Monday, January 19, 2009

Book Report: "Why Kerouac Matters" by John Leland

Titles like "Why Kerouac Matters,"usually suggest the opposite is true.

Author John Leland seems to argue as much in this fascinating dissection of the great saint's canonical, On the Road.

The book's subtitle is, "The Lessons of On the Road (They're Not What You Think)," and as such, Leland has given the classic a read like no other and assembled incontrovertible evidence to support his surprising assertions.

His book attempts to grab by the horns a long-standing dilemma that, "Readers have always had a problem with Kerouac in that he had very traditional values, while living at odds with them."

Essentially, Leland argues that readers have gotten Kerouac wrong. That, rather than a paean to drinking, whoring, and experience-chasing embodied in Dean Moriarity's (Neal Cassady) star turn, On the Road is alternately a map to maturity, a yearning for family, and a search for God manifested in its lower-keyed narrator, Sal Paradise (Kerouac).

"Contrary to its rebel rep," he asserts, "On the Road is not about being Peter Pan; it is about becoming an adult. Its story is powerful and singularly gloomy...but good."

In the end, the hippies and Easy Riders of the '60s who adopted On the Road as a movement's manifesto and guide to living, were not Kerouac's favorite people.

Anybody who has seen the writer's drunken appearance on William Buckley's "Firing Line" can't help but be struck by the contempt he displayed toward his erstwhile disciples in a dressing down of hippie leader Ed Sanders with the words, "You like drawing attention to yourselves, don't you?"

Although right-wing thinkers such as Buckley used Kerouac as foil in debunking the dreams of his own ideological offspring, Leland says they did not take him seriously and saw the same "parlor act" many others did during his boozy and rapid descent.

Nonetheless, Leland's understanding of Kerouac is that of a profoundly conservative man trying to cut his way through modernity's tangle in a search for the eternal things.

Kerouac he writes, "had always been conservative -- a blue-collar son, Catholic, a veteran of the merchant marine and (briefly) the Navy."

For all its pot-smoking, drinking, petty-thievery and promiscuity, On the Road, Leland observes, "[E]nds with Sal sober, at peace, ensconced in domestic life with a new flame named Laura, a great beauty who offers him cocoa and a home in her loft."

Quite originally, he sees the arc of Kerouc's novel as a love story that starts with his aunt and ends up with a New York girl.

For all Kerouac's sensitivity and awareness, Leland seems to suggest the author was either resistant or unaware of the seismic social shifts occurring in post-war America; an unwitting agent of change.

"Kerouac had become like his father or Neal's, a relic of a working class that did not fit into the collegiate counterculture," writes Leland.

The writer, we are reminded in "Why Kerouac Matters," was not born into the suburban privilege of those who became his unwanted acolytes. He was the product of a New England factory town and a working class guy whose brother died young and father not long before On the Road was written.

Leland says: "The son of a printer, he put great stock in words as a material product, dutifully recording in his journal how many he produced in any given day as if he were laying bricks or clearing acres...He clung to an antiquated standard that measured a man by how much he produced, not how much he consumed."

So why the three-tome fascination with the crazy Cassady, Kerouac's muse?

Leland suggests that Neil is good for a time in Sal's life, just as Kerouac notes in his reading of On the Road for The Steve Allen Show, back in the '50s: "We're still great friends, we just have to move onto later phases of our life."

That's clear for those who stick with Kerouac and move beyond On the Road to something like The Dharma Bums, which takes the placid oriental scholar, poet and pacifist Garry Snyder as basis for its protagonist Japhy Ryder and proffers more settled, pure, even sweet lessons.

And Leland ensures that Cassady's history is not frozen in the frame of Kerouac's most famous effort.

He quotes Bob Weir, guitarist of the Grateful Dead, who knew Neal in the 1960s through an association with The Merry Pranksters, saying On the Road captured "the budding Cassady but never caught him in full bloom. He amounted to a whole lot more than Kerouac was ever around to document."

And so why does Kerouac matter when he was essentially reactionary; a religious guy whose "teachings" were taken out of context if not completely misunderstood?

Leland says that Kerouac, in Sal's clothing, "navigates distinct paths through the men's worlds of work, money and friendship; the domestic turf of love, sex and family; the artist's realm of storytelling, improvisation and rhythm; and the spiritual world of revelation and redemption. His lessons in all four areas remain relevant today -- any reader picking up the book for the first time can apply them to questions that are as new to him or her as they were to Sal."

You don't have to take Leland's word for it. He walks you through each "world," and in marvelous fashion, discoursing on America's socio-political evolution, drawing upon C. Wright Mills' White Collar to explain Kerouac's fall between the gaps of a national transition from factory work to office horror.

He melds this understanding with a detailed familiarity of popular culture, tabs each music to its own time, and draws a conclusion about what it all means.

For example, Leland perceives parallels in the evolution of jazz from the madness and rule-breaking of bop to the West Coast "cool" jazz pioneered by Miles Davis.

"Though cool or West Coast jazz became a swank soundtrack for collegiate swingers and bohemians the folks who read Kerouac's books -- Sal clings to the wilder sounds that came before. He sees the advent of cool like the arrival of the postwar middle class, steadily pushing out the cowboys and hoboes and bluesmen and prophets that he loves."

Leland correctly notes that On the Road begins with "career counseling and a lecture on the Protestant work ethic," as Sal expresses doubts about Moriarity's request that Paradise teach him to write. "[A]nd after all what do I really know about it except you've got to stick to it with the energy of a benny addict."

For the benefit of aspiring scribes, Leland observes just a little further on that, "The Paradise Career Plan boils down to a few time-honored principles: Work hard, live poor, travel light. And when in doubt, let your aunt cover your rent."

That's funny. Many have noted, critically, that Neal and Jack or Sal and Dean are hardly the fearless adventurers their legacy suggests, because throughout On the Road Sal/Jack often hits up his aunt for money to get them out scrapes.

But we must remember that On the Road is a tale of youthful adventure, not middle-aged tourism and remember, too, how the world makes allowances for the young, gives them a pass.

Leland addresses a facet of Kerouac's literature that most try to read right through on their way to the next beer-soused roadhouse party: religion.

Allen Ginsberg, whom Leland considers the crafter behind the media-generated image of Kerouac, noted that, "Everybody expected him to be a rebel and an idiot and angry, and he wasn't that at all. He was a suffering Buddhist who understood a great deal and was able to live with his mother. That's not a rebel."

In circles where he has been most popular, secular literary ones, Kerouac's religious talk has been mostly viewed as a product of his inner turmoil and considered, "uncool," Leland notes.

But the author put religion at the top of his list of concerns.

"To anyone who would listen, Kerouac professed that he and his friends constituted 'the Second Religiousness that Oswald Spengler prophesied for the West,' citing as evidence their 'beatific' [beat] indifference to things that are Caesar's...a tiredness of that, and a yearning for, a regret for, the transcendent value, or 'God,' again."

Leland sees a greater affinity between evangelical Billy Graham, than say, the counterculture hippies who spurned his deeper religiousness in favor of, "his license to handcraft his own belief system, not the beliefs he chose."

As for Graham, "Like Kerouac...he stressed earthshaking individual conversion experiences rather than intellectual engagement or study. 'Billy Graham is very hip,' Kerouac told an interviewer. 'What's Graham say, 'I'm going to turn out spiritual babies'? That's Beatness. But he doesn't know it. The Beat Generation has no interest in politics, only mysticism, that's their religion. It's kids standing on the street and talking about the end of the world."

All of which, Leland asserts, lands Kerouac's legacy less with Woodstock than with Christian rock and Rick Warren, the guy who will bless President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration tomorrow.

"Why Kerouac Matters" is a delightful read, a careful and novel consideration of the writer, yet Leland might have stopped before his chapter, "Sal Paradise and the Lessons Unlearned," which makes a case as to why Kerouac doesn't matter.

The Beat author, he observes, has been studied more for "how he lived or how he wrote, not what he wrote. And most pop writing has focused on his contribution to the counterculture he rued. Any claims for the book's cultural impact and historical importance have relied little on its literary virtues."

Writers who want to adopt his style, Leland concludes, will fail to have their work taken seriously by the literary establishment while "a 21-year old applying to a writing program is as ill-advised to cite Jack Kerouac as an influence as O. Henry or H.P. Lovecraft."

Which, of course, begs the question of whether a Kerowackian would/should be interested in having their rough edges smoothed in exchange for a masters at some academic reading redoubt in the first place.

We think not, but thoroughly enjoyed this book.

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