It’s probably very appropriate that one of my first posts concerns Jack Kerouac, not because of the recent release of ‘On The Road’ in cinemas, but because he’s probably someone who inspired me more than perhaps anyone else to try to become a writer.
Like a lot of people I discovered Kerouac while I was in college, I know, so far, so clichéd. But instead of inspiring me to buy some Levi’s or run off and see the ‘Road’, it was the first time I read anyone that seriously made me think that I might want to be a writer as well. I’d been a reader for years, an avid reader, I’ve been told I could read the newspaper before I started school, well some of the words, and considering the misery of the mid-to-late Seventies this might explain my preference for reading matter dealing with the darker side of life, but I digress.
Reading Kerouac was the first time I can say I was inspired to become a writer myself. I remember giving serious thought to transferring out of my Civil Engineering course to something like English Literature. Though among other factors, the realisation that most of my favourite writers tend to come from a more naturalistic, certainly less structured tradition, counted against it. I know this is a gross simplification but many of my favourites tend to favour the guttural punch or the knee to the groin instead of the surgical incision. Plus, even the name was fantastic ‘Kerouac’, a sound I’d never heard, something far-off and special, I had to go searching for it and see where it lead me
Anyway I know that the seeds of me trying to write were planted when I first read Kerouac, and through him my reading expanded to include not only the rest of the Beats, but writers like Nelson Algren, Henry Miller, and many more, and on to others that may be possibly classified as their crime equivalents, such as Derek Raymond and David Goodis.
I have always been grateful to Kerouac, both in how he inspired me and how he broadened my reading world. and yet there’s a problem.
A problem I long feared, to be honest, a problem that left my Kerouac books sitting untouched on my shelves for many years. What would happen if I read Kerouac again and found he didn’t work for me?
Recently I decided to find out. With the imminent release of the film I took out my copy of On The Road, a nice 40th anniversary hardback edition I picked up many years ago in San Francisco no less, and started reading.
And my fears were all too true, I just don’t care anymore, I don’t care about the jazz, I don’t care about the wild search for ‘kicks’ and I don’t care about the people, how Dean Moriarty / Neal Cassady wasn’t kicked up and down the street on a regular basis I don’t know. But I might have forgiven it all of these things if I still felt some engagement with the story, it just flies by on the surface, I never felt I was getting under anyone’s skin anymore, never felt I could understand how anyone was feeling or thinking at any time, it never felt, to use a horrible phrase, Real, at all. And reading it now one thing that stands out is how self-absorbed and self obsessed they all were, no doubt no more or less than any of us at similar ages, but everyone around them seems to exist either to be railed against, in the form of their wives, families or other people in general, or exist to provide ‘Kicks’, whether they be, again, wives, or girlfriends, or the poor and homeless, or Blacks, or Mexicans. Curiously the film actually makes the case for the damage the Beats did to the women in their circle far better than the book does, perhaps the Original Scroll or the numerous biographies of the people involved have helped flesh out their voices.
The entire process left me feeling very sad if I’m honest, something I had treasured for over twenty years is now tarnished, spoiled, and something I can never look at the same way again. Maybe that’s the way it should be? Maybe I’m just too old for Ol’ Sal and Dean and should move aside, let someone else go searching for the name Kerouac and see where it leads them.
(I remember seeing Terry Pratchett interviewed once and he said something to the effect that there is something terribly wrong with a Ten year old boy who doesn’t think that Lord of the Rings is the greatest book ever written, while there is also something terribly wrong with a Thirty year old man who still thinks that Lord of the Rings is the greatest book ever written.)
I’m sure I’ll keep my copy of On The Road, it’ll sit on my shelves with every other book I value, but I’m just not sure I’ll ever read it again.