Me & Jack Kerouac
The first time I ever heard the name Jack Kerouac I was fifteen years old and my dad was cracking a joke about my friend James Thiede who wanted to take a bus to California: “you guys want to be Jack Kerouac now huh?” I had never heard the name but man somehow right after hearing that I did want to be Jack Kerouac. Or at least know who he was. The name alone–the rhyme, the funny French vowels in the surname, it just sounds endearing. So I checked out On the Road from the Redford library. It turns out it was the perfect time in my life to come across him, I was going into my junior year of high school that fall which meant that my friends had licenses for the first time (I didn’t get mine until I was seventeen), which then in turn meant everyone was able to really start partaking in the activities high schoolers tend to partake in at night. Just by nature of having cars suddenly the world seemed so open to adventure. In retrospect many of these “adventures” have certainly been romanticized by nostalgia, after all driving around from parking lot to parking lot smoking pot after football games and drinking your parents’ weird liqueurs while listening to Built to Spill in the back of a minivan isn’t exactly Treasure Island, but reading Jack Kerouac made it all feel the more fantastic (in the most literal “of fantasy” sense). Reading Jack Kerouac that fall was the first time in my life my eyes were really opened to how fiction can make the mundane magical, how with just the slightest bit of imaginative perspective the everyday world could be transformed into the sublime. I was sixteen reading this book about this guy riding around with friends getting high and drunk “in the American night” looking for something to give life meaning and purpose and here I was doing the same thing for the first time. And for the first time in my life I saw fiction not as just entertainment or a window into some other world but also as some weird sort of funhouse mirror that could reflect life and refract it back upon itself in ways that made it seem more beautiful, more full of purpose. Reading Jack Kerouac meant that suddenly eating cheeseburgers in the glow of a diner at night could be beatific, and that drinking beer in an apartment while listening to records with friends could have the potential for religious experience.
Of course a lot of this is me being sixteen and having the sort of dopey, romantic feelings sixteen-year-olds have, but those are exactly the sort of feelings Kerouac plays too, he finds what Springsteen referred to as the “waltz between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy.” His perspective was so childlike and wondrous that he saw his life not only as adventure and material for fiction but also as part of this big intertextual tapestry of American history and literature. He sees Steinbeck characters in the faces of lunch cart cooks, sees the rolling land of America as the result of Paul Bunyan’s axe and other folk mythologies. The American landscape is one giant Thomas Hart Benton mural through Kerouac’s eyes. And so when reading Kerouac, I began to do the same as him- projecting the history of American fiction onto my reality- seeing Dean Moriarty and Carlo Marx in the faces of friends I was having my own nocturnal American adventures with.
I know for a lot of people it’s the bebop rhythm of his writing (“glug a slug from the jug”) or the spontaneous prose approach he had borrowed from the modernists and placed in a jazz improvisation context– writing full sized novels in weeks at a time holed up in bathrooms on Benzedrine—but for me it’s less about the form and process and more about his mood and tone. It’s that aforementioned childlike wonder that really gets me with Kerouac, the romance he finds in simple scenes like eating beans and hot dogs over a fire while hopping trains in The Dharma Bums, or finding redemption from his downward spiral into alcoholism through something as kind of simple and naïve as looking at the stars in his backyard at the end of Big Sur (“on soft spring nights I’ll stand in the yard under the stars, something good will come from all things yet, and it will be golden and eternal just like that”). Perhaps the best example is the famous closing passage of On the Road. After following an over three-hundred-page journey that spans several years of traveling coast to coast across America all through his eyes he tracks the camera back to a bird’s eye view of America, and in one giant paragraph-sized sentence he paints the entire country going to bed:
“So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight… the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all the rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.”
He’s also at his best when his writing appeals directly to the senses. Short of Hemingway I don’t think I’ve read anyone who’s better at writing about food, from the apple pie in On the Road (“it was getting better as I got deeper into Iowa, the pie bigger, the ice cream richer”) to the breakfast he cooks for himself in The Railroad Earth:
“and make raisin toast by sitting it on a little wire I’d specially bent to place over the hotplate, the toast crackled up, there, I spread margarine on the still red hot toast and it too would crackle and sink in the golden, among burnt raisins and this was my toast. Then two eggs gently slowly fried in soft margarine in my little skidrow frying pan about half as thick as a dime in fact less, a little piece of tiny tin you could bring on a camp trip—the eggs slowly fluffed in there and swelled from butter steams and I threw garlic salt on them and when they were ready the yellow of them had been slightly filmed with a cooked white at the top from the tin cover I’d put over the frying pan, so now they were ready, and out they came, I spread them out on top of my already prepared potatoes which had been boiled in small pieces and then mixed with the bacon I’d already fried in small pieces, kind of raggedly mashed bacon potatoes, with eggs on top steaming, and on the side lettuce, with peanut nearby on side.”
This is the stuff that I love. It’s so simple. The guy devotes an entire page long paragraph to the breakfast he cooks for himself. That appetite too. You read that and suddenly you’re hungry, he’s great at that type of thing. If Kerouac writes about bowling, suddenly you want to go bowling.
Now I also should say there’s also a lot to Kerouac’s oeuvre that hasn’t exactly held up for me in the last seven years since I first read him, and specifically a lot of what I don’t like is directly connected to what I love so much. There are times for me when his childlike wonder and optimism can drift into the proto-hippy abstract a little too much, times when I wish Jack would kind of see the world through more of a rational, adult point of view. There are also times when this rose-tinted POV and childlike appetite for adventure can cast a shadow on his ethics, such as the myriad number of scenes throughout On the Road when you just want to grab Jack by the collar and beat it into his head that Neal Cassady isn’t a good guy. He has three different wives with children all across the country and here he is still behaving like he’s a kid, manically running back and forth across the country answering to nobody and living solely in search of “kicks”. Not to mention the different times both he and Jack discuss wanting to have sex with high school girls. That stuff pretty obviously can’t be reconciled. And as much as I’d like to section off the Jack Kerouac that I love and admire from the Jack Kerouac that makes me want to gag and regret ever mentioning that he’s a literary hero of mine, that’s just not possible. Those parts are connected.
But while it can be disheartening to see your heroes pale when you revisit them later on, the more critical approach that comes with rereading someone you loved in your youth as an adult I think can actually deepen the meaning of the work and your connection to it. When I first read Kerouac there was an authority that came with it. This was serious literature. The context of mystery and coolness that surrounded the book in my mind when I first found it that summer in high school meant that no matter what was written inside I was going to think it the greatest writing ever. But as I keep rereading it over the years I come at it each time with a more critical eye and I begin to pay attention to the authority of context that comes with reading writers that have been canonized. I start to notice that the Neal Cassady that I thought was so cool as a kid is actually a shitty father who cheats on his wives as well as a child predator. Now I start questioning if the Beats are just some hedonistic, self-righteous hipsters. After all this Neal Cassady is their proclaimed “Hero” and Jack and Allen are both very enchanted by his ethos and show no real signs of critique towards him. But then I remember that they were both also very religious. And quite pious too. Jack claims in the Dharma Bums that he was celibate for a year as part of his Buddhism. The sex, drugs &
rock and roll jazz lifestyle they lived wasn’t solely for pure bodily pleasure, it was supposed to be part of a search for experience. “Truth”. I don’t know these days I feel about all of that. It becomes this big chess game of sincerity and authenticity that I don’t like getting into. “Were they doing this because they sincerely believed it or were they doing this to be cool?”
I worry a lot about whether or not I identify with the Beats or not. When I imagine the Beat Generation that’s been portrayed to me over the years through pop culture I see a café filled goatees and berets and people snapping to spoken word poetry over congas. That feels really ridiculous to me. When I think about the real life antecedent for an image like this, like Ginsberg’s famous reading of “Howl” for the first time at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, and Kerouac’s recollection of this night that supposedly spearheaded the “San Francisco Renaissance”, how they passed around jugs of wine and started yelling things like “go!” and “yeah man you’ve got it!” like it’s a jazz club, I’ve got to be honest I kind of roll my eyes.” And I don’t like that I’ve become cynical like that. I hate that it turns into this game of “I really and truly and authentically like and “get” the Beats, you’re just posturing to be cool.” Because that’s how I got into them. I got into the Beats specifically because of this context of supposed cool that I saw around them when my dad first cracked that Kerouac joke and sent me down the rabbit hole that’s led me to right here, right now.
I know that I do love Jack Kerouac’s writing. It’s tender and exciting and it feels like talking to an old friend. It reads best in the late summer and the fall and it’s September now so.