People say I’m obsessed with Jack Kerouac. They point to my blog, to my checked flannel shirts, to my over 140 Kerouac or Kerouac-related books (that I read, not that I wrote), to the one book I have written (about guess who?), to the friendships I’ve developed because of Kerouac, to my constant bringing up connections to Kerouac in daily conversation, and so on. I’m not sure if I fit the dictionary definition of obsession, especially the part about “to a troubling extent,” but no matter: I’ll wear that mantle proudly. I have often claimed that my blog, The Daily Beat, is the most Kerouac-obsessed blog in existence. It isn’t, of course, but as I’ve learned of late, if I say it enough times, people will start to believe it. Of course, there is a logical question that follows: Of all the things to be obsessed with in today’s world — golf, pro sports, gambling, movies, politics, travel, video games, sex, cuisine, art, etc. — why Kerouac? To answer that question, I offer the following.
I received an excellent high school and college education, yet where any formal study of literature is concerned, I don’t remember encountering Kerouac even once. Maybe I was exposed to his work and it just didn’t “take,” at least enough to remember. The first exposure I do remember came in 2002, courtesy of my great friend, Keith — a Kerouac fan — who encouraged me to read On the Road. I was living alone at the time, reading voraciously, and frequenting the local tavern much more than necessary or healthful (living like Jack?).
A number of things in On The Road spoke to me. I’m reminded of Bob Dylan’s description: “Someone handed me Mexico City Blues in St. Paul [Minnesota] in 1959 and it blew my mind. It was the first poetry that spoke my own language.” I guess Jack’s was the first prose that really spoke my own language: the spontaneity, the passion, the freedom, and of course the style in which those were conveyed grabbed my attention and held it, and holds it to this day. I re-read Kerouac’s novels frequently; for example, my great Kerouacian friend, Richard Marsh, and I recently took turns reading all of Tristessa aloud. Jack’s was the first prose I’d ever read where it seemed as if comprehension was only part of the ride. I could read entire passages, enjoy them, and not really know exactly what Kerouac was talking about. But it didn’t matter — reading him was joyous.
In a reader comment on my February 22, 2009 post on my blog, “the right guy” said about Kerouac, “reading his work is more like experiencing something than reading and digestion.” Yes! That is what I love about reading Kerouac — it’s an experience as well as a cognitive exercise. It hits you right in the gut as well as tickles your intellectual brain cells.
The second Kerouac novel I read was The Dharma Bums. I must admit that I preferred it — and still do — over On The Road. I know that statement probably amounts to Kerouacian anathema, but it’s the truth. My truth, anyway. I think Bums originally appealed to me because I was coming off a heavy Buddhist kick at the time. Bums had many of the same features as Road, but with a more explicit spiritual theme. Not that Road isn’t a spiritual book — it is: Jack himself said it “was really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God.”
After Bums, I read Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac by Gerald Nicosia. I consequently became fascinated with Kerouac the human being: driven, questioning, passionate, flawed. As his gravestone proclaims, “He honored life.” I related to his trials, envied his exploits, and empathized with his losses. There are some eerie parallels between our lives. I grew up in the Northeast. I had lost a brother, too, not young like Gerard, but too young. My brother was gay, so I could relate to Jack’s homosexual explorations. I’d been married three times (so had Jack). My mom was born two years after Jack, so I had one parent from his generation (my dad was 20 years older). In Jack’s essay, “The Origins of the Beat Generation,” he lists a number of things that the beat generation “goes back to.” Following are some items directly from Jack’s list:
The Three Stooges
The Marx Brothers
Laurel and Hardy
Basil Rathbone (as Sherlock Holmes)
If I independently created a list of cultural influences from my youth, I would have included those same influences.
Jack’s oft-quoted “the only people for me are the mad ones . . .” has been a theme in my life, yet I never thought about it until I read that passage in On The Road. I don’t know where that character trait had its seed, but I suspect it may have come from growing up living in a hotel where my dad was the manager. I was surrounded by quirky characters at all times, from the guests to the bellhops to the front desk managers to the chefs in the kitchen. I remember one time my friends and I were teasing the prep cooks — as we often did — down in the vast kitchen prep room in the basement. Several of the cooks grabbed my friend Joe and threw him on the prep table, started the meat grinder, and pretended they were going to run his arm through it! They didn’t, but from Joe’s screams it was clear that he thought they intended to. Then there was Mr. Rifkin, who was a long-time resident of the hotel. A successful businessman in a neighboring town, I to this day am not sure why he stayed in the hotel, but I still remember his odd mannerisms — he was always nice to me — and especially the old slouch hat he wore just like the one Kerouac describes in Dr. Sax and other works.
While I was exposed to some interesting characters, I experienced quite a strict upbringing courtesy of my mother (undue motherly influence — another Kerouac similarity?). I never really cut loose until college, and even then my conditioning for 17 years kept me fairly constrained. I went the conservative route, true to my upbringing, until a classic “mid-life” crisis in my mid-forties resulted in me dumping my marriage, career, lifestyle, everything. That was right before I discovered Kerouac, and the freedom he espoused and lived strongly validated the radical changes I’d made in my life.
As I’ve matured in Kerouac, I’ve noticed something else that binds me to him: his fascination with and obsession with death. Kerouac wrote in Visions of Cody, “I am writing this book because we’re all going to die,” and in Mexico City Blues famously wished to be “safe in heaven dead” and “free of this slaving meat wheel.” While I don’t wish that, I get the sentiment, and my connection to that mindset solidifies with every passing year.
I admire Jack Kerouac for his dedication to craft. He was a writer because he wrote — constantly. He said, “Write in recollection and amazement for yourself.” Think about that. Even a famous author is only read by a small percentage of the human beings on the planet. Much of what many writers put to paper (or hard drive or blog) never gets read by anyone except the writer. Ultimately, you are writing for yourself out of some innate drive to do it. You see yourself as a writer, so you write.
I’ve posted on my blog about how a writer needs three things: something to say, a way to say it, and someone to say it to. I’ve always felt like a writer, even excelling at it in school, but the “something to say” part stymied me until I encountered Kerouac. He wrote what he knew. That inspired me. I knew I could write, and I knew there was an audience for good writing. All I needed was something to say.
Jack provided me with the latter. His two books, On The Road and The Dharma Bums, became the fodder for my book, The Beat Handbook: 100 Days of Kerouactions.
Along my path to self-publication (after 20-some rejections from legitimate publishers), the words of Sylvia Plath kept me moving forward: “And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
I owe Jack Kerouac a true debt of gratitude. Without him, I would not be a published author. It’s that simple. And it’s that complicated.
Publishing a book is a life-enriching event. It opens many doors that otherwise wouldn’t have opened, but the bottom line is that it connects you to others. Without my Kerouac obsession, my life would be much less rich in friendships than it is. I have no small number of people in real life who I call friends because I met them through our mutual interest in Jack Kerouac. Often that mutual interest manifested itself in Lowell, Massachusetts, Jack’s hometown, where the Kerouac faithful convene every October for the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! Festival. That is where I met my great friend, Richard, and how I ended up becoming friends with renowned Kerouac biographer, Gerald Nicosia. In 2011 I had left my book on Jack’s grave with the invitation to “steal this book,” and Gerry did so, finding it intriguing enough to e-mail me — and that was the beginning of our friendship.
There are any number of other “friends” I’ve made through Kerouac, and I like to think that Jack would be quite pleased to see that his writings have influenced individuals, like me, but even more so that his work brings people together. Jack Kerouac was a deep-feeling human being — despite his significant flaws that folks seize on too much — and he wrote from a compassionate place in his heart.
All other reasons I’ve mentioned aside, is it a bad thing to be obsessed with someone who thought that love is all?