I think I was probably older than most writers are when they first realize that literature is not just books–that it is a system of ideas and ideals, a paradigm, a way of being.
I was 18 or 19. It was the middle of July in a steaming, sucking, temperate summer, and I was in northern Minnesota at a cabin my family has rented every summer for as long as I have been alive. Back then, the cabin got three channels, broadcast, via antennae. After trying, unsuccessfully, to get drunk in local bars, I was suffering a dearth of shit to do.
Desperate, I tagged along with my considerably more bookish sister to the bookstore in town.
I gravitated toward the classics section thinking that classics must be classics because they’re better than average; my odds of not ending up disappointed must be best there.
I stopped at the first name I recognized but that I was sure didn’t belong to someone who had been dead for over 100 years.
It was not On the Road, whose title I recognized but whose specific significance was unclear to me. It was another book by the same author whose back cover sounded more interesting. It was Dharma Bums.
I read the whole thing in a day and a half. I got a terrible sunburn from sitting in the fishing boat, aluminum hull clanging against the dock, reading non-stop for hours upon hours at a time.
It was unhemmed, expansive, and bursting–by train, by road, by foot, going where it wanted to go regardless of where the pavement pointed. It was prose, head, and heart without boundary. It was nowhere and everywhere all at once. Omniscient.
For a non-reader (and a non-writer), it was a revelation. I had no idea a book could be like that. No one ever told me. I didn’t know you could do that.
It changed my brain forever, kicking open a door to whole new world of ideation that, like it or not, I would not be able to close again.
He has had this effect on lots of people, apparently.
So imagine my disappointment, shame, and dismay when, as my attention in school slowly began to turn more towards literature and I proudly trotted into my classes eager to talk about Jack Kerouac and the Beats, I discovered that I was a decade or two late to the party. At some point Kerouac had gone out of fashion, and there was furthermore a vocal, bored majority in the literary quorum who actively despised him.
Their primary concern seemed to be that too many people liked him, too many people read him. Too many shitty writers, especially. Secondary to that, he was male, white, and dead.
All dick moves on his part.
He commanded the kind of cultural ballast most writers dream of when they dream of becoming writers but that even the most talented and savvy among us have no hope of ever actually wielding in the current literary and cultural climate.
The kind of power that no writer has had hope of wielding, perhaps, since Kerouac. Maybe because of Kerouac.
To empower him was to admit vulnerability to a tantalizing occupational ideal that he had created, that had helped saturate the market by making “writer” an occupation that could get a person laid or on TV, and that had, for decades, proved to be a totally futile pursuit for too many.
To top it all off, perhaps worst of all, he didn’t even want it.
That such an insufferable persona and writerly stereotype should be so ubiquitous in American culture and literature is, for a lot of people, simply too much to bear for too long. It is difficult to remember that he was not and still is not the stereotype. He was the prototype.
As in so many areas of life, anything or anyone too great (in terms of value or size, as you wish) or too singular has to be cut down and profaned to protect the rest of us against forced acknowledgment of our own common smallness.
Conversely, at the time, arbitrary attacks on Kerouac’s character and legend undermined my pride in my feeling–a naive one, but one that I nevertheless still hold on to now–that Jack Kerouac and I understood something that most people didn’t understand. That we shared a kind of unique intuitive perceptual tic. That because of it, I could and would always and forever and exactly understand anything he said or did and nothing about him would ever catch me off guard.
I loved Kerouac with the kind of obsession that one only comes by out of all-consuming envy. If I digested enough, read enough, studied enough, I hoped–without knowing I hoped it–that I’d become him. In worshiping him, I worshiped my highest ideal for myself and the person I thought, deep down, I already was.
My Piscean brother. He lifted me up.
When he was cut down, so was I.
I had internalized him. He was me and I was he and so on.
Goo goo ga joob.
It was naive and immature. I played my own part in the Kerouac mimicries so despised by his most exasperated critics, not because I’d ever sat down or set out to write in Kerouac’s voice but because his voice–singular and infectious to begin with–was so emblematic of the kinds of thoughts I wanted to express but struggled to, it took on synonymity with them. When I thought of those ideas, the thoughts came in his voice.
It was a bizarre experience, and the fixation–a kind of repetitive motion–was so severe that I had to refuse myself the liberty of writing anything within 3 days of reading anything by Jack Kerouac. Not even a quote or a line. His voice was a song that stuck in my head, and any time I tried to open my mouth, I sang it. It only took a few notes.
The Subterraneans was the second Kerouac-dealt blow to the head that altered, permanently, my perception of language and writing and that laid the groundwork for the final, fateful moment when, against all prudent fiscal consideration and good sense, I changed my major for the last time.
The book is said to have been written in three straight days and nights without sleep, during one of Kerouac’s Benzedrine benders. The punctuation in the book only vaguely resembles that which one ordinarily finds in the English language. Sentences rarely–and arbitrarily–end. Emdashes abound and quotes are left hanging open. The prose careens, caroms, and hurtles, trying desperately to keep up with a brain speeding relentlessly forward and out of voluntary control, like a body pulled ahead of feet in a flat run downhill.
The craft is impeccable.
The love affair the book describes is short, runs at high speed to impossible heights, plummets, and ends, just like the writing of the book, like the Beats’ heyday in SF, just like the voice in the prose–unable to stop, slow down, pace, or return to correct, it just plows forward, determined to capture every detail, every interjecting thought, by hook or by crook.
It was a revelation. It was harmony of form and content free of overproduction. Order from chaos. It just emerged like that. Fully formed as Athena. Organically & intuitively. “First thought, best thought,” Ginsberg said, which I trust was true for Kerouac and that I was sure could be true for me if I could ever let down my guard enough to be aware of my first thought. If I could ever just get my hands on whatever was lurking under there, the slick shadow moving around beneath the bubbles, before some other part of my brain rushed to alter & approve it or cover it up altogether.
Those spontaneous, uninhibited creative moments of seeming possession, dissociation, and automatic writing that writers have traditionally attributed to Gods and supernatural creatures seem to have been readily accessible to Jack Kerouac for much of his adult life. And if they were not actually, his ability to make it look that way is unparalleled in American literature. It’s not surprising that he preferred religious imagery–and that it is what others have preferred to use when speaking about him. Every act of writing appeared as in invocation or an ecstatic outburst comparable only to the visions of mystics.
And yet, the experiences were profane.
Swaddling himself and his friends in the language of religion was a protective gesture–a pulling-down of the heavens around himself and his confidants, vulnerable as they were, wandering in a socio-cultural wilderness, most of them dogged by unrelenting demons, none of which were ever totally apparent in his writing. He was loathe to pathologize himself or others, and it is only in nonfiction–mostly written by periphery characters or people who weren’t there–that we learn of the darker side of the Dharma and the Beat.
Childlike as he was, he was a patron. A guardian.
Even in death, he manages to wrap his arms around the shoulders of the young, the timid, the eager-to-matter. Young writers looking for God in a brutish world at a time in their lives in which the needly nature of existence is slowly, tortuously, revealing itself to them. Why not Kerouac? Why not?
I prefer to think of his appeal to young writers in this way. For me, he has been a safe escape while I learned to think and write for myself. He remains a genuine inspiration–revisiting his work now, my chest still burns at the recognition of my own thoughts, my mind sets into a excitable motion whose only possible expression is in the written word. I still, sometimes, read him aloud to friends when we are drunk.
In his prose, expansive emotions and complex ideas bubble up and overwhelm from the tiniest holes in the surface of a dull day, and the powerful, complex academic mechanics and melodies of language find accessible, organic expression.
Kerouac makes writing fun. Makes being alive on planet earth a heady, religious experience in and of itself.
For that, he could be the savior of the old and jaded, too, were he allowed.
If he makes you uncomfortable, if his ubiquity unsettles you, if his devotees make you embarrassed, it might be for what you see of your secret self in them.
The pimple-faced writer. The unsophisticated literary appreciator. The artist too excited to be properly ashamed.
You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.
But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.
Happy 90th birthday, Little John.