings out and accepted.” He was twenty-six when he started On the Road, shaking off a brief failed marriage and the death of his father, embarking on the next phase of his life. The new book would teach the way. To prepare, he wrote down eleven ‘true thoughts’ about himself, many of them vanities he hoped to overcome along his characters’ travels. ‘I’m ready to grow up if they’ll let me,’ he wrote. The product of his labors, he was sure, would be a ‘powerful and singularly gloomy book…but good.’ In due course the narrator learns and dispenses many lessons, often in the form of parables and revelations, providing a guide to alternative adulthood: What would Jack do? Contrary to its rebel rep, On the Road is not about being Peter Pan; it is about becoming an adult.”
“A guide to alternative adulthood”! I like this phrase, though I am tempted to think, with what I have read so far, that Leland wants to have his cake and eat it too, and might simplify too much. All great artists (and Kerouac was that), are a mass of tensions and contradictions, maturities and immaturities.

The book does amass one of the best collections of unusual (b-side, if you will) quotes, from Kerouac and friends. A sampling of the cornucopia of quotes:
The fact of the matter is, I’m not a bestseller because people aren’t educated enough yet: just wait and see what the Astronauts of the Year 2,000 B.C. [sic] will be reading on Venus and Mars (‘t’wont be James Michener). Letter to Stella Sampas, 1965

I don’t know how to drive, just typewrite. Letter to N. Cassady, 1953.

I’ll have seen 41 states in all. Is that enough for an American novelist? Letter to sister, 1947.

The things I write are what an editor usually throws away and what a psychiatrist finds most interesting. Remark to SF Examiner, 1957.

You fluctuate, and fluctuate beautifully—fluctuation is your virtue. Cassady to Kerouac.

On one occasion, when she [K’s mother] said in Ginsberg’s presence that Hitler should have finished the job, he [Ginsberg] recalled, “[Jack] said her, ‘You dirty cunt, why did you say that?’ and she said, ‘You fucking prick, you heard me say that before.’ And then began an argument of such violence and filth I had never heard in any household in my life. I was actually shocked.”
He never had a beard in his life, although I think he’d be better off myself if he had one. K’s mother to Al Aronowitz, 1959.
Whew! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The book is filled with such tidbits, and worth reading. It begs the question, though, of how could Kerouac and OTR have lasted this long without giving us more than pure hedonism. Those of us who obsessed about the man in our younger days—and also read him and all about him—have always been aware of his raw luck in tapping into the Zeitgeist and his combo of luck and talent in surrounding himself with characters whose lives could be told and triaged to fascinate us all. The power of this book is that it’s one of the quirkier, yet clear (and relatively short!) reads on Kerouac that’s ever been done. And check out Entertainment Weekly’s Mark Harris in the 10/26 issue. Harris laments the omnipresence of the “Peter Pan paradigm” in current popular culture, concluding that the lead character in AMC’s Mad Men, set in the 1960 world of NY advertising, is a “relic” and a “terrible role model. But in his struggle not to lose his soul, he is also, indisputably, a grown-up. No wonder he suddenly seems like the sexiest thing on television.” Kerouac would have been about the same age as that lead character in 1960. And he’s still influential and sexy (literally and figuratively) to each new generation, too. He didn’t hope he’d die before he got old, he just couldn’t help it. He fascinates us because his successes and failures were always wrapped together. He was indeed a boy-man (“Return to Neverland” is the title of Harris’ article), sometimes bumbling, sometimes barrel-chested.

Read Leland’s book; he generates new spokes in the Kerouacian wheel.