I’m not going to lie to you. The Year of Kerouac may well become the Year-and-a-half-of-Kerouac. Especially given that this is my first post since May, which I can at least partially blame on the whole “I just moved to Vermont” thing. Which I should probably also write about some time! But in the mean time, I have been continuing my year-long project of re-reading (and in many cases, reading for the first time) the works of Jack Kerouac. As a quick refresher on the ground rules, I’m reading them not in the order of when they were written (the years on the left below) but rather in order of the subject matter most of them cover, Kerouac’s own life (the years to the right below). For your further edification, I’ve highlighted what I’ve read thus far, and put in links to my earlier reviews.
Visions of Gerard 1956 1922–1926
The Town and the City 1946–1949 1935–1946
On The Road 1948–1956 1946–1950
Visions of Cody 1951–1952 1946–1952
The Subterraneans 1953 1953
· Mexico City Blues (1955; published 1959)
Tristessa 1955–1956 1955–1956
The Dharma Bums 1957 1955–1956
· The Scripture of the Golden Eternity (1956; published 1960)
Desolation Angels 1956–1957
Book of Dreams 1960 1952-1960
Lonesome Traveler, short story collection (1960)
Big Sur (novel) 1961 1960
Satori in Paris 1965 1965
· Pic, novella (1951 & 1969; published 1971)
I’ve sort of been avoiding The Town and the City throughout my whole Kerouac-inspired literary life, knowing that it was his most conventional novel. It is indeed conventional in language and structure, and feels very like “proper” 40ish-50ish American Literature. I.e., a little formal and stuffy, but with some beautiful passages along the way, places where you can almost feel his later prose style being born. And despite the formalism, I found it very engaging. It is one of his most thoroughly fictionalized works in a sense, presenting the sprawling story of the brothers and sisters in a Franco-American family from the fictional Galloway, Massachusetts. Of course, Galloway is a lot like his actual home-town of Lowell, and the parents are a lot like his real parents. And, having read the novels that covered his actual early years, and his other early writings previous to this, I was most struck by how non-fictional much of what’s presented is. It’s as if Kerouac has spread his own character out across the various fictional Martin brothers, and given each of them pieces of his actual biography. It made me aware of how much contradiction there was within the man himself- dreamy mystic, severe intellectual, family-bound boy, restless wanderer- here they all get to be actual separate characters. I also noticed that only here in all his writings, safely behind the veil of fiction, does he describe his father’s death, and tensions between father and son. Once spotted, you can see it hanging around in the background throughout On The Road and Visions of Cody. I also found it fascinating how he has the oldest brother, Joe, end up with the life he always thought he should have lived, settled with wife and child near ancestral home, but ends the novel with the main protagonist, Peter, literally getting on the road, about to hitch across the country. Cue the segue…
It’s a popular theory in arm chair Kerouacanalysis that he became so embittered by the gap between this first success in 1950 and finally getting On The Road published in 1957 that he never really recovered despite later success. It certainly is true, as you can verify by looking at the dates above of when things were written, that his productivity dropped off markedly after 1957, and the works that were produced after that were darker in tone. The book itself, of course, was the first flowering of the breakthrough of his prose style (and, for added effect, obliquely chronicles at several points his finishing the manuscript of The Town and the City, and in its original form even began by referencing the death of his father that the earlier book chronicles towards its end). This is my third time reading it, and one of the things I observe is how what I saw in it each time depended very much on where I was in life. At 19-20 I was primarily keyed in to the adventure of the drugs, the sex, the travel, seeing it as a road map (all puns intended) for what I wanted to find in life. Much mayhem ensued from this line of thinking. Reading it again in my early 30s, as I was really seriously diving in to writing myself, I paid most attention to the prose, both in appreciation and in evaluation of the “how did he do that?” nuts and bolts aspects of the writing. Now, reading it at 42, besides noticing how I keep getting 10 years older every 10 years or so, what really stood out for me was the man behind the prose and the wandering. I have absorbed a lot of Kerouac and other Beat biographies over the years, and recently loaded up on his earlier writings, which definitely informs my sense of it. But, more than that, I myself have absorbed enough life now to really feel the internal contradictions, the restlessness, and the weariness and disappointment of the man behind the story. Not to mention that recovery has given me a whole other perspective on Kerouac as the alcoholic who still suffers. If I read it again in another 10 years or so, I’ll be older than he ever lived to be. I wonder what I’ll see in it then?
Kerouac himself described Visions of Cody as a companion to On The Road, in which he covered “vertically” the heights and depths of the relationship with Neal Cassady which he had portrayed in a horizontal, chronological fashion in the earlier book. This is indeed the next batch of material he wrote after On The Road, although it was only published after his death. Even before publication, though, underground copies of it circulated, and had a profound effect on writers in the 60s. It’s easy to see why, as this is some of Kerouac’s writing at its most experimental. I actually found it to be a little thick reading at several points, and kept thinking of the dense and opaque prose of Proust and Joyce. Kerouac himself references them at several points, and I think was deliberately invoking this style of the plumbing of consciousness and all its contents, focused, sometimes very tangentially, through meditations on Cody Pomeray, aka Dean Moriarty from On The Road, aka Neal Cassady. As such, there are parts that are tedious, parts that invoke a cringe (especially where the inner monologue of Kerouac the misogynist “lover” of women is on full display), and parts that glow with nearly prophetic insight and absolutely amazing prose. And that in itself is the point- he’s presenting all the truth of his mental life, without fear or favor. The literary feat, in a way, is as important as the content, the feat itself is its own content. An additional bonus is a 30-page end-note section in which Allen Ginsberg documents his reactions upon reading the manuscript for the first time in the early 70s in the wake of the loss of these two men that he loved.
So now you’re caught up on my literary journey of this year, and I’m caught up. Further installments to follow…