I’ve been delving back in Jack Kerouac as of late. I remember reading his most famous books, On The Road and Dharma Bums, probably in my late teens and early twenties. Still misunderstood, some would say Kerouac is wildly overrated, others think he’s a genius and one of the best American writers of the 20th Century. I gave my wife a Portuguese translation of On The Road to read, she just found it bewildering as to why anyone would find the characters interesting or inspirational at all. She thought they were all just addicted to speed, sweating and listening to jazz. Well, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.
Yet I think you what you can’t deny is the originality of his writing style. Passionate, romantic and improvisational: Kerouac best encapsulated the Beat’s obsession with Bebop Jazz and their attempt to incorporate it’s spontaneity into their their own poetry and prose. Kind of like an Impressionist painting, the words of On The Road have a wonderful “in the moment” feel to them. When they’re at their best, his novels jump off the pages like a stream of concisousness: wild, free, unstructured and unedited to express the heart-felt core within to his reader.
As the legend goes, Kerouac ingested heaps of benzedrine, and sweating profusely, cranked out the entire novel on one gigantic 120 foot roll of paper in just three weeks. There’s supposedly some truth to this, but probably most of the novel was already contained in his numerous journals that he kept throughout his travels (if not inside his own head). Clearly autobiographical, Sal Paradise and his friend Dean Moriarty embark on breakneck road trip adventures across the US in late 1940s/early 1950s America. Drinking, hitchhiking, shacking up with numerous girls along the way, Kerouac tries to embrace life as much in the moment as possible while seeking out the still exuberant, frontier spirit of his country.
Like a modern day Huck Finn, he lives only for today: forsaking domestic stability, superficial possessions and societal conventions in a journey that seems to have no destination or ultimate resolution. The quest itself is its own spiritual goal. On The Road still sells hundreds of thousands of copies every year, hopefully inspiring its readers to go out and seek truth, freedom and chase their dreams. I think that’s part of why it’s still appealing: the answers to life are a personal journey that can’t be duplicated by living somebody else’s life. We’ve all gotta create our own adventure and grab the world by the short and curlies. Maybe this is all just naive and only inspiring to young people, but it was an exciting read at the time.
Anyway, it had been a while since I last delved in some Beat writing, so I found an old, dog-eared copy of one of his later and lesser known works, Desolation Angels. To be honest, I found Angels a difficult read, even skipping some passages. A lot of the book is derived from his journal entries as he worked as a lonely fire lookout living in a tiny cabin on top of Desolation Peak mountain. Kerouac’s famous stream of consciousness writing in parts is almost abstract to the point of confusion. Maybe he knew what he was thinking as he scribbled it all down atop a Pacific Northwest peak, but it can be hard as a reader to relate to exactly what he was thinking and feeling at that time. But I just fell hard for his tiny chapter #73. His description of crossing the Bay Bridge from the East Bay over to San Francisco (when the bridge still had an operating train) just speaks to my soul like melted butter:
“It’s the Bridge that counts, that coming into San Francisco on the Oakland-Bay Bridge, over waters which are faintly ruffled by oceangoing Orient ships and ferries, over waters that are like taking you to some other shore, it had always been like that when I lived in Berkeley– after a night of drinking, or two, in the city, bing, the old F-Train’d take me barreling across the waters back to that other shore of peace and contentment– We’d (Irwin and I) discuss the Void as we crossed– It’s seeing the rooftops of Frisco that makes you excited and believe, the big downtown hunk of buildings, Standard Oil’s flying red horse, Montgomery Street highbuildings, Hotel St. Francis, the hills, magic Telegraph with her Coit-top, magic Russian, magic Nob, and magic Mission beyond with the cross of all sorrows I’d seen long ago in a purple sunset with Cody on a little railroad bridge– San Francisco, North Beach, Chinatown, Market Street, the bars, the Bay-Oom, the Bell Hotel, the wine, the alleys, the poorboys, Third Street, poets, painters, Buddhists, bums, junkies, girls, millionaires, MG’s, the whole fabulous movie of San Francisco seen from the bus or train on the Bridge coming in, the tug at your heart like New York–
And they’re all there, my friends, somewhere in those little toystreets, and when they see me the angel’ll smile– That’s not so bad– Desolation ain’t so bad–“
Funny, even 70 years later, standing on a busy corner in North Beach on a Saturday night, you can still see the “whole fabulous movie of San Francisco” as it passes you by on all sides. I can still get a glimpse, if I squint my eyes just so, of what it must have looked like back in Kerouac’s day. In any case, in his last sentence Kerouac seems to say that when he finds his old friends living in their bohemian crash pads somewhere in the city streets, he’ll be able to forget about life for a while. Embraced by the good company of some like-minded misfits, sharing a laugh and a jug of cheap wine, the Void is put off for another sweet day. The Angel of Desolation will smile at you, and perhaps it ain’t so bad after all…