“[…]the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
– On the Road, pg. 7
So, before we start: everybody’s read On The Road, right? It’s one of those books like Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mocking Bird, a classic of post-adolescence and wanderlust, the book that ‘spawned a million journeys’. It’s also a hipster Bible. I feel like some kind of interloper just reading it in public. On the back jacket of my fucked-up old copy I found in a box in my daughter’s room, there’s a glowing declaration from Bob Dylan:
“It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s.”
Now, I haven’t read On the Road since I was 23 years old, living in an east London shit-box, with no money, no possessions, working part-time in a book store with a whole load of spare time on my hands. Looking back now, as a 30-year-old father of two children (still no money), I can say with wistful tenderness that it was the greatest period of reading in my life. I snorted books up. I huffed books, maybe two a week. I couldn’t get enough. I sat in an old armchair that had been left in the room where myself and my future wife lived, all dusty and caved-in, and read a shit-load of books.
At that point, I had actually been out to the west of America, to San Francisco, Vegas, and Nevada, LA, many of the places described in the book, because one of my best friends lives out in Anaheim, California. I had travelled around a bit, not like Sal Paradise, of course, but I’d done some America.
So, anyway, I read it, I liked it, I understood what it was. It hadn’t aged, not at all. It was a pure kinetic candle, glowing in the darkness, beautiful and true. But, unlike Bob Dylan and apparently everybody else, it didn’t change my life. On The Road was always in the back of my mind during my own travels across America as one of those books that defined a generation, defined Beat and the 1950s. I’d read some Burroughs, read some Ginsberg, I knew about the enormous literary and cultural significance of Kerouac and the Beats. As Ginsberg puts it:
‘Hip without being slick, they are intelligent without being corny, they are all intellectual as hell and know all about the pound, without being pretentious or talking too much about it, they are very quiet, very Christlike’.
Yet I only understood it in a way that somebody who has not seriously read the books involved in the movement can understand it, a kind of TV-understanding, watered-down, the way perfume adverts try to imitate art. In other words, I thought I knew what I was getting when I sat down to read On the Road. I brought my preconceptions to the table, like a 23 year old who reads, and never took the book for what it was, really. Also, I was deep into a post-modernist phase, reading way too much DF Wallace, Pynchon, William Gaddis and thinking that the way those guys write is the only way to write (I was young and stupid), and Kerouac’s book hit me as something lightweight compared to say, Gravity’s Rainbow, which I had only read a few months before.
I was wrong of course, but it goes to show that reading, the act of reading, and enjoying books deeply and profoundly, is enormously contextual. Much of the time, it depends upon life circumstances, on the place where you find yourself; choosing the next book, and not only the next book, but the right next book, is the hardest part about being a semi-to-serious reader, about wanting to blend your soul up with a book, instead of simply reading the fucking thing, letting your eyes wash over it. There are people who can just read & read & read, anything, everywhere, all the time. They can skip from Hemingway to G R R Martin, and not give it a second thought. I always wish I was one of these beautiful people, but I get hung up on what I’ve already read, and find it difficult to jump from genre to genre, or even from writer to writer, constantly questioning whether I’ve taken what I needed from every book that I read. I end up taking long breaks between books, being unable to settle on anything, unless I plan ahead what I might read for the next few months. Which is dull, and anal, and deeply obsessive, and weird, but all readers have strange hangups and rituals that affirm and ratify their reading. We’re outcasts and misfits, the ramblers on the edge of society, hoping that literature will save us; and when we find a book or a writer that rings true, and sings to our soul, we want to hang onto that book. On the Road, on my first read, came at the wrong time, I guess, is all I can say about that.
So, and but fast forward. I decide to read Time’s 100 Greatest Novels and blog about it. A fucking stupid idea. Who would do such a thing? But what to read first? Which book would set the tone for a mammoth undertaking, kindle my spirit and allow me to ease myself into the challenge, without burning out early? I perused the list, couldn’t make a decision, left it for a few days, looked at my bookshelves (way too many books, looking at me with barely concealed disdain), then walked upstairs to my daughter’s room, where I know I had packed away more boxes filled with books from our last house move.
And there, in the first box I opened, staring up at me, were Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, half lounging against a wall, Kerouac staring straight at camera, Cassady glancing off precociously into the aether, the book lying there as if it had been waiting for me for seven long years, and I thought,
Shit, I’ma start with On the Road.
So I picked it up and started reading. Many people would say that 23 is too late to read On the Road; 30 is certainly too late. But it seems to me that, as I sit reading it this time, I am part of the novel, it is deep inside me, unlike last time. And this, I think, comes from having read Whitman in the intervening period. Which leads me to my next point.
“Whatever satisfies the soul is truth.” – Walt Whitman
Whitman declared that the things truly worth saying were essentially indescribable. Like ‘I Hear America Singing’, or ‘Song of Myself’, On the Road is a cacophony of American voices and visions, an embodiment of a continent, written down, but also part of the spirit, felt within, rather than the page; it is the tectonic boundary between Man and Earth. Reading Whitman and Kerouac, a sense of belonging emerges, even for a British citizen like me; not only a sense of belonging to America, but a sense of belonging in a wider sense, in the overwhelming, unfathomable way in which we all belong to the earth, in the way in which we all go about, unheeded, beneath the same skies. It is obvious Kerouac had his sights set on Whitman from the start; the Beats are an extension of Whitman’s beautiful vision of writing in America, and On the Road is a continuation of the pioneering spirit, the journey west, ever west, and only west.
The story of how On The Road was written, in a mad three week frenzy in April 1951 (but also across a span of years, the life of a continent) is as famous as the book itself. The creation of Sal Paradise is inextricable from the creation of ‘Jack Kerouac’ as he was writing his novel. Seriously, the book is totally a meta-textual commentary on its own creation; the French call it a roman à clef, or ‘novel with a key’. Not only does it contain the preeminent figures of the Beat movement, often parodied or shown to be somewhat miserable or downtrodden figures (Ginsberg, Burroughs, Cassady), but it directly concerns the events of the writing itself; as Sal Paradise/Kerouac made these spiritual journeys back and forth across America, yo-yo-ing here and there, he was formulating the structure and written style for how he could represent these travels as a piece of literature, as well as discovering something about the soul of America:
“Dean and I were embarked on a journey through post-Whitman America to find that America and to find the inherent goodness in American man. It was really a story about 2 Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him.”
God, it seems, was the Novel, a new written form to portray what Kerouac called ‘Beat’, after the ‘beatific law’ of heavenly transcendence and the American slang term ‘beat’, for emotionally and religiously consumed and overwrought. Post-war, American fiction seemed a little ‘beat’, crumbling under the weight of its own expectations; earlier attempts of Kerouac and his companions to sketch out Beat literature and poetry had only met with some success. His own Town and the City (1950) is a conventional precursor to his road travels, documenting his life before he met Cassady and came to believe him some shimmering religious figure; in it, he is searching, like Paradise, for something meaningful, a truth larger than can be written in mere words. It is telling that he began On the Road, in several truncated and dissected forms, continually being interrupted by his travels and the presence of Cassady, Moriarty in the book, his ‘fabulous Roman candle’, whom he ‘shuffled after’ as he had done all his life after people that meant something, embodied something. As in many novels (All the King’s Men and The Great Gatsby follow a similar method), Kerouac was to portray himself as an immensely ordinary individual caught up in the events of extraordinary people, people who burned bright in the American night. Each time he disappeared into the American wilderness, he would eventually return to ‘stare at my own manuscript with hatred and unknowing‘. And each time he would start in new ways, writing, writing, always writing.
What finally emerged, after his long travels and three week writing hysteria, was called ‘spontaneous prose’, a freewheeling, lyrical method of portraying things as they truly happened, by typing so quickly and incessantly that the truth emerges, beautiful and raw, on the page, without the limits of conscious thought. To maintain his momentum, and ensure that he would not get disjointed by having to change typewriter paper, Kerouac famously joined together more than twenty long sheets of writing paper into a ‘scroll’, on which he typed the entirety of his first draft. The scroll still exists, and is often displayed; it is a remarkable emblem of literature, and caused Truman Capote to snort: ‘That’s not writing. It’s just typing.’
Of course, anybody who reads On The Road can see immediately that Kerouac was not simply ‘typing’; the lyrical, unheeded beauty is there for all to see. The novel is the embodiment of Whitman’s declaration that ‘the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem’. The spirit of Whitman hangs everywhere about this thing, like the Ghost of the Susquehanna, treading and retreading the land, part of the land itself, the land’s voice and choir. This writing, the method, the product, is different to the ‘stream of consciousness’ form that had been forged by writers in the early 20th century; looking at, say, Ulysses, or To the Lighthouse, and then reading On the Road, you get a stark understanding that these styles are worlds apart. The methodical, symbolism-laden prose of Ulysses is immaculate and often perfectly encapsulates the inner workings of a mind; like Kerouac, Joyce wrote Dublin, wrote it into fucking existence, write there on the page. But Ulysses lacks the unmitigated spontaneity of On the Road, the unthinking aimlessness at the novel’s core; spontaneous prose and stream of consciousness are different beasts entirely.
Whitman saw the soul of America bound up with his own body, his flesh, just as Kerouac did; the writing down of America was essential, all-important, it would save humanity. And the road, it stretched forth, and it described and explained the American more than he could explain and describe himself, if only you could stay on it, not deviate from its subtle path:
“O public road, I say back I am not afraid to leave you,
yet I love you,
you express me better than I can express myself.”
Over the next few blog posts, I’ll be detailing my read of On the Road, expounding on Whitman, Kerouac and all of those jazz references, and the influence Kerouac had on so many writers, including Hunter S. Thompson and Thomas Pynchon. For now, I’m off to read some more (and eat ice cream and apple pie).