Some writers last the course of our lives, others only keep pace with our needs for so long. For many readers, Jack Kerouac falls into the second category. He represents a phase, or even a fad: we read him in our youth, misspent or otherwise, and get swept along by his bebop-inspired, Benzedrine-fuelled ‘spontaneous prose’, and spurred on by his characters’ reckless acts, airy ideals and riotous road-trips across America in search of freedom, enlightenment and self-fulfilment. For a while, Kerouac is king. Then we grow up, move on and never look back.
This year marks Kerouac’s centenary, and it seems as good a time as any to convert some naysayers – those who kicked Kerouac out years ago and those who never gave him houseroom in the first place. But mounting a defence can be an uphill struggle. Kerouac’s turbo-charged, speedily churned-out ‘kickwriting’ will always be a turn-off for anyone who rails against a series of incidents in lieu of a plot, meandering riffs and arbitrary grammar (‘he cant know since I didnt tell him and hardly wanta tell it now,’ runs one tell-tale line in Big Sur). Also, the wide-ranging autobiographical elements in Kerouac’s work – the ‘narrative rundowns of what I saw and how I saw’ in his ‘true-story novels’ – can be, depending on your take, refreshingly candid or frustratingly unfiltered. ‘My friends in San Francisco said I was a Zen Lunatic, at least a Drunken Lunatic,’ he admits in Desolation Angels, which is how he comes across in his late works which graphically chronicle his alcoholic decline.
Perhaps what leaves most readers cold, certainly on this side of the Atlantic, is Kerouac’s macho brand of Americana. His protagonists, all carbon copies of their creator, include high school sports jocks and university dropouts, free spirits and idle dreamers, hardy travellers and hardened drinkers. In On the Road, his hitch-hiking, freight-hopping, Greyhound-riding hobo-heroes crisscross the country indulging in one male-orientated misadventure after another. In The Dharma Bums, a thinly-disguised Kerouac and his pack of Beat buddies climb a mountain then party for days in San Francisco. In Big Sur, they paint the ‘grooky city’ red and have a ‘roaring drinking bout’ in the great outdoors. In The Subterraneans, they prop up bars in ‘Frisco’ and look on while Kerouac’s fictional stand-in, a ‘crudely malely sexual’ egomaniac, baulks at the idea of commitment and throws away the love of a good woman.
Such subject matter is not for everyone. But Kerouac’s fiction acquires a different hue when he takes his characters off the road and out of America. They still drink and stumble, crash and burn, but their remoteness from their homeland, together with their all-too-often solitary status and fish-out-of-water predicaments, render them more vulnerable and consequently more sympathetic. In addition, Kerouac’s prose becomes richer and bolder as it describes new sights, sounds and experiences.
Three distinct categories emerge for this kind of writing. First, there is Kerouac Abroad. This section encompasses whole books, chunks of books and some of the short yet memorable pieces that make up Lonesome Traveller. In the piece ‘Big Trip to Europe’ and the chapter of Desolation Angels devoted to Tangier, France and London, Kerouac recounts an eventful journey he made in 1957. In Morocco he observes ‘the fine Arabs who never even looked at me in the street but minded their eyes to themselves (unlike Mexico which is all eyes)’. He also admires the view over rooftops to ‘the distant shadow mump of Gibraltar far away’ and takes long hikes along surf and up into the Berber foothills. His happy times are then marred by an opium overdose which unleashes ‘snarling dreary thoughts about all Africa, all Europe, the world.’
In Paris, Kerouac stays in cold, dismal hotels but has fun walking the city or the corridors of the Louvre with his flask of cognac. It is a different story some years later in one of his last novels, Satori in Paris. On this trip to the French capital (and a detour to ‘trapdoor Brittany’) to trace his family genealogy, he needs more than a mere flask of cognac to function. But alcohol has wrecked him: this traveller has lost his way and lost the plot. Blundering around ‘real stoned drunk’, missing trains, hacking off hoteliers, and becoming increasingly paranoid about being mugged — not to mention regularly ‘dumbfounded and blagdenfasted’ — he presents a warts-and-all portrait of a fallen man, one which is hard to look at and harder still to look away from.
Kerouac’s accounts of his time in England are altogether happier and certainly more coherent. In the novel Vanity of Duluoz, his alter-ego Jack Duluoz washes up in Liverpool during the war and then moves on to explore London. In Desolation Angels and Lonesome Traveller he returns to London after the war to visit his agent. All three travelogues contain a number of delightfully incongruous images of this ‘madman bum’: on a train traversing a green and pleasant land and taking in ‘brain trees growing out of Shakespeare’s fields, and the dreaming meadows full of lamb dots’ plus ‘haunted mead, the bicyclists waiting at the railroad crossing to get home to thatched house and hearth — I loved it’; listening to Tchaikovsky at the Royal Albert Hall and sobbing throughout a performance of the St Matthew Passion at St Paul’s; looking for fish and chips in Chelsea and enjoying Welsh rarebit and stout in a Fleet Street pub; and rubbing shoulders with English soldiers, bobbies and Teddy Boys.
But the country Kerouac was most at home in abroad was Mexico. It constitutes the last leg of On the Road but his characters don’t stick around there long enough for it make an impression. Elsewhere in his work, however, Kerouac, a self-confessed ‘Mexican exile’, brings the place vividly alive. In the piece ‘Mexico Fellaheen’ he picks up where Hemingway left off by giving a visceral commentary of a bullfight which culminates in a grisly moment of truth. In Desolation Angels, Jack Duluoz visits Lake Xochimilco and the Pyramids of Teotihuacan where he expands his mind losing himself in history, culture and pulque.
Best of all though is the Mexico City backdrop of Tristessa, Kerouac’s 1960 novel about his relationship with a prostitute and morphine addict. After failing to find solace or refuge in her tenement apartment, his protagonist, ‘wildhaired and mad’, heads out into the rain and discovers a nocturnal world full of vibrancy and possibility — ‘the whole of Mexico a Bohemian Adventure in the great outdoor plateau night of stones, candle and mist.’
Along with Kerouac Abroad there is Kerouac at Sea. In Vanity of Duluoz he provides a compelling dramatisation of his tour as a Merchant Marine on the SS Dorchester in 1942 and his short spell in the Navy one year later. The former involves hard graft, camaraderie and a dangerous journey navigating icebergs and submarines in the ‘homeless waters in the North’; the latter comprises a disastrous stint which ends with a sobering stay in a ‘nut ward’.
While at sea, Kerouac wrote his first novel, one which didn’t see the light of day until 2011. The Sea is My Brother is, like Kerouac’s first published novel The Town and the City, part of the writing method he termed ‘Supreme Reality’. Based on his nautical experiences, it tells the story of friendship and endurance on the ocean wave. Kerouac set out to capture ‘the passion and glory of living, its restlessness and peace, its fever and ennui, its mornings, noons and nights of desire, frustration, fear, triumph, and death.’ He doesn’t always succeed – the book remains very much an apprentice work — yet it has colour and vitality and shows a young writer finding if not his voice, then certainly his feet.
A final category could be called Kerouac Out There. This one isn’t for the faint-hearted. Here we find books that, though set in America, are so infused with fantastical flourishes and stylistic trickery — supreme unreality — that we eventually lose our bearings and any sense of geography. What matters is not place but prose. Visions of Cody tracks Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady as he runs wild across the States. But instead of a straightforward linear tale, Kerouac concocts a complex character study made up of thick streams of consciousness, transcriptions of disjointed conversations, and a dizzying array of voices, registers and narrative techniques.
There is also Doctor Sax, which is ostensibly about Kerouac’s childhood in Lowell, Massachusetts. But when Kerouac blends in dark magic and supernatural beings (including a Great World Snake) and twists his language out of shape, the book turns into a hallucinatory fever dream. ‘Bloodless theosophists of the moonlight,’ rants a vampire count at one point, ‘excalibur dull bottards in a frantic hinch, cock-waddlers on pones and pothosts, rattle-bead bonehead splentiginous bollyongs, cast-offs, bah, flap-slaves and blackbearded bungy doodle frummers of lug and lard.’ A gibberish screed for some, but Kerouac’s biographer, Gerald Nicosia, makes a strong case for this being the first postmodernist novel in America.
Kerouac was one of the leading lights of the Beat Generation but that light was prematurely snuffed out. His best-known books that live on are, for his detractors, variations on the same theme. But he produced so much more. It pays to travel further with him, beyond his America and beyond our comfort zones.