Monday, February 18, 2008

Book Report: "On the Road" (Scroll) by Jack Kerouac

The continent "groans" again and again.

The night is too often "sad," the cities are "mad" or "wild" and "sad" some more. New York is the "edge of the continent," and San Francisco, too and sometimes they're the "rim of the world," or some similar allusion.

Jack Kerouac and his friends, hanging outside New York City's Harmony Bar in this jazz/romantic video capturing their "beat" essence, would be considered drunks and losers by the standards of most. The author's muse and messiah, Neal Cassady, is a fellow too easily distracted, undisciplined and, by today's measurements, a candidate for depression medication.

In the recently released On the Road: The Original Scroll (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)Cassady's criminal bent and complete disregard for his friends' concerns or the safety of strangers are drawn in much starker contrast than they are in the (we now know for sure) much toned-down Viking Press version of the 1950s.

But it works and wonderfully so.

Whatever the personal flaws of the roadgoers, and they are multiple, whatever the prosodic sins of their faithful secretary Jack, equally numerous, The Scroll is blessed with energy and truth and dynamism, a beatific rhythm and sound that hold up, even though 50 years on we've read it all before.

But where what was once novel becomes cliché with the passing of time, The Scroll takes on enhanced value as snapshot of a country long-disappeared.

The Scroll contains a hundred pages more than the edited "On the Road," and that's a lot of adventure and resulting ruminations, as Kerouac takes us to Denver and San Francisco, and back out to New York and down to North Carolina, back up again, and then down through Louisiana back up to San Francisco, New York again and finally through Texas to damp and sexy San Antonio before shooting through "biblical" Mexico, now gone, too.

Even the "normal" people in this frantic tome, those with wives and jobs they stick with are not like us anymore, working on ships and in factories as they do, residing in company towns and city centers.

The Scroll is a sweeping panorama of America and of thought beaten out on teletype paper by a guy on speed; maybe drug speed, maybe coffee, but probably something else that burned out of Kerouac like heavy kerosene and which caused his death when the last vapors rose from his being and poofed into the dusty firmament.

It has politics without the jeremiads and program points, just whole manifestoes in a masterful word-stroke such as "sullen unions," a flavor and entire reality nailed to the mind's wall.

"The American police are involved in psychological warfare against those Americans who don't frighten them with imposing papers and threats. There's no defense. Poor people have their lives interfered with ad infinitum by these neurotic busybodies. It's a Victorian police force; it peers out of musty windows and wants to inquire about everything, and can make crimes if the crimes don't exist to their satisfaction."

It is loving landscape portraiture as in this passage laid down about Neal, his "whore wife" Luanne (meant here as flattery), and Jack's departure from New Orleans:

"Port Allen -- Poor Allen -- where the river's all rain and roses in a misty pinpoint darkness and where we swung around a circular drive in yellow foglight and suddenly saw the great black body below a bridge and crossed eternity again. What is the Mississippi River -- a washed clod in the rainy night, a soft plopping from drooping Missouri banks, a dissolving, a riding of the tide down the eternal waterbed, a contribution to brown foams, a voyaging past endless vales and trees and levees down, down along, down along, by Memphis, Greenville, Eudora, Vicksburg, Natchez, Port Allen, and Port Orleans and Point of the Deltas, by Venice and the Night's Great Gulf out. So the stars shine warm in the Gulf of Mexico at night. From the soft and thunderous Carib comes electricity, and from the continental Divide where rain and rivers are decided come swirls, and the little raindrop that in Dakota fell and gathered mud and roses rises resurrected from the sea and flies on back to go and bloom again in waving mells of the Mississippi's bed, and lives again."

The passage lies almost exactly at the book's midpoint; stands as strong backbone to all the word swirling before and after, a fine spine, like the Mississippi in its marriage with the landscape.

Everywhere lively applications, symbols, poetry pulled from the very map that is America, multiple magic in Missouri and Mississippi, no invention with Port Orleans and Point of the Deltas, by Potash, and Venice, just the natural ordering of an evident and obvious song about the land itself.

Early on in this passage the prose become unnecessary, the point made, ripe for a Sixth Avenue editor's pen. But gripped by the author's sweaty hand, we are yanked along, pointed here and there on the keyboard toward ecstatic sites he has taken the time to see for us.

Can the Carib be both soft and thunderous? Does the oscillation between them make electricity? On paper it does. Is there such a thing as a mell or does his lazy resort to something that sings make it go down so much easier, and isn't that part of the job?

Mell is a swell on the Mississippi and we know that, even if we didn't before.

It is not easy to sift through all the postmodern swill that has come after and still be awed at the pure audacity of Kerouac; the audacity to make up words, to appear at his New York editor's office sweating and stinking of chemical ooze with a manuscript written on 120 feet of rolled paper demanding respect of The Scroll as if it were plumbed from Dead Sea depths.

So goes it with the aspiring philosopher whom, even if he is a bum, still philosophizes for all of us and not just for those of high brow and intentions:

"death will overtake us before heaven. The one thing that we yearn for in our living days, that makes us sigh and groan and undergo sweet nauseas of all kinds, is the remembrance of some lost bliss that was probably experienced in the womb and can only be reproduced -- tho we hate to admit it -- in death. But who wants to die. More of this later."

Beyond bum philosophy or travel writing The Scroll renders social commentary still relevant today:

"On the sidewalk characters swarmed. Everybody was looking at everybody else. It was the end of the continent no more land. Somebody had tipped America like a pinball machine and all the goofballs had come rolling to LA in the southwest corner. I cried for all of us. There was no end to the American sadness and the American madness. Someday we'll all start laughing and roll on the ground when we realize how funny it's been. Until then there is a lugubrious seriousness I love in all of this."

There's that "end of the continent" bit while "sadness and madness" appear elsewhere in a vignette of Kerouac's entitled "October In the Railroad Earth," as "end of the land sadness end of the land gladness" not precisely alike, but essentially the same literary trick.

Yet if you're hip to all of this, if you can dig it and know time, then it's not lack of imagination so much as your favorite band playing the same songs at a second show. And Kerouac likened his writing to "blowing," which is what the trumpeters and saxophoners of his time did, in fact, do.

And then there's Neal; stripped of Dean Moriarity's mask and draped in a legend Cassady came to embody for three generations of misspent youths, stealing four cars at a roadhouse party outside Denver, denied entry into the homes of kith and kin alike, boy to his father's bum and disappeared dad, wrangler, brakeman, seducer of everybody else's girlfriends (and boyfriends), absentee father himself.

Says "Naked Lunch" author William Burroughs of Cassady when they visit him in the Louisiana swamps, "He seems to be headed for his ideal fate, which is compulsive psychosis dashed with a jigger of psychopathic irresponsibility and violence."

Pretty smart fellow Bill Burroughs, as were they all, in spite of their nasty habits.

Cassady floats free of all preconceived notions regarding expected behavior, free of the bars others attempt to bind him with through holy judgments...part-time N.Y. hipster and happy pervert to Kerouac's ambiguous French-Catholic curiosities.

"He lived with Diane in a coldwater flat in the East Seventies. When he came home at night he took off all his clothes and put on a hiplength Chinese silk jacket and sat in his easy chair to smoke a waterpipe loaded with tea. These were his coming-home pleasures: together with a deck of dirty cards. 'Lately I've been concentrating on this deuce of diamonds. Have you noticed where her other hand is? I'll bet you can't tell. Look long and try to see.' He wanted to lend me this deuce of diamonds, which depicted a tall mournful fellow and a lascivious sad whore on a bed trying a position. 'Go ahead man, I've used it many times!'"

Drunken romantics bound early to your graves. Who should purchase your peddlings? A dank Detroit theater is no palace at 4 a.m. and an alley is an alley is an alley in the crappy part of a marginal Texas town. Or is it? Throwing down your challenge, your example was enjoyment. "Man can you dig the beauty and kicks!"

"We wandered out and negotiated several dark mysterious blocks. Innumerable houses hid behind verdant almost jungle-like yards we saw glimpses of girls in front rooms, girls on porches, girls in the bushes with boys. "I never knew this mad San Antonio! Think what Mexico'll be like. Lessgo! Lessgo!"

Yet for all its ebullience, "On the Road" is but a marginally successful search for joy that, at bottom, asserts something is not right in these sojourners nor in the America which spawned them.

"Looking at snapshots of Cassady's children," Kerouac writes, "I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth and well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness of the riot, or our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless nightmare road. Juices inform the world, children never know."

Nightmare and dream sit on different sides of the same coin and to know one, you must be familiar with the other.

The extension of the Mexico trip, trimmed to a classical dénouement in the edited version, renders the American break with an organic world wrought by the big bomb drops on Japan.

It is mentioned vaguely, as if to do so more emphatically might conjure another nuclear massacre, but in this passage we hear it and understand that, for all their rebellion and dissociation, the roadgoers are tainted by food from the same poisoned factory farm.

The indigenous peoples they saw, "knew who was the father and who was the son of antique life on earth, and made no comment. For when destruction comes to the world people will stare with the same eyes from the caves of Mexico as well as from the caves of Bali, where it all began and where Adam was suckled and taught to know."

Jack and Neal and the third wheel rolling with them are no heroes. They are car escapees from the psychic slaughter unleashed in their homeland, a sudden clanking folly from America with its three broken bozos inside. And the choice has been the same for half a century now: to be with them or against them.

Lead the way you lost and lonely bozos.

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