Saturday, September 08, 2007

Would You Have Run Away from Home to Become a Beatnik If You Knew That The Man Who Wrote On the Road Lived With His Mother?

We didn’t write that headline, although we wish we had. We lifted it---stole it, we mean---from the May 1970 issue of a short-lived publication called US: The Paperback Magazine, just as we lifted (stole) our 95-cent Signet paperback copy of On the Road (“The riotous odyssey of two American drop-outs by the drop-out who started it all …”) from a defenseless little antique-y bookstore in our hometown whose name in English means Without Concern. We believe that small yet shameful act of thievery, which we may have committed under the mistaken notion that there was something Kerouacian about the gesture, occurred around 1969 or ’70. That was only 12 or 13 years after the original publication of book, but the Signet edition we five-fingered was already its 15th printing.

The printings probably have crossed into triple digits by now, Sept. 5 having marked a full 50 years since On the Road appeared, a suitable occasion or good excuse for the narrowing stratum of Americans still preoccupied with matters literary to chew over the fate of Kerouac’s work. The consensus seems to be that while it’s not a very good novel---some have even relegated it to the critical remainder bin marked “shitty,” starting with Truman Capote’s sneering, contemporaneous dismissal of Kerouac’s style as not writing but “typewriting”---it nonetheless hit America with a massive and sustained impact, leaving a deep and wide cultural crater whose outlines can be clearly discerned today, even through the obscuring haze emanating from Paris Hilton, Norman Hsu and other pure products of America.

We did not participate in this dialogue, mainly because no one asked us to but also because we read On the Road for the first and only time when we were 15 or 16, and even though we absorbed the book straight into our nervous system we haven’t retained much in the way of particulars (we do remember our delight in discovering that Kerouac/Sal Paradise's travels with Neal Cassidy/Dean Moriarty brought them along a path through South Louisiana and East Texas with which we were intimate). The book was a little different than we expected, and we recall detecting a deep sadness and yearning throughout, something our adolescent mind was not built to fully grasp and our as-yet-unkicked-ass could not relate to.

Now we find our self older than Kerouac was when he died, a bloated and sodden memoirist whom Alfred G. Aronowitz visited shortly before his passing and wrote about in the article that appeared below the purloined headline above. It is this late period Kerouac that interests us today: The homebody whose liver gave out as he sat drinking and watching I Dream of Jeanie with his mother, the middle-aged prude who shunned the excesses of the 1960s he helped set in motion, the conservative who defended the war in Vietnam and sat still (very) to be interviewed by William Buckley. Those latter developments were taken as proof of derangement by the then-ascendant cultural left, but Kerouac’s conservatism---and by that we mean we mean the “conservatism” we detect in the recent works of Bob Dylan (a deep respect for American locality, reverence for the past, an abiding love of nature and the outdoors, suspicion of modernism, cosmopolitanism, consumerism, globalism and all other isms)---was always evident in his books, and his person.

We would argue that Kerouac’s significance has been grievously underestimated: Without him, or more accurately without the influence of the poet Gary Snyder on him, the environmental movement wouldn’t have gotten the traction it did in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Without him, there would have been no “rucksack revolution” (and thus no REI catalogs and no Outside magazine). Without him, the White Negro (“At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro …”) would have been still-birthed by Mezz Mezzrow. And without his interest in and ad hoc practice of Buddhism, there would be no suburban moms spouting The Four Noble Truths and folding themselves into asanas at the Hot Body yoga class.

The only dialogue on Kerouac in which we have engaged of late came a couple of years back with a woman who was then instructing us in the practice of yoga. The Yoga Lady was a nice person but apparently resistant to irony: She drove a Lexus SUV with a “Kerry-Edwards” bumpersticker and another that said something like “Why do people move to the suburbs to enjoy nature and then cut down all trees?” One day, in the course of the idle chat that ensued before class, she was moved to say she had recently read On the Road, for some unexplained reason. “How did you like it?” asked another student, a school librarian. The Yoga Lady, who had just turned 40, made a sour face and said she did not like the book at all. “Why?” we asked. “I … um … I dunno … I think it was all the drugs, all the drug-taking.” Yes, there was much drug-taking in the book: Kerouac and his thinly fictionalized characters partaking of Benzedrine (then legal), some pot, some cheap red wine, perhaps a paregoric cigarette or two. William Burroughs shooting junk here and there; the Cassidy character with Burroughs in Houston and the two searching for a friend in "every shooting gallery in town." But all this seemed incidental to us, beside the point, and as usual we were moved to correct the record. Assuming our English professor persona, we began to expound, “Well, you have to understand the context, the times, in which it was written: It was not long after World War II, The Bomb shadowed everything, blah blah …” The Yoga Lady’s face remained blankly impassive, and our final argument sputtered to a close: “Guess you woulda had to have been there,” we shrugged, and shortly thereafter the Yoga Lady was leading us through a round of Sun Salutations.

"In the empty Houston streets at four o'clock in the morning a motorcycle kid suddenly roared through, all bespangled and bedecked with glittering buttons, visor, slick black jacket, a Texas poet of the night, girl gripped on his back like a papoose, hair flying, onward-going ... "

No comments: