Failure, Time, and Kerou-yak-yak-yak

Today, for the second time in my life, I gave up on Jack Kerouac’s 1957 opus On the Road. Kerouac claimed to have written it by typing onto one long uncut roll of paper. I don’t believe he was boasting. As Fran Lebowitz would and in fact did say, on this very subject: that’s not writing, that’s typing. The first time I gave up on On the Road, I was fourteen years old. A girl at school, who was about the closest thing there to what you would call a thinking person, whose last name began with a D but whose first name I cannot for the life of me recall among that now demolished school’s seemingly endless cavalcade of Abbeys, Charlottes, Lauras, Katies, Christinas (in my mind she looks like a Jane, but there were no Janes, of that much I am certain), recommended me the book. I don’t know if I wanted to impress her by reading this book—if that was my intention, I somehow doubt slavishly following her book recommendations would have marked me out as anything but a hanger-on of the worst kind—but I did read it. Well, I tried to. Initially I was amused by the character of Dean Moriarty, but then I got to a part where Sal Paradise, protagonist, narrator, and Kerouac’s cypher, is sitting with a Mexican woman he leaves ten pages later, fantasising about picking grapes with her family and going on about how that “hit [him] right”, and fourteen year old me just could not take it. Between that and the guy saying “dah you go man” over and over I closed that book faster than I ran down the street once as a child when a wasp landed on a pastry I was holding. I was almost hit by a bus. Had I been hit by that bus I still would have preferred that road experience to riding around with Paradise and Moriarty and the whole gang of doofy hipster morons they hang out with.

Well, that girl didn’t like me anyway, or maybe she did. One time I bumped into her while I was out with my then girlfriend, her attitude towards me had modulated from a sneering disdain (when she discovered that, at the fat age of fifteen, I didn’t know that “smack” meant “heroin”, I lost my edgy teenager cred with her entirely) to a jittery smiley kind of ensemble. Maybe it was the nature of the schoolyard, with its chaos of entirely circumstantial relationships no deeper than the puddles that would form in the poorly levelled square basketball court during a middling rain, but I could have sworn, book recommendations and all, that girl hated my guts. Or maybe it was the smack. All jokes aside folks, I don’t know if she did heroin, but she was very skinny and always had bags under her eyes. I hope she’s doing good things with her life. Despite her attitude towards me, I always felt a sneaking, unvoiced admiration for her dismissive erudition and teenage faux nihilism, which at the time seemed like it must have been the stuff the great philosophical texts were made of. For all I know it might be, I still haven’t read most of them. Probably I never will.

Thirteen or fourteen years later (new tastes and phases bested the old so quickly back then that it’s hard to remember what happened when—until I took a serious look at my music listening chronology I was convinced I had been a Green Day mega-fan for several years, even though in truth that fabled period probably didn’t extend past six months) here I am writing an article about a girl I knew who recommended me a book. Incidentally, she also recommended me A Clockwork Orange, which I still haven’t read, before deciding three seconds later that: nah, I wouldn’t like it. Maybe I should read it just to see how wrong she was. At the time I just assumed she was smarter than I was, but now I for some reason have the urge to make her into a fool. Whatever was going on with her, she certainly had more patience than I did. Well, now I have more patience than I did, but Jane D still has me at checkmate when it comes to the bloated and endlessly wowed by everything that is America prose of Kerouac. Having since read Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman’s similarly naive and yet subversive American adventure, I can see where the tradition comes from. Provenance will only get you so far. I gave Whitman a few hundred pages—and that is as exact as I can be—before I put it back on the shelf, convinced that if I read any more I would go into a panic attack every time I so much as glimpsed a shopping list. Kerouac got exactly 243 pages, I know this because not half an hour before I thought “I should waste my time writing about a book I didn’t finish”, I had unfinished it, placing it back on the shelf where it may remain until such time that my curiosity—oh it can’t have been that bad—is once again piqued.

What surprised me is that at first I was actually quite enjoying myself. Some of it I dimly recalled, other parts were as fresh as, or perhaps fresher to me than they had been when I first read it. I found it quite exhilarating hopping on the back of a flatbed truck, necking whisky with a rag-tag group of boys all hitching to faraway places in the night. The poetry of Kerouac’s prose, as open and enchanting as the road itself, drew me in, and for a time I was hitching with him, mixing it up with the hobos, bopping at the jazz lounges where someone with an improbable nickname was always blowing tenor and driving everybody wild. I enjoyed spending time with Old Bull Lee, Kerouac’s semi-fictional version of William S. Burroughs, the best of the beats, a prose stylist like no other, whose addictions, for all that they ruined his life, never ruined his writing. Kerouac, who would crown himself the boozy anti-intellectual par excellence, was to let his image consume him and waste away, but not yet. In parts of On the Road, he shines like the stars he describes looking out on from the passenger window of the cab on a haulage truck. But the signs are there. You can tell he didn’t proofread half of it. The rambling conversational cum poetical style lapses so often from the second part onward into the kind of heedless monologue you deliver tipsy at a gathering of friends where everyone is just drunk enough not to care that you’ve spent the past uncountable number of minutes incoherently recounting a tale or tales of no value, which they will then take the floor and try to top.

Worst of all, Kerouac’s obsession with the Dean Moriarty character, whom he paints, or tries to paint as a sympathetic character, dominates the book. In many ways, the book is Dean’s story as glimpsed by another character. When he’s with Sal, he talks the most, when Sal is away from him, all he wants to talk about, between accounts of turmoil between himself and whatever random named but might as well be numbered woman he’s staying with at the time, is Dean, and how amazing Dean is. It may now, as it may then have been born of my aversion, by association with one of the most despicable shithead bullies I ever knew, to the name “Dean” that caused me to, if not take an instant dislike to the character, then to be subjected to a creeping desire to find a way into the textual fibres of the book so that I could punch his stupid face in. Who can say? I don’t think I disliked him particularly in the pages that come before entire chapters of the book are taken up with him yelling at saxophonists in bars across the country, and going “yes yes yes” and “you and I should talk about something real”. No one in On the Road ever talks about anything real, they can’t see anything for the collective whisky-filled anus they’ve got their heads stuffed in. Maybe I’ll stick my head back between those alcoholic buttocks once again, when I forget the text, and become convinced that the lingering feeling I feel is just that hard crust of baggage that builds on old experiences that never really were so bad in the first place. See you in another thirteen years, Jack.

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