Saturday, November 14, 2009

Shambling After Kerouac


Jack Kerouac almost caused me to drop out of graduate school. It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. I wasn’t chasing any falling stars or yearning to follow some holy road. Not really. I just didn’t want to write a paper about the guy. And by “didn’t want to,” I mean I was seized with anxiety and self-doubt about the damn thing. (Ah, graduate school.)

I’d never read On the Road before. Somehow in my dreamy, bookwormy adolescence, I’d missed it. Maybe it’s not the sort of book a high school English teacher hands to a promising girl-geek. Flannery O’Connor, yes. Kerouac . . . better save him for those awkwardly brilliant golden boys. Somehow Kerouac and I never crossed paths in college, either, although I’d picked him up on my zeitgeist radar by then.

So, my first encounter with On the Road was in one of those early-1990’s hardcore take-a-book-you-love-and-obliterate-it classes which was the style of the time. It was a lot easier to do this with old familiar favorites like Shakespeare and Hawthorne. With a book that I’d never read before – especially this one – it was a frustrating venture.

Sure, there’s plenty of against-the-graining to be done in On the Road. But on some level I just had to say “so what”? There’s misogyny all over that book, upside down and backwards. You know what else? That book is printed on paper, too. And sold in bookstores. The misogyny just seemed so obvious, was all. Pointing it out felt redundant. Maybe if I’d kept at it I could have come up with a more interesting angle. But something else was holding me back.

Yes, I was a woman reader; a feminist reader. But somehow I couldn’t write about Kerouac without writing about myself. I knew there wasn’t a place for me in his late-1940’s world of gritty Benzedrine-and-jazz-fueled spontaneity. Heck, there wasn’t even a place for me in the 1990’s version of that world where scores of Gen-X boys wandered off to find themselves, leaving us girlfriends to heal our broken hearts and make our mix tapes. Forty years later, men still left and women still waited. And in my own way I was as screwed as Camille or Galatea or any of those On the Road gals.

“[She] would never understand me because I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop . . . I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.”

Still, I identified with the protagonist in spite of myself. Kerouac’s Sal Paradise – Kerouac himself, really – was drifting, brilliant, and stuck; trying to be a writer but coming loose at the seams; struggling to find his voice as he “shambled after” his mad and wildly inspiring friends from one road’s end to the next. Minus his actual talent, there was a lot there that reminded me of myself.

I went to graduate school straight from college because I had no idea what else I could do. It was a safe choice, prolonging studenthood for another two years while enhancing my employability. I thought it was a passionate choice, too. I loved literature. I loved being a student. This was exactly what I thought I wanted to do. But the minute I set foot on that campus, it all came crumbling down.

Everything – the classes, the people, the unfortunate architecture on SUNY-Binghamton’s campus – felt so stark and alienating. I couldn’t focus on my reading or pay attention in class, and the slightest setbacks would fill my eyes with tears. I was as strong, wise, intuitive, and spiritual then as I am now. But it was all so raw, so wild, so untested and full of self-doubt. I had no idea how to be in the world quite yet.

So what did I do? I drove. I had my parents’ old Oldsmobile sedan and I was behind its wheel at every opportunity. I’d drive three hours south to visit my parents or three hours north to visit my boyfriend, planning different routes every time to keep it interesting. I’d drive to other SUNY campuses to track down the books I needed in their libraries. I’d drive to Ithaca for cute-college-town window shopping. I’d drive nowhere in particular, through the hills and trees until it felt like I could be anywhere. Everything felt okay as long as I was in motion.

At the end of October my boyfriend set off to follow a road of his own, slacking westward toward Austin. I couldn’t quite follow him, but I couldn’t quite let him go. I wasn’t ready to embrace my new independent lifestyle, but I had no desire to abandon it, either. Months of limbo lay ahead. And driving. Lots more driving. The weather was rainier and colder, snowy at times, but that didn’t stop me. I could go for hours in my merry Oldsmobile, maps on the floor and cassette tapes all over the seat – REM, Throwing Muses, Morrissey, Lush, Jane Siberry, Concrete Blonde. Somehow I managed to pull off good grades anyway. Don’t ask me how.

And that’s pretty much the state I was in when I decided to write a paper for my “Narratives of Travel” class on On the Road. Given my current state of drifting, it seemed like a perfect fit. Unfortunately, I found myself enjoying the book way too much at face value to successfully pull off some “colonizer/colonized” reading. I’d sit down to work on it and get swept away by the wild, seamless flow of words; mired in the fantasy; outraged by the foreshadowing of 1990’s male angst bullshit depicted so unapologetically.

Still, I didn’t have an academically useful word to say about the book. The more I learned about Kerouac himself, the more I found myself genuinely liking the guy. I can’t say that I loved the book. But I loved its spirit and mythology, and at the time I wanted desperately to believe in that mythology even as the narrative itself eventually dispels it. My deadline drew nearer, the workload in my other classes increased, and I started to panic. Driving back from a weekend at my parents’ place one freezing cold afternoon, I felt my throat seize up with anxiety and a fierce impulse to drop out of school once and for all. Instead, I decided that I was simply not going to write that paper. In fact, I decided to drop the class altogether.

My only regret was that my On the Road experience was muddled in all that unpleasantness. Any enjoyment I might have found in the book was overshadowed by my gawky attempts at scholarship and a steady undercurrent of anxiety and doubt. I promised myself I’d read the book again someday, purely for entertainment this time. My old copy of On the Road is one of the few books that’s moved with me to every subsequent apartment and city with the best of intentions.

Well, here we are – seventeen years later – and I finally got around to picking it up again. The funny thing is, when I decided to blog about it I found myself just as blocked as I was back in grad school. I certainly wasn’t expecting that. What is it about this book? Maybe it just doesn’t want to be written about.

I’ll tell you one thing, though. Reading it now . . . oh, it’s incredibly sad. So sad. All that madness and frenzy; the starving; the left-behind children and women and friends; how it all goes zooming by with barely a pause. Time and again the protagonist himself gets left behind in a broken heap while his friends move wildly on. And then there’s this heartbreaking bit of insight about how children see their parents:

“I realized these were the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered, stabilized-within-the-photo lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless nightmare road.”

How did I miss this sadness the first time? Too mired in my own story, I suppose. Too wrapped up in my nascent scholarship and too eager to believe the mythology and dream of some magical “road” unfolding endless possibilities in my own life. I was more hopeful then, in spite of all the chick angst. How could I sense the weariness and regret in this book when I’d barely ventured into the world myself?

On the Road is simply a beautiful narrative and I’m glad I finally read it again. I’m also kind of glad I never tried to turn it into a paper. I mean, look at this guy. How can you academic-paper that?:


Teacher Tom said...

For me, the "problem" with Kerouac is that it's hard to take him seriously as a literary figure. I mean, On The Road is readable, but like a beer with "drinkability," I consider that sort of a minimum standard. (I read The Dharma Bums as well and it was pretty awful.)

On the other hand, you can't ignore his cultural and emotional significance, so that's why we keep reading him.

I'll probably have to read On The Road again now for those very reasons.

Floor Pie said...

What I love about Kerouac as a literary figure is his honest struggle to find a voice that he felt captured the integrity of his experience.

We always hear about how Kerouac banged out On the Road in a few weeks. But for years before that he'd been trying to fictionalize/literary-ize (yeah, I like to make up my own words) his road stories and was frustrated with how inaccurately the style conveyed the feeling. Finally he decided to abandon the trappings and just let the story itself do the driving.

Yes, it's an easy read, but it's a complex one, too. I kept finding myself "rewinding" and reading back over the scenes word by word. There's incredible depth at every corner, and the fact that the narrator chooses to breeze by it all (and manages to breeze by without glazing over) is another layer of intriguing.

Definitely worth a re-read.

Reservoir Dad said...

I don't think you can go past Kerouac for the rhythm and musicality in his prose and poetry. That Steve Allen Show reading has been a favourite reading of mine for years and something I will always go back to. I will also listen to 'The Jack Kerouac Collection (Box Set)' at various times right throughout my life. For me, hearing people read their work out load is a disappointment 99% of the time and is the reason I stopped attending most book launches and literary readings back here in Melbourne. Kerouac, however, is inspirational to me and I get as much pleasure listening to him read as I do listening to some of my favourite music. I can't read Kerouac now without hearing his voice in my head. I also loved his insecurity, his self doubt and his desperate need for approval and acceptance. He was brilliantly flawed.

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