June 14, 2018
You Don’t Know Jack
Three times over the years I picked up On the Road – the book that introduced the Beat Generation to America – and three times I got a hundred or so pages into it and tossed it into the corner in disgust.
Jack Kerouac started writing the novel – which is autobiographic in nature – in the late 1940s. He made several false starts, all of which he threw out. Finally, in a marathon creative burst in 1951, Kerouac famously sat down with a long pasted together length of typing paper and wrote the entire book in four weeks. The final manuscript was 140 feet of single-spaced typing.
After numerous revisions, the book was finally published in 1957, and Kerouac was declared the spokesmen for the Beat Generation.
The question for me is why, after giving up three times on the book, did I finally sit down and read it from cover to cover. The answer is, I’m not sure.
Maybe it was because this 1991 edition of On the Road included an excellent 22-page introduction by Ann Charters, author of a Kerouac biography. Charters actually had access to Kerouac and interviewed him about his books and the motivations behind them.
And maybe it was because on my previous attempts to read On the Road, I was too much engrossed with the business of making a living to appreciate the lyrical beauty of the words, or to savor the descriptions of driving across the country before it was crisscrossed with interstate highways. I remember those days as a young man, when driving across America was done on two-lane blacktops, slowing down every 2o or 30 miles, to creep at slow speed through little towns. Each town had its own personality. There would be farmers standing outside of feed and seed barns, or mechanics working on cars in service stations, or drinking men of all persuasions coming and going from the local taverns.
Now you drive across the nation – if you even bother to do so – on interstate highways with off ramps every few miles, each with a cluster of gas stations and fast-food franchises. Shell, Chevron, Exxon, McDonalds, Arby’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King, each with the same efficient personality and plastic food as the ones at the next exit, and the ones at all the exits to come.
Kerouac captured that heartbeat of America of his time in word and raw emotion. There are too many wonderful excerpts to quote, but here are three in which he describes both his point of view and his motivations.
But then they danced down the street like dingledodies, and I shamble after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn burn burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center pop and everybody goes “Awww.”
Then there is this description of a ride through the West in the back of a flat-bed truck with a bunch of other broke hitch-hiking wanderers.
As in a dream, we zoomed through small crossroads towns smack out of the darkness, and passed long lines of lounging harvest hands and cowboys in the night. They watched us pass with one motion of the head, and we watched them slap their thighs from the continuing dark the other side of town – we were a funny looking crew.
Or this piece in which he describes the primal joy of West Coast jazz in the clubs of San Francisco.
Dean stood in front of him, oblivious to everything else in the world, with his head bowed, his hand socking in together, his whole body jumping on his heels and the sweat, and always sweat was pouring and splashing down his tormented neck to literally lie in a pool at his feet. And the girls, Galatea and Alice were there, and it took us five minutes to realize it. Wow, Frisco nights, the end of the continent then, and the end of the road, and the end of all dull doubt.
But despite such moments, the narrative has a sense of desperation and sadness that speaks to that place we all sometimes get, when the friends and companions have gone and we are left alone to confront who we really are.
Although the novel is biographical, covering several years of Kerouac’s life on the road, the names of the characters were changed for legal reasons.
Jack Kerouac in the book became Sal Paradise; Neal Cassady, an ex-con and thief, was Dean Moriarty; the poet Allen Ginsberg was Carlo Marx; the Harvard-educated writer and drug addict William Burroughs was Old Bull Lee; author and poet John Clellon Holmes was Tom Saybrook; street-hustler poet and hobo Hurbert Huncke was Elmo Hassel, and Neal’s wife Carolyn Cassady was Camille.
That’s what I liked about the book. So what did I not like about it?
The characters were all selfish, pretentious and just a little bit silly. They were more like school boys than grown men. They found women they loved with great passion, but their love was a thousand miles across and an inch deep. As soon as they got an itch to be back on the road with their buddies, they were gone. Traveling across the country, drinking to excess, smoking pot, taking drugs, and sleeping with high school girls.
Perhaps that says more about me than about them. Perhaps I am the one mired in a middle-class, bourgeoisie morality that values commitment and loyalty. But so be it. The characters ended up disappointing each other, and letting their companions down at critical times when they felt the need to disentangle themselves from their commitment to each another.
Not likable characters. Not at the beginning of the book and not at the end. Even the most likable character, the energetic, enthusiastic Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarity in the book) by the end, was so much less than when he began. And maybe that’s the point.
They were the folks who spawned the Beat Generation – which devolved quickly into a caricature of itself. Coffee houses, bongo drums, berets, and bad poetry. It didn’t take long for the media to degrade the Beat Generation described by Kerouac into beatniks – a play on the name of the Sputnik satellite launched into orbit by the Soviet Union.
The beatniks would morph into the hippies and the so-called flower children, even further removed from the essence of who and what Kerouac believed and who he was.
In the end, Kerouac became bitter. The movement he had help spawn became politicized. Kerouac was not politically inspired. He was writing about life, not about utopian political visions. Despite his non-conformist nature, he was deeply religious. He saw On the Road as two friends roaming America seeking God.
As a Catholic, Kerouac hated the idea of Communism and the left-wing politics spouted by the new generation of hippies and political activists. In 1954, he sat in front of the TV, smoking dope and cheering as Sen. Joseph McCarthy exposed so-called Communist stooges and fellow travelers.
Nobody ever said artists had to be consistent in their beliefs.
Jack Kerouac died on Oct. 21, 1969 in St. Petersburg, Fla. He was 47 years old, a victim of hard living, hard drinking, and severe depression.
In his final interview days before his death, he told a reporter from the St. Petersburg Times: “I’m not a beatnik, I’m a Catholic.”
The other friends went in different directions, some in the quest to be who people thought they were, ended up not only losing their own identities, but morphing into smaller, sadder caricatures of themselves.
Neal Cassady went to San Quentin Prison for two years on a drug violation, after being busted in 1958 for sharing a small amount of marijuana with an undercover agent in a San Francisco nightclub. He lost his job with the Southern Pacific Railroad, and was divorced by his wife, Carolyn Cassady upon his release.
In 1964, Cassady became the driver of the famous school bus as part of author Ken Kesey’s band of “Merry Pranksters.” The bus, the Pranksters, and an LSD-fueled cross-country journey was later chronicled in writer Tom Wolfe’s book, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” But Carolyn Cassady – who never stopped loving Neal despite their divorce, had a darker view of Kesey and the Pranksters. Neal, she felt, had become an oddity, not really included with the other Pranksters and not really trusted by them.
He and many of the former Beat Generation characters had become imitations of what they had been. Of course, this doesn’t happen just to celebrities. It also happens also to regular folks who takes themselves too seriously or allow other people to do so.
Cassady died in 1968 in Mexico. He had attended a wedding on February 3. After it was over, he was walking along a railroad track on a rainy night, clad only in jeans and a T-shirt. He was discovered unconscious along the track the next morning by a Community College professor from El Paso, who carried him to the nearest settlement. He was taken to a nearby hospital where he died a few hours later. He was 41 years old.
Allen Ginsberg, Carl Marx in the book, died in 1997.
Author Willian Seward Burroughs II, Old Bull Lee in the book, died in 1997. Burroughs was the drug-addicted grandson of William Seward Burroughs I, founder of the Burroughs Corporation – a manufacturer of office machines. During a drunken party in Mexico City, Burroughs II killed his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer when he used a pistol to try to shoot a highball glass off her head. He missed, hit her in the head, and she died instantly. He was arrested, but jumped bail and fled to the U.S. The incident, he said, marked his life and his work for ever after.
John Clellon Holmes, Tom Saybrook in the book, continued his career as a writer and poet until his death in 1988.
Hurbert Huncle, Elmo Hassel in the book, died in 1996.
And Carolyn Cassady, Camille in the book – the woman who loved both her husband and Jack Kerouac and who by mutual consent shared her bed with each of them – died in 2013.
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