Reviewing the Review: August 19 2007

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.

15 Responses

  1. The Scroll bookHi Levi,I did
    The Scroll book

    Hi Levi,

    I did not have the same negative reaction against Sante’s piece you had. I read it last night — didn’t know it was part of a theme issue. My reaction was so positive that I’d been thinking of referring to it as a good review to read as part of a little write up I’d post here.

    This came about because, last night, I stopped by a local bookstore to browse and partake of their marketing schemes whereby they send me a 30% off coupon very week. I had no idea that the scroll had been released. I’d heard it was to be published, that was talked about from the time we were on the beat-l. I always thought it would be published as a scroll. But it is a book. And as pointed out in Sante’s or another piece the manuscript was punctuated, it simply did not have paragraphs. I did like Sante’s piece probably because of passages like this:

    It is a dazzling piece of writing for all of its rough edges, and, stripped of affectations that in the novel can sometimes verge on bathos, as well as of gratuitous punctuation supplied by editors more devoted to rules than to music, it seems much more immediate and even contemporary.

    The Scroll book includes four introductory or commentary articles prior to the book. They make up about 100 pages and the scroll manuscript is from page 109 to 400. The main one is by Howard Cunnell who is described as a writer from Essex (I assume England) whose 50 pages present a very refreshing review of the history of On the Road and its road to publication from the late 40s when Kerouac began developing it as his follow-up to the Town and the City until the final publication 50 years ago next month.

    It’s refreshing because it has no, or little, of the psychodrama associated with so much writing about Kerouac — how he was a drunk, depressed, messed up, in pain etc — This factual historical review lets on just how hard Kerouac worked. All the time. Cunnell also mentions a lot of the “editing” done to get the book published which often included adding commas which in no way helped the reader. In this Cunnell was in sync with Sante. The idea that this is “better” than the published version is not necessarily goofy.

    I also like in Cunnell how he quotes some amazingly accurate comments by Kerouac, Ginsberg and Cowley. Kerouac wrote in 1952:

    I have completely reached my peak maturity now — but nobody’s going to know this fact for 15, 20 years.

    Carl Solomon says that he and his publishing house may be ridiculed in 25 years for not publishing Visions of Cody. Cowley, before On the Road came out in 1957 very accurately describes how it will sell and be received.

    One of the main hold ups for publishing it was the issue of libel suits. Viking was scared of that and they went over the novel carefully and changed things and when necessary got releases. This is related in all the bios but the detail here and excerpts of correspondence concerning that is fascinating. Viking’s counsel worried about, for example, Jane (Joan Vollmer) being describe as wandering in a Benzedrine haze. They used mark ups on the manuscript to go over all the characters as per libel issues and Kerouac wrote in “Jane dead”. Can’t libel the dead. Cowley writes that Burroughs comes from a “fairly prominent” family and wouldn’t likely sue based on the assumption that they’d want to avoid courts and the notoriety that would come along with it. Others weren’t the type who would bring libel suits and in fact had read the book and were proud of their portrayals. Kerouac worked hard going through all the characters with Viking’s lawyer and then also getting releases signed. And he then received the standard General Counsel response of total silence after doing all the things he’d been demanded. Kerouac kept wondering if the guy even got his corrections and releases because as always with these corporate counsel; types they never get back to anyone.

    Cunnell’s history of the writing of OTR and the iterations it went through (Ray Smith, Red Moultrie etc.) is nice. Brinkley was in the same area a few years back with his Atlantic article. Cunnell includes some excerpts, for example from 1950 for a book “Souls on the Road” it begins:

    One night in America, when the sun had gone down-

    and goes on with the “bulging land” phrase – the end of OTR is in this early beginning passage. Which brings us to two things: the beginning and the ending. The ending is lost because apparently the old story that Lucien Carr’s dog ate the last few pages is true. The scroll ends abruptly just as they are entering Mexico City. Cunnell adds an appendix of what is the best estimate of what the last number of pages (few feet actually) of the scroll contained. So in fact the scroll is not complete, not whole but the end is lost forever. This ain’t Stephen Hero, but there is some cosmic poetic justice that how Kerouac initially ended it after three weeks can’t ever be known.

    And the beginning — that strikes you — it is not the same. It starts with “I first met Neal not long after my father died”. Why was it changed to after my wife and I split up?

    Asides Cunnell there are three academicians, one from Colorado, one from Australia, and one Columbia (they want to be geographically inclusive it seems) who contribte pieces smaller than Cunnell’s. The chick from Koulombia’s piece from what I gleaned is utter garbage. Academic tripe that has nothing to do with Kerouac. The others I haven’t looked at all.

  2. Very interesting, Tim,
    Very interesting, Tim, thanks.

    I haven’t seen the book yet, and I didn’t even know (did I miss this in Sante’s review?) that the book contained significant commentary along with the unedited “On The Road”. The information you provide here helps explain the value of the new book — as for the value of Sante’s review, I still don’t see it.

  3. JackI’m with Tim on this one.

    I’m with Tim on this one. I love the whole issue from the front cover to the back page. And you’re complaining about the newsprint? Geez!

    I dunno why you’ve got such a snoot on about this. It’s just fun, man! Jack’s on the cover of the Book Review. It’s a positive review. Lots of people are writing about him right now, he’s getting recognition, the world’s making a fuss over him. Quit tryin to be too cool for school, and out-literary-referencing the NYT. This is something to celebrate, not nit-pick cuz they made his hair look too big on the cover. Gawdalmighty!

    Drink some coffee, man! “For real mental power kicks” you lit head!

    Still luv ya, even if ya are a cranky old Corso. Spark some herbs and lighten up, eh?

    — Brian O’Canada

  4. Hah, well, to each his own,
    Hah, well, to each his own, old comrade!

    I am always a “snoot” when I review the NYT Book Review. That’s my job. Somebody’s got to do it.

    You know, by the way, I happen to like Luc Sante when he’s writing about something he knows about, like the history of New York City. But there are a lot of critics out there who understand Kerouac better than he does, and this review is a gratuitous sham. Call me snooty all you want, and I’ll still say so.

  5. love/hate/loveI see a lot of

    I see a lot of younger writers whose idea of “hip” or “beat” prose is to party down and then write about it. I, for one, can’t write well when I’m either drunk or hung-over.

    The lives and work of Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, Bukowski, and others, certainly included liberal libations, there was more to it.

    The young characters in my short story, Cut Up (The Stolen Scroll), develop attitudes, which I think the original Beats would applaud, about relics of the past. At one point, Lilac says of the scroll, “Just cut the stupid thing up.” And Jim decides that he wants “the ghost of Jack Kerouac off of him.”

    These are not disrespful sentiments. A child must leave his parents to become an adult. A son seeking independence might fight his father, but when the dust settles, they can still be friends.

  6. AgreedIt was a big,

    It was a big, pseudo-Beat yawnfest for me. Nothing really new. It felt like Kerouac 101, which maybe it was supposed to be.

  7. It’s interesting…That
    It’s interesting…

    That Kerouac is getting “serious” literary cred, albeit from the NYTBR. It’s like Rimbaud – who advocated “the total derangement of the senses” and provoked the ire of the bourgoisie of the time, but who is now revered. After I first read On The Road, I went out to Interstate 80 and stuck out my thumb. I thought it was more of a call to action than anything else. The meditative piece for me is the endpaper – Desolation Angels. In this novel, Kerouac looks back on all the madness and there is a wisdom that shines through despite the melancholy. Someone once told me, “living in the moment is very, very hard.” So, if the scroll comes hot off the keyboard, as opposed to edited, risk-aversed and punctuated, then we have to read it.

    I have tried to write words as if they were improvised music, and it’s hard to do. So here’s to spontaneous bop prosody!

  8. At the risk of reducing
    At the risk of reducing Kerouac to a sociological phenomenon, I must admit I often find the cult of Kerouac just as, if not more fascinating than many of his books. My overall image of him is that of a deeply troubled human being who fashioned his life in such a way that, at least for a while, he could keep his various demons and troubles at bay, only to watch from a distance with confusion as this life became a model for others. I’ve always felt “Big Sur” to be his greatest work, and I think the whole novel stems from the shock he describes at the beginning when his fans stake out his mother’s house with “Dharma Bums” written on their jackets. Why would they do that? Why would they look at my life and want to emulate this?

    Reminds me a lot of what Bob Dylan describes in his autobiography, detailing his conscious efforts to sabotage his unwanted “spokesman for a generation” role. Oftentimes rejecting the role of icon tends to be what separates the true geniuses (who prefer sympathizers to followers) from the charlatans and the pied-pipers, and for this reason I can never quite get over the fact that Ginsberg embraced his legend to the very degree that Kerouac ran from his.

    But perhaps I’ve strayed too far from Bill’s topic — I’m very curious to read this scroll story of yours. Personally, I definitely went through the whole “if I want to be a drunken genius, I’m going to need to be pretty goddamn drunk” period, but quickly realized it was heading nowhere. (When I’m drunk I get sleepy and confused, and considering my biggest problems when writing sober are clarity and completion, this doesn’t exactly help.)

  9. Now that’srefreshing. Kerouac
    Now that’s

    refreshing. Kerouac doesn’t need the NYT to be popular or noteworthy or understood. And because you are a fan of/student of/John Travolta-reborn superstar of the “Beats” doesn’t mean you have to fawn or throw appreciation each time someone mentions a name. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as bad press. I don’t even like Kerouac but I will defend his right not to become boring via the NYT.

  10. So Kerouac’s scroll is out.
    So Kerouac’s scroll is out. I’ve never been much of a fan of his words, except as he reads them, where there is a magic only he can evoke. I prefer what he has to say about writing. Nevertheless, it is sadly I note the sad note behind what I have read about it. The idea of living in the moment is very hard, as has been said, and living “authentically” ( I hate to say it, the word reeks of PC nonsense and too much starshine) is rough when you have to make a living–but for a time the Beats didn’t. They lived in that identity-making college bubble where all seemed doable. When I read about the scroll it is as if the reviewers keep jabbing at the idealism behind the Beat idea as it came to be known–for being Beat is being beat down and not at all any of shiny idealism. Of course, there’s beatitude, too, but it is easy to miss over missing a paycheck. Too many people are too jaded and guarded and eager to jab Kerouac. It is sad. Between ideal and being beaten is a middle path. This scroll could give context to that path and the place of the Beats and their writing. Which, in spite of my pessimistic riff, I find to be pervasive and positive.

  11. There will always be a
    There will always be a special place in my heart for the works of Jack Kerouac. My favorites are On The Road, Dr. Sax, and Big Sur.

    I’ll admit, some of his books are flawed. Certain parts drag on too long; if it were an author I’d never heard of, I probably would give up reading it. But because it’s Jack, I keep reading and I’m always glad I did.

    And there is nothing quite like the audio recordings of Jack reading passages from his books. When I hear Kerouac read, I don’t give a damn what the critics think.

    p.s. I would never seriously advocate damaging the OTR scroll. That part of the story was just my little nod to impermanence.

  12. Thebes, I truly appreciate
    Thebes, I truly appreciate your comment that living in the moment is hard when you have to make a living. I’ll add that besides living “in that identity-making college bubble” as you so nicely phrased it, some of the beats even relied on theft and other sordid activities for income.

    Nevertheless, folks like you and me can still experience the golden glow that no one can take away.

    Before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water. After enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water.

    That old saying covers every kind of epiphany: Ken Kesey-type mind expansion, the simple natural bliss of having new ideas and no responsibilites, or spiritual peace and freedom from fear.

  13. Kerouac’s Legacy: Overlooked
    Kerouac’s Legacy: Overlooked Strands

    Here’s my take on Kerouac’s legacy, as originally presented as a commentary on The New York Times ‘Paper Cuts’ blog…

    Kerouac’s position in literary history as American stream-of-consciousness pioneer and encapsulator of the Beat Generation is simply undeniable; but, as I see it, there are at least three other major “strands” to Kerouac’s legacy that have been unfortunately understated.

    One would certainly be his contributions to Japanese verse forms composed in English– not only the haiku that he is relatively well known for, but also that of the haibun. Haibun consists of prose of varying lengths interspersed with theme-related haiku (or sometimes the lighter senryu) following various paragraphs.

    his desk now vacant,
    sunlight pouring unbroken
    into the bard’s room

    As Cor van den Heuvel (whom I seldom agree with on anything!) points out in his intro to the third edition of The Haiku Anthology (1999): “In several passages in Desolation Angels and The Dharma Bums, Kerouac has come closer than any other writer in English to the terse, elliptical, nature-inspired prose that characterizes the genre [haibun]. His descriptions of his experiences alone on Desolation Mountain have the whirling brevity and vivid immediacy of some of Basho’s great haibun. Unfortunately, the few haiku he includes are not of comparable merit.” From the final chapter of The Dharma Bums, shortly before descending Desolation Peak where he has been working as a fire lookout:

    What is a rainbow, Lord?
    A hoop
    For the lowly.

    Another understated aspect of Kerouac’s legacy would be his cofounding (with William M. Gaines, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and various jazz musicians and their record labels) and popularising of a second artistic establishment, with its own sociopolitical values and criteria of worth and beauty, almost a bohemian parallel universe or alternative aesthetic “shadow cabinet”. Sometimes artists associated with this second establishment manage to cross over into the mainstream cultural market (as Kerouac himself did), achieving relative commercial success: Ginsberg, the early Marvel comics bullpen, Warhol, Dylan, The Doors, Grateful Dead, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorcese, Hunter S. Thompson, The Clash, Jim Carroll, David Lynch, Matt Groening, Johnny Depp, Nirvana, Soundgarden, etc.; but usually such artists are content to work for a limited audience comprised of other members of this second establishment, with little thought for the mainstream of their chosen medium(s). For example, as a poet, who cares if, say, Margaret Atwood or Michael Ondaatje has never even heard of me? I’d be much happier knowing that a hip musician like Ray Manzarek or Herbie Hancock was a fan. Similarly, a young blues musician might not give a tinker’s damn what George Thorogood or Robert Cray thinks of him, as long as cartoonist Robert Crumb or poet Michael McClure is an admirer.

    A third — and probably most understated– branch of Kerouac’s legacy would have to be the darkest: his reactionary politics and social values towards the end of his life. Similar in this regard to his near-contemporary, cartoonist Al Capp, Kerouac can be seen as the beatific big brother or hepcat granddaddy of Mordecai Richler, Steve Ditko, Frank Zappa, Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper, Henry Rollins, Lou Reed, Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis, Johnny Hart, Bill Maher, Pete Townshend, and many others who have watched in dismay as the leftist revolutionaries of old have disintegrated into arrogantly close-minded lobbyists and legislators. (“How many liberators / really want to be dictators?” — Jello Biafra/Dead Kennedys) In this sense, Kerouac is the father of political incorrectness and sociocultural curmudgeonism; he knew that the further one goes in either direction, left or right, he or she is bound to encounter thoughtless, dogmatic conservatism of one sort or the other. Ironically enough, this may yet prove to be the most important strand of his amazing legacy.

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