Let the cliches explode in the sky, like roman candles that burn, burn, burn and everybody says “awww”. The New York Times Book Review is a Jack Kerouac theme issue today, and I wish they’d just kill me instead.
This is why I stopped writing about the Beats on LitKicks (which launched in July 1994 with Jack Kerouac above the fold). I love Kerouac no less today than I did that innocent summer, but I have been exposed to too much bad writing about him, all of it fervently “pseudo-Beat” in style. Today’s cover article on the publication of the unedited On The Road: The Original Scroll by Luc Sante is a perfect example.
Critics often try to sound energetic and fitful and passionate when writing about Kerouac, all the while covering up a journalistic yawn. So in Sante’s words Kerouac “feverishly pounded out” the first draft of On The Road like Jackson Pollock “fighting and dancing his work into being”, inspired by thoughts of Neal Cassady “with his need to move, his vast yahooing enthusiasm and his insatiable priapic drive”, in a voice that’s allowed to “wail and swoop and riff without the commas that hobble it in the novel”.
But Sante also reveals (both intentionally and unintentionally) that Kerouac doesn’t mean much to him at all, and it’s certainly a hollow pronouncement when he concludes, much too easily, that this newly published raw first draft of On The Road is better than the 1957 classic. Not so fast there, Luc. I’m sure The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex by Owen Chase also has its charms, but I’ll continue to read Moby Dick, and I’m sure Henry David Thoreau’s scattered notes are also wonderful, but I’ll stick with Walden. Since Sante also remarks elsewhere that he only ever had a casual interest in Kerouac’s writings, I have to say that he was a lousy choice to write this article. Why not get somebody — Rick Moody, Barry Gifford, T. C. Boyle?– who is on the record as liking and understanding On The Road?
Matt Weiland does a much better job with John Leland’s Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of “On The Road” (They’re Not What You Think). He fairly debunks the book, not for bad ideas but mainly for dumb gimmicky lines like “7 Habits of Highly Beat People”. I’ve taken a look at Leland’s book and I’m only slightly impressed. Leland is absolutely correct that Kerouac saw himself as a reformer, a literary savior for a sick country, and he’s also right that during the 1960’s he broke hippie ranks to argue for the Vietnam war and conservative family values. However, Leland goes to far when he concludes that “maybe Kerouac’s legacy is not Woodstock and Dockers but Costa Mesa and Christian rock.” For Kerouac, as for Dostoevsky and T. S. Eliot, reactionary politics and Christian conservatism had a strong existential pull. But none of these writers embraced conformist or complacent versions of Christianity, and Leland’s “Costa Mesa and Christian rock” misses its target by some distance. Weiland does a good job of placing this book in context, and of finding some worth in it.
There’s more Kerouac today, and it’s not impressive. A back-page display of international On The Road book covers by Dwight Garner is well-intentioned and wins points for naming its online source, but the cover images that look bright and sharp on screen look dull on newsprint, and the page design is uninspired.
Perhaps as an inside joke (since this is the unofficial “Kerouac” issue), occasional NYTBR reviewer (and former Kerouac girlfriend) Joyce Johnson even shows up in this issue with a mildly interesting review of Leslie Garis’ House of Happy Endings. Then there’s Jack with an Elvis pompadour (why?) on the front cover. I hope the New York Times Book Review does not write about Kerouac for the next year, after this barrage.
There are two superb pieces in this Book Review. Dan Chiasson comes out punching at Poems From Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak, edited by Marc Falkoff. Chiasson sees the project as so compromised by government censorship as to be a travesty. I’m not sure if I agree or not (and I have a feeling we’ll be seeing a letter to the editor from Mark Falkoff shortly) but I admire Chiasson’s strong position.
Neil Gordon is possibly even harsher on the revered Austrian Peter Handke, whose novel Crossing the Sierra de Gredos he positively hates:
The translation, by Krishna Winston, is above suspicion. But from the first line, Handke’s readers are oppressed by tortured prose, a profusion of elliptical images, allegorical temptations and symbolic hints, which forcefully invite us to “sniff around” and “hunt for clues” — all the while undermining our every attempt to do so. Why the Sierra de Gredos? Why La Mancha?
Tell it, Gordon. I’ve read enough books like that myself, and I’m glad to know to avoid this one.