The smudged days of October—when my mood is hand in hand with the weather—remind me of Jack Kerouac. He died in October, on the 21st, and the anniversary of that day always comes and goes like a local subway suddenly gone express. I watch it pass, thinking I should do something, somehow commemorate the event, but I never do anything at all.
I am aware that it is no longer fashionable to spend time thinking about writers like Kerouac. He’s predictable, a talisman for the raw recruit, a symptom (not a sign) of adolescent discomfort, of fashionable rebellion. I tend to pity those I see reading him unabashedly on park benches, in subway cars, at café tables—the brazen ones who tilt the book up just a touch so that anyone passing might have the chance to see the book’s title and the author’s name. Passersby will see that someone is discovering that the world wasn’t built by Strunk and White in eighty-five pages.
On the Road was the perfect deviation in 1957. While it represented a minor departure from most prose being published at the time, it was a narrative at heart—a story of the road. And while it gave millions of adolescents the urge to hotfoot it past the cul de sac, Kerouac was frustrated with the published edition (even after six years struggling to find a publisher for the manuscript) because it had, in essence, been edited into submission. Kerouac was so unhappy with On the Road that he subsequently finished a 398-page book called Visions of Cody, which he called the real On the Road. It was the ultimate example of Kerouac’s style—spontaneous prose.
Spontaneous prose was essentially stream of consciousness, which employed a distinct consciousness of jazz rhythm and style (“time” and “flow”—the jazz ideas). His tendency to sketch often extended from passages to entire novels. On the Road had a plot, of course, but one would not say it was plot-driven; Life is a loose braid of themes and so are Kerouac’s books. The intense dissonance of Tristessa develops through themes of love and addiction; The Subterraneans is a jazz composition masked as a jam session on love, race, and jealousy; Visions of Cody is a character study; Visions of Gerard deals with family, death, and religion. And while most books have themes, not many rely on the theme for the complete structural stability of the work. Most readers implicitly demand a forward moving plot. Kerouac often lacked this and did so consciously. Tim Hunt, the author of Kerouac’s Crooked Road, called this an insistence “on the writer’s obligation to explore the entire range of experience whether currently fashionable or not.” All of Kerouac’s work is a kind of hagiography of self-perception.
After a curt dismissal from the canon of Great American Writers thirty years ago, Kerouac reemerged to become retro, the literary equivalent of the self-consciously ironic seventies t-shirt and trucker hat craze. He sold khakis and was the subject of the memoirs of women who briefly loved him, and were left by him. But, like disco, he may be popular for the Retro factor, but he is not taken seriously. And it is for this reason that, for years, I dropped my voice when I came to his name on my list of favorite authors, especially if I was speaking to another writer (then I would sometimes omit him completely). I was embarrassed by my admiration the same way some people who believe in God are in a group of atheists—I felt dumb for believing.
It was not love at first sight. The first time I tried to read the Road, I declared it unreadable. I couldn’t keep track of Al Hinkle and Ed Dunkel. Galatea and Mary Lou. Old Bull Lee and Mississippi Slim. The run-on sentences taxed my concentration. I shoved it unceremoniously into a wooden bookshelf. Six months later I picked it up again and tried to unclench my fingers from around the smooth stone of Strunk and White that had become my pet rock. I stopped worrying about the heretical syntax, Kerouac’s slew of characters and his incidental plot. There was a real sweetness about the prose, I discovered, a kind of contradictory simplicity to it; a tender lucidity: “The bus roared through Indiana cornfields that night; the moon illuminated the ghostly gathered husks; it was almost Halloween.”
But it was the Ghost of Susquehanna that broke my head open. The ghost was a withered old hitchhiker carrying a paper satchel who accompanied the narrator down a Pennsylvania highway. When Sal Paradise finally gets a ride from a trucker and leaves the old man behind, Jack writes: “I suddenly saw the little hobo standing under a sad streetlamp with his thumb stuck out—poor forlorn man, poor lost sometimeboy, now broken ghost of the penniless wilds.” I read the lines now and see the almost desperate sentimentalism, but this was not apparent to me, then. This was a jewel; even now, when I think of that passage, I want to crawl into the words and live there.
When I moved to New York, I made my home in Morningside Heights, that oddest of New York neighborhoods with the grunge of Amsterdam Avenue on one side of Columbia University and the old, vanished wealth of Riverside Drive on the other. It was also the neighborhood where Jack met the men and women who would be important to him, and others: William Burroughs, Joan Vollmer Adams, Lucien Carr, Allen Ginsberg, Joyce Johnson.
When I first saw Butler Library on the campus of Columbia University, I read each great name carved on its frieze carefully. Like a pilgrim circumambulating the Ka’bah, I walked around the entire library, looking for Jack Kerouac’s name. It seems so hopelessly foolish now, and of course it was; but I like to imagine Kerouac, the Columbia footballer, would have done the same thing, searching for the name of his hero, Thomas Wolfe, among those of Socrates and Twain.
Like any love affair, though, the initial lust has grown threadbare; sometimes when I reread the books I feel like an ex-lover recalling old trysts. And like a lover, I can better see the flaws now; perhaps I even exaggerate them. There are times he’s bad. Really bad. It’s not an easy admission: You’d be surprised how hard it is to admit that your favorite writer isn’t a perfect writer. Even now, I don’t like seeing On the Road in the hands of anyone wearing a backpack and carrying a fistful of maps. I want to grab the new disciple by the shoulders, shake him and say, “You’re too late!” There are times when I wish someone had done that to me.
In the end, the most instructive details I’ve plucked from the writings of Jack Kerouac are the Zen of the chase and the sanctity of the gentle observer. In one of his last books, Vanity of Dulouz, Kerouac writes—in a rare, limpid moment a year before he died—of his own hero, Thomas Wolfe:
No need for me to imitate what he said, he just woke me up to America as a Poem instead of America as a place to struggle around and sweat in. Mainly, this dark-eyed American poet made me want to prowl, and roam and see the real America…they say nowadays that only adolescents appreciate Thomas Wolfe, but that’s easy to say after you’ve read him anyway because he’s the kind of writer whose prose poems you can just about only read once, and deeply and slowly, discovering and having discovered, move away.
Perhaps someday, when I’m finally convinced that I am too late, I will do the same.