To Nowhere

On the Road from Road Novels 1957-1960 by Jack Kerouac.  Edited by Douglas Brinkley.  Library of America.  864 pp.

It’s an odd feeling to reread On the Road after just reading The Dharma Bums for the first time.  In a way it’s the same book all over again, Jack Kerouac on a mad dash around the country (actually the continent; he makes it down to Mexico) in pursuit of something or other; in The Dharma Bums it’s the Dharma, especially as espoused by Gary Snyder, and in On the Road it’s some other kind of truth, or maybe The Truth, incorporated in a man named Dean Moriarty, in real life Neal Cassady.  Kerouac was asking himself how to live, and believed at least in the beginning of the book that his friend Cassady had found the answer.  It was an immense letter from Cassady to Kerouac that apparently inspired this work, and the spontaneous style with which it was written.  And of course the book became a sensation when it was published in 1957.

Kerouac was in that generation that went off to the war (though he didn’t quite make it; he went to naval boot camp but came under psychiatric observation after repeated acts of insubordination, eventually received a psychiatric discharge) then returned home and hoped to come back to, or create, some form of normality.  The fifties were famously a time of conformity, when men went off to nameless offices every day wearing gray flannel suits, returned home to watch pro wrestling on the newly discovered invention of TV, ate frozen TV dinners, drank instant coffee, guzzled Budweiser and smoked Luckies.  It all sounds a trifle dull, but people wanted that dullness after the trauma of war.  Nature Boy Buddy Rogers was as much excitement as they could take.

Some men found all that stifling.  They wanted to break out of conformity, overthrow the traces of convention and find the true vitality of life.  People seemed to think Neal Cassady accomplished that.  Kerouac wasn’t the only one; his old friend Allen Ginsberg (who shows up in this book as Carlo Marx[1]) felt the same way, and every woman who met Cassady—a good looking man—seemed to fall into bed with him immediately.  He that power over people and seemed to enjoy it.  He showed up and things started to happen.

On the Road is the better novel of the two.  It was the first one, for one thing; The Dharma Bums seems rather obviously a writer trying to capitalize on his earlier success.  Kerouac also genuinely freed up his prose in On the Road; it seems wilder and freer and more expansive than in the later book.  It was an experiment in composition that worked well one time.

But I would have to say it gets tiresome after a while, at least for this nearly seventy year old man (it may be a young man’s book).  Cassady seems vital and alive, and searching for experience, but doesn’t have some deep secret about life.  He likes to find a new woman and fall in love and marry her and have some babies—he does all that two or three times in the book; I lost count—but didn’t give a thought to the women and children he left behind.  He loves to drive, and apparently drives well, if illegally (way over the speed limit) and often drunkenly, but when he finally gets someplace all he does is get a blue collar job, find a crummy apartment, and spend as much time partying and staying drunk as possible.  It’s wild and cool, like the jazz that he loves: Go, man, go, all night long, stagger out of the club in the wee hours of the morning.  He seemed to think there was truth in excess.  But his answer to all the problems of life was to get in a car and drive off somewhere.

As for the grand theory of spontaneous prose that the Beats espoused:  Kerouac did apparently write in rapid bursts; he finished the first version of On the Road in three weeks, though he did substantial revision later, and apparently composed The Subterraneans, which occupies a hundred pages of this Library of America volume, in three days.  But he wasn’t the first person ever to write a lot, or to write in that way;  I remember once reading about Thomas Wolfe walking down the street singing to himself, “I wrote ten thousand words today,” and Wolfe was about as spontaneous as it gets (not always to much effect).  In The Realists, C.P. Snow states that most great writers of the world wrote extremely rapidly, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky.  Flaubert was the outlier, not the norm.  And I once read that Mark Twain wrote only in the summers, at some outdoor spot on the grounds of his massive home, and composed at an absolutely astonishing rate, thousands of words a day, revising almost nothing.  It certainly reads like spontaneous prose.  It’s some of the most beautiful writing ever done by an American.

The social critic Paul Goodman reviewed On the Road when it came out; I read his review years ago, before I’d read any of the Beats.  He too remarked that the young men in this book hadn’t grown into manhood, and that they had not discovered any man’s work (themes which he would expand on in his famous book Growing Up Absurd).  Kerouac of course had discovered his work; say what you want about his prose: the man was a writer, and produced a huge amount in his short life.  But he somehow wasn’t able to make writing into a way of life.

He had the same problem with the Dharma.  He practiced Buddhism and wrote in brief frantic bursts, didn’t know what to do with the rest of his time but stay drunk.[2]  That’s not a good long-term strategy.

[1][1] Apparently a cross between Karl and Groucho.

[2] There’s a YouTube of his appearance on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line, and he was obviously plastered.