Movement One: In the Beginning
I sit here in a comfortable American Four-Square on the outskirts of Baltimore, a bit worried about the project I’m about to undertake: to reread and reevaluate all of Jack Kerouac’s writing, to think about my relationship with Jack Kerouac and his work, and, possibly, to embark on some of the same road trips Kerouac took.
It’s been at least twenty years since I’ve read Kerouac. Once in a while I’ll put on one of the CDs from a box set put out by Rhino and listen to Jack’s gravelly, grave, and humorous French Canadian voice intoning poems that are never much good on the page, but beyond a few sentences here and there I haven’t read his prose at all.
So why this project? To start with, I’m not sure I would be a writer if I’d never read Jack Kerouac when I was sixteen. I bought a paperback copy of On the Road at the B. Dalton bookstore in the Methuen Mall (the same store where I had once been propositioned by an older man). The pages had golden borders, and the cover featured an iconic photograph of a setting sun in a sky of red and yellow bands, the words “On the Road” in a white, non-serif font. I’d most likely heard about the book from my high school English teacher, Mr. Brouse. This was back when I took almost any reading suggestion seriously, when I longed to be “well-read.”
I read On the Road, but it didn’t make a particularly strong impression. Like many of the “important” books I read at the time, I read out of a sense of duty, slogging through sentences even when I didn’t understand them. There was just enough in that book to bring me back to Kerouac again, and it was Dharma Bums that grabbed me and made me think not just “this is great,” but “this is what I want to do,” “this is the life I want to lead.” The drunken dharma. Jack and Japhy, the thinly veiled Gary Snyder. That book turned me into a Beat, thirty years too late. After that, I read every piece of Kerouac’s oeuvre published until 1995 or so.
Like most compulsive readers, I developed a strong attachment to the characters I read about, and I became as Jack Kerouac as I could, as Jack Kerouac as I knew how to be. I wrote long rambling novels I didn’t edit, heeding Ginsberg’s mantra, through Kerouac: “first thought best thought.” I’m still waiting to get enough distance from those early works not to shudder when I think about them.
By the time I was a senior in high school, I was a Kerouacolyte. I wrote a paper claiming that JK was underappreciated, and my English teacher that year, Mr. Cameron, disagreed, claiming he was overestimated. What did I know? I was seventeen years old. I liked my heroes obscure and underappreciated. I didn’t have a clear sense of how Kerouac had been embraced by, and changed, at least part of the culture, so I assumed his writing was languishing in obscurity and needed my attention, needed to be resurrected.
One reason I’m undertaking this project now is that I have been writing for so long with limited success. I want to go back to what excited me at the beginning. I want to feel what writing that speaks to you can do, even though I suspect that Kerouac will not speak to me anymore.
Another reason I’m undertaking this project is that I want to think deeply about how I have changed and how society has changed since I was a young man and since Kerouac was on the road himself. If Kerouac had a theme beyond himself—the Duluoz legend—then his subject was America, the America of the 1940’s and 50’s.
Movement Two: My First Attempt at a Kerouackian Road Trip
I was the irresponsible punk most likely not to have a tent or any food when we went camping. I was the guy who slept outside in a cheap red children’s sleeping bag and woke up covered in slugs. I was the guy who brought only vodka and orange juice, premixed, and drank all night before a strenuous hike up Mt. Adams, resulting in a bout of dehydration that had me hallucinating as I stumbled down the mountain, one friend holding me up, the other friend running ahead to fetch Gatorade or a nurse. No wonder my friend Erin expressed concern when I told her I was taking a road trip in my 1990 Toyota Tercel, traveling halfway across the country to Minnesota to visit my buddy Ross.
I considered it a Kerouackian adventure, a chance to finally get out in the world and experience. I was not going to take the easiest route, across New York and Michigan. Instead, I was going to travel through New Jersey and Maryland, dip down to Virginia, drive through West Virginia and Indianapolis and then make my way up through Wisconsin. I brought a cheap tent and my red sleeping bag and set out.
I was a fearful Kerouac of the late 20th Century, alone and lost. I was a horrible traveler, a scared little kid.
Recently, I found the notebook I kept during that trip. I’m surprised by how bad the writing is, how pretentious. I’m fairly sure I wasn’t pretentious in real life (I could be wrong), but my writing “persona” was a little prick. Painfully shy as a child, this fake cockiness was likely an attempt to remedy any lingering shyness. I called the notebook “A Couple Days on the Wasted Road.” Here, unedited, are some of the less embarrassing sections:
The Walt Whitman Rest Area
What better honor could there be for a man so enamored with nature? To castrate every tree, to lay flat every blade of grass, every insect, every emotion, slap black tarmac down, hoist a Hardees or a Roy Rogers up, let even traveling souls be tied to the collective (sick) unconscious? And that after the big graveyard vision, when I not only saw but felt how truly and irrevertibly horrible mankind is, saw why They (if They are actually there) would abduct us without reason (if they do). Why would any member of such a twisted species expect less when he looks out his car window, supposed to insure your isolation from the green world of touch but more often saving you from the gray black grime of meaningless useless old rusting energy collectors, old railroad cars, old cars, the smog like a maroon cross of thorns on the sky… (Etc.).
Unbelievably, I was 23 years old when I wrote this. The date was 9/11/94. In less than two years my first daughter would be born and my life would change completely. I was this stupid when I was 23! Imagine how stupid I was at 18! It gets worse…
Tried to walk around Easton, Maryland today, looking for a nice (not too nice) restaurant. Wandered thru and past historical section… circled around hospital and took side street, planning to cut back to car. Houses here are wooden, rotting, small, with laundry loads drying in the September air and only the occasional unemployed (I’m thinking with preconceived suburban fears still not uprooted) black men with greasy shirts and long gangly arms that flip when they walk. An old black man with fedora and maroon corduroy pants slowly making his wrinkle-faced way down the street. Before a Laundromat (where more people (all black) in worn clothes and frowning creased faces linger) to cut back to the historical section, sensing… that I’m not safe, that this is no place to be, though no one looked or said a thing. I cross to the sidewalk and, before emerging in what now seems the white (my fear) light (misguiding me), am confronted by a black, pure black, family, the old fear, the unreasonable fear of poor blacks united shamefully there. The first person looks me up and down. The third catches my eye, stares at me with black bloodshot eyes. His face is etched in ebony, hard chiseled stone, but his eyes, though black and hard, dangerous, are also vulnerable, almost scared. Not of me. I know that. Just perpetually fearful. I pass with a meek “hi” and hear his stereotypical black man voice saying (or oozing) “you in the wrong neighborhood, boy” (and maybe not even “boy,” maybe my memory added that later) more as a warning, as his idea of friendly advice, but it hits me. It does nothing to dispel the fear.
It’s difficult to read this now. At this point in my life I had rarely been around anybody who was not White. I had grown up, in New England, in a family that was either covertly or quite overtly racist. My grandfather talked about “spades” even when there were few Black people anywhere to be found in Lawrence, Massachusetts in those days. I knew I was seeing through limited eyes but didn’t know how to see differently. I remember being uncomfortable with how I was writing this even as I was writing it. “Etched in ebony”???
From the beginning:
Down 13 into Virginia, John Barth’s disappointing Maryland… disappearing, to the tip of the peninsula, the $10 long and mind-numbing Chesapeake toll bridge tunnel, probably 15 miles long speed limit 55, 2 lanes with tractor trailers bearing down from behind and past you, throwing gusts your way, pushing you forward, me, in my little car, wondering how they, in their trucks, can take it because I have to use both hands and all my concentration to stay on the bridge. The tunnel is worse. It seems to last an hour. Same deal only here there are walls within touching distance and no lights and the sounds and smells strangle…. Survive that and another tunnel and work my way up uneventful interstate 64, attempting once to visit colonial something or other but succeeding only in treading, and retreading, one way road, past the same army base, never getting anywhere but a McDonald’s for a long-awaited lunch with old folks facing the “pretty trees.” (“Oh yes, it’s much prettier on this side”) looking out onto the road and a group of pines. Made my way to 250… The road rose to a good… view of fields and houses, past signs and churches, old gas station and various nameless shapeless towns with a handful of businesses, and into the George Washington State Park. The trees are back, the hills are back, the monotony of flat land is gone… It took a few minutes after I passed to realize what it was. The pale butt of a man kneeling on the ground. That’s when the fears (the Deliverance fears) started. I hoped the shape under him was his girlfriend’s body and when he had turned around (because he did turn around) he hadn’t seen me looking at his white butt or his (hopefully) girlfriend’s exposed goods. There he was, right behind his truck in his driveway fucking who knows who. Strange strange world.…
9/14 (Day 4)
Almost sick of traveling, so I’ll turn back before it’s too late. I was thinking today that there’s still a slight trace of that kid who climbs to the top of the tree and cries that he can’t get down. It’s only in situations like this that I realize how weak I am (though always slowly getting better). Inevitably I’ll leave all the fear behind. I just hope it happens before I die.
What I really needed at this point was some older figure to show up in the story and show me what a little prick I was, how I needed to appreciate things rather than denigrating them. This is where the travel journal ends, though I went on to Minnesota to visit my friend Ross before driving home, through Michigan and New York. I was quick to accept defeat in those days. In the end, I feel sorry for this former self. I want him to push himself a little further. I want him to open his eyes and to see the people around him as people.
Kerouac was a bad role model for me as a writer, and as a thinker, at this age. I would have benefitted from discipline. Maybe we have to get the shit out of our systems before we can get to anything worthwhile, but I needed to think more carefully. I needed to dig deeper. Kerouac allowed me to skim along the surface for far too long. It wasn’t until I joined a writing group run by Andre Dubus III, less than a year after the end of this solo road trip, that I started to develop as a writer, thanks to an attention to revision. I was clearly not one of those writers gifted enough to just let things fly, but I found, after a number of months with Andre, that I could become the kind of writer who works hard on his sentences and develops a piece of writing over a series of drafts. I could become a writer if I worked at it. That revelation should have come a lot sooner than it did.
Movement III: Edited Excerpts From the Kerouacking Working Journal
It’s been only two days since I started the Kerouac project, but already I’m being pulled in by the myth of Kerouac. There’s a power to the figure. The little boy who lost his beloved saintly brother and was then tormented with his own sin. Catholic guilt in working class Lowell. The childhood Sundays at the movie theater. Part of the power of this myth is the fact that it happened in my backyard. I can feel these places.
My parents bought a split entry house in Salem, New Hampshire, in 1967. Suburbia. The houses, a series of split-entries, all identical. We lived on Colonial Drive. Down the street were streets with horse names—Clydesdale, Palomino. At the end of the neighborhood were woods and “the pits,” semi-wild in-between places where we’d wander off. When I read about Kerouac’s early forays into the Dracut Woods and his creation of Dr. Sax, I thought of my own solitary walks in the woods, exploring, occasionally finding caches of porn or bottles of clear liquor, the imaginary world I created in the woods. Nothing seemed more romantic and desirable to me, as a ten year old, than to imagine building my own world underground. A subterranean place with walls of smooth dirt. I could imagine room after room opening out into each other. Miles of labyrinth. Each room would have a different function. I would come up for air only on holidays. I was the Dr. Sax of my own imagination.
It was the introverted imaginative part of me that responded to the mythic Kerouac. A romantic strain that yearned for escape.
Every weekend we would visit my grandparents in Lawrence, Mass. My grandmother’s grandfather had built the house in 1911, on the corners of Ferry and Pleasant Streets. A white house with gables, a red porch, a half acre yard, unusual in the area, with a catalpa tree, a Japanese maple, a tall pine. Lawrence, Massachusetts seemed more real to me than Salem, gritty, neighborhood kids riding bikes like sharks in dirty t-shirts. We would walk down to a park to play tennis or football. My brother and my older cousins walked off to sneak cigarettes. Lawrence like Kerouac’s Centrallville.
I’ve been working on this project for nine days, and already I’m weary of the Kerouac myth. I get particularly turned off when Neal Cassady enters the scene. I’m not a big fan of On the Road. The lack of responsibility crap.
I like sweet, sad, Catholic Jack. I like the dilettante Buddhism and the working class mill town stuff. I like the jazz lover and the appreciator of Black American art. But there are things I can’t stomach about JK. The way he abandoned his kid, the way he, like so many other artists, argued that their art excused them from being good fathers. The misogyny.
Kerouac’s work was already an elegy for a mythic vision of America that was changing before his eyes. He saw Cassady’s suburban life as a sad final chapter in a wild American story. But Kerouac’s America is also now gone. What are we left with? Consumerism is everything. The government is cyclically broken. And we are all under constant surveillance.
ON THE ROAD reading notes:
18 pages in and not sure I’ll be able to finish the damn thing. It’s so fucking boring. Went here, saw that, went here, saw that. Blah. I don’t know. It’s “real” but dull.
DHARMA BUMS notes:
After giving up On the Road, I moved on to Dharma Bums. It seems to me that Kerouac learned a lot and developed, that this is a more mature vision. It starts not just with him but with him and a bum—connection. It also starts with an acknowledgment that he’s become hypocritical but is writing about a time when he saw himself as a pure Dharma bum. There’s a kind of quiet grace to the writing. There’s speed, but there’s also beauty there.
The description of Japhy aka Gary is a classic American outsider portrait. Part of the reason I prefer DB to OtR is Japhy over Cody. The deep knowledge, the lack of pretension, the seriousness. The style is more generous. He’s writing about other people, engaged with the world.
The writing is boring in On the Road, but it’s not as boring here. There is a kind of dignity to it, which is unexpected. His hectoring Buddhism is tiresome, though.
He’s a bit of an ass.
I’m starting to think of Kerouac the way I think of Muddy Waters. Muddy Waters is hugely important to the history of American music, but I can listen to only a small slice of Muddy’s output, the years just after he arrived in Chicago and was finding his sound. He experimented with backing and did incredible things with an electric guitar. “I Can’t Be Satisfied” is one of the most interesting tracks in recorded history. But Muddy’s style solidified into a form, becoming the Chicago 8 bar blues. Da duh da duh DUH. It became boring.
Kerouac, when he hit his stride with Dharma Bums, was also interesting, like nothing the world had ever seen. But his spontaneous schtick got old fast. It solidified into a type.
The problem is: it all gets boring.
Movement IV: Reflections and Digressions, a Year On (Or White Guys Don’t Have to Read like White Guys)
After November, I abandoned the Kerouac project. I got through the Dennis McNally biography, part of On the Road and part of Dharma Bums, not coming anywhere close to reading all of Kerouac’s novels. I decided that replicating the road trips was pointless, a waste of time and energy better spent elsewhere. I revisited my past and found that I didn’t really like myself back then. Now I see that dope as just another lost, hopeless, suburban white youth who should have been exposed to a hell of a lot more than he was. I wish I were that guy’s teacher now.
In 2011, I moved to Baltimore with my wife and two kids, to teach in a community college. I consider it the best job in the world. My students are diverse and fascinating and intelligent and strange. They show me the new world every day, remind me what we really need to pay attention to.
Think, for a second, of all the things that happened while I was working on this short, aborted project. Ferguson had already happened when I stated thinking about it. The Baltimore Uprising was just about to happen. The country was going through tremendous changes. We can pay attention to more than one thing at a time, but undertaking the Kerouac Project would have been foolish.
The project ultimately proved to be unjustifiable. There’s no way anyone should spend the time and mental energy required to read all that Kerouac. It won’t do anyone any good. I suspect we should leave Kerouac behind, that I shouldn’t care that none of my students recognize his name. I have broken it off, once and for all, with the man. I might be drawn, now and then, to the mystique of Kerouac, to his New England crepuscular weirdness, to his sad tragic childhood, but I won’t be drawn to his writing ever again.
Think of all the good writing that’s being done right now! Claudine Rankine, Ta-nehisi Coates, Lidia Yuknavitch, Maggie Nelson, Roxane Gay, Jesmyn Ward, to name just a few. People writing seriously about what it means to be American right now. This is a golden age of meaningful writing, writing that moves beyond the insular individual, work that bridges, work that does not fit a mold, does not sing the stupid individualist song but sings a new song of America. There is plenty to be excited about. I may be a white guy, but that doesn’t mean I have to read like a white guy. New things are speaking to me now, because I’m starting to listen in a new way.
Jamey Gallagher lives in Baltimore.