Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Jack Kerouac's "On the Road (The Original Scroll)": Book Review

Not three weeks on a roll of teletype paper but nearly a decade in the making, this "prose narrative" celebrates the myth that would become the Beats. What may be overlooked is the time this novel takes place: 1947-49. It's a pivot between the wartime duty & conformist necessity and the individualist, rebellious reaction that would turn into the culture of teenagers, rock, be-bop, and fads.

This book's celebration of "con-man angel" Neal Cassady's familiar to most readers even before they begin. I found his character tiresome as the journeys wore on until he turned thrice-married, thrice-divorced, living with his second wife, and with four children scattered. Yet, as the figure of Jack notes, Neal inspires the rest of his followers to imagine, and try if for a bit, the wayward life. You must accept this to appreciate the novel, even if you sympathize with the women yelling "cad."

Editor Howard Cunnell explains how "Kerouac writes to be understood; the road is the path of life and life is a journey." (25) One of the oldest tales, but the "heart-felt speech" (in Allen Ginsberg's phrase) rings true as his attempt to capture a more demotic, and also demonic, marriage of the rushed prose transports of Joyce, Celine, Melville and Dostoevsky with a raw, American vernacular. Penny Vlagopoulos studies how: "Reading it is almost embarassing, like walking in on someone's private repertoire of weaknesses," in this earlier scroll version, never before published. (64) George Mouratidis shows how much Kerouac had to edit this version to avoid libel, and how his explicitness aroused fear at his publisher. Joshua Kupetz positions Kerouac between the earlier century's modernism and the later decades' deconstructive delay of meaning and the fulfillment of novelistic conventions.

The text itself's constructed in five "books" although the ending as Book Five is incomplete and a suggested reconstructed conclusion's appended. Taking it on in one whole chunk without paragraphs increases the speed of it all. It's both linear and non-linear.

Back and forth across the continent, Jack and Neal and pals and hitchikers and foes and lovers fade in and out of the quick story. Lots of it concerns the longings of the flesh and spirit. Attempting to seduce "Ruth Gullion," Jack reflects: "Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk--real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious." (159)

When it comes to California, it's full of Kerouac's sights such as "the brown halo of the huge desert encampment L.A. really is." (187) San Francisco, the Central Valley, Tehachapi Pass, the Sierras and the Mojave all gain rapturous attention. But, as with his poignant romance with Bea, a Mexican grapepicker near Fresno, he finds pain. Cotton bleeds in his hands, and the sun beats down. "I looked at the dark sky and prayed to God for a better break in life and a better chance to do something for the little people I loved." (197)

Book Two takes Jack back East and around again. Neal tells him: "'I can go anywhere in America and get what I want because it's the same in every corner, I know the people, I know what they do. We give and take and go in the incredibly complicated sweetness zig-zagging every side.'" (222) The stint in New Orleans with William "Bill" Burroughs (names in the scroll are "original" but in the 1957 version they're changed) comes alive with his "study of things themselves in the streets of life and the night." Burroughs appears more appealing here than his reputation may account for. Yet, the strangeness and exhaustion of life on the fringe wears him down.

"I wanted to sit on the muddy bank and dig the Mississippi River; instead of that I had to look at it with my nose against a wire fence. When you start separating the people from their rivers what have you got?" (249)

Jack longs to reach Detroit. "All I wanted was to drown my soul in my wife's soul and reach her through the tangle of shrouds which is flesh in bed. At the end of the American road, is a man and a woman making love in a hotel room. That's all I wanted." (278)

But, he finds rejection by her and he must wander more. Meanwhile, in Book Three, "once again I wanted to get to San Francisco, everybody wants to get to San Francisco and what for?" (281)

Neal's treatment of his women gets to Jack. One of his wives tells Jack: "Neal will leave you out in the cold any time it's in his interest." (271) Jack finds himself with Neal, pursuing Neal, and then having Neal pursue him-- none of his women, and certainly his children appear to settle him down. "Bitterness, recriminations, advice, morality, sadness, it was all behind him and ahead of him was the ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being." (294) That's as they take off on another trip from San Francisco back east.

Jack longs to settle down with a woman, but he too's enraptured by the road. On a Michigan bus, on his way to see his "wild former wife," he meets a "pretty country girl wearing a lowcut cotton blouse"; "I tried to bring up boyfriends and sex. Her great dark eyes surveyed me with emptiness and a kind of chagrin that reached back generations and generations in her blood from not having done what was crying to be done..whatever it was, and everybody knows what it was." (340-41)

This frustration, the torn loyalties between domestication and adventure, digs into the prose and the psyche. We feel as does Jack after a couple years of this life: "I realized I was beginning to cross and re-cross towns in America as though I was a traveling salesman--ragged travellings, bad stock, rotten beans in the bottom of my bag of tricks, nobody buying." (349)

So, it's off in Book Four to Mexico, as its natives watch their car roar past: "ostensibly self-important moneybag Americans on a lark in their land, they knew who was the father and who was the son of antique life on earth, and made no comment. The self-mythologizing and the romanticization of this south of the border jaunt does seem too self-conscious, but Jack's careful to implicate his comrades.

A memorable scene in a whorehouse near Victoria and the swampy jungles ends as "somewhere I heard a baby wail in a sudden lull, remembering I was in Mexico after all and not in a sweet and orgiastic final dream." (390) Near the end, shepherds "watching us pass with noble and chieflike miens, as though they they had been interrupted in their communal meditations in the living sun by the sudden clanking folly from America with its three drunken bozos inside." (399) Such welcome self-deprecation balances the noble savage purple prose and shows Kerouac's acknowledgment of his own place under the stars he watches so often.

This can be an annoying tale, full of Neal's infidelities, Jack's petty thefts, cons and scams and ruses. But this ambiance also enriches the picaresque tale in its traditional setting, where the anti-heroes stay ahead of the law, the norms, and the rules. Kerouac invigorates this storied genre with his own verve, and while not three weeks as supposed so much as nearly a decade saw this novel emerge from the scroll's rush of prose into a more chastened and more censored version in 1957, reading it in a massive block of headlong type has its own rewards, for here you feel as if pulled along Neal and Jack on their wild rides across an America vanished today, if it ever existed to begin with. (Posted to Amazon US & 8-24-10; I also reviewed "The Dharma Bums" and the previously unpublished "Wake Up! The Life of the Buddha" and the notebooks "Some of the Dharma" on both venues and this blog.)

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