Today is March 12th. Jack Kerouac is 87 today. But, he is also dead.
Here is a brief history of Jack Kerouac’s life:
Born, drove around, drank, died.
Here is a less brief history of Jack Kerouac’s life:
Jack Kerouac (Jean Louis Kerouac) was born March 12, 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts. Lowell, Massachusetts is famous for him, and not famous for its area called “Spaghetti Town,” where you cannot find a decent plate of ravioli. His father was a red and white striped barbershop poll and his mother was a wooden roller coaster. People called him “Ti Jean” which means “Little Jean” in French because he was French-Canadian, which is kind of like being French. He went to Columbia University on a football scholarship but was told to take a hike after a prank he and Allen Ginsberg pulled. He took a hike, all the hell around America, and wrote a book about it you may have read, and a pamphlet about it you definitely did not read called “Suggestions for Improving Safety at Roadside Gas-ups in America.” He was married 7 times. He had the first wife beheaded, the second electrocuted, the third he annulled after forming The Church of Lowell. Here is an easy anagram to remember Jack Kerouac’s wives:
T: Took a midnight train going anywhere
N: Non-fiction writer (divorce)
I: Irreconcilable Differences
Here is something that is actually true: Jack Kerouac’s grave is extremely hard to find, and his is the only framed picture of a person in my house. As you can imagine, this has not gone over well with exes. But if you want your picture framed, write a book I like as much as “On the Road.”
“On the Road,” typed on the scroll and the whole bit, was published by Viking Press in 1957, launching Jack Kerouac into cataclysmic success and threatening his privacy for the rest of his life. Jack Kerouac didn’t seem to like being famous, didn’t seem to like that his word “beatific” inspired a following of beatniks, after a while he didn’t seem to like his old pals or writing very much.
Upon reading “A Book of Verse,” Ed Sander’s colossal story about a Midwest boy’s catharsis triggered by Ginsberg’s “Howl,” I knew the Beat Movement’s defining characteristic was that it encouraged exactly that: movement. In the first short story I ever wrote, I borrowed the main character’s last words to his friend: “So long,” he said. “I’m off to New York City!” His best friend’s response, the last line of the story, has loitered in my head since I was 13. “Don’t do anything I would do.”
The Beat Movement’s writers and those influenced by its writers weren’t sedentary about it. The movement filled cripplingly shy kids up so much they had to start talking. They took to their cars, their town square soapboxes, boxcars, trains, they talked and they talked and they talked. What was it about the writing that held so much kinetic energy?
I’ve heard people say that “On the Road” is what you like when you’re young, before you “grow out of it.” That might be true. “On the Road” does seem to embody ideals few people can sustain into adulthood: sense of adventure, spontaneous travel, kinetic friendship, optimism and expression of true feelings. Old passages, especially the thick paragraphs describing jazz and, more specifically, Sal Paradise’s reactions to it in dusty ol’ Denver, can read slightly dated. Caricatures of themselves, perhaps. Yet, sometimes I wonder if those passages seem familiar because they became used so widely as examples. Imitators sprung up and bastardized the good and true elements of the style. In the way bitter tasting things stay in our mouths more than sweet, we begin to hear the imitators in our heads more than we hear the originals. So, when we go back and read the originals we think: Jesus, how derivative. We forget that everything derived from them, that they were the first ones to do it.
Plainly, it’s not Jack Kerouac’s fault that he inspired a bunch of crappy writers.
Or, maybe we’re all a little fucking jaded.
“On the Road” has inarguably beautiful sentences, some of which I will leave at the end of this post. Sentences that became a part of the American literary landscape, and cut right through the literary bullshit: farmers liked his books, academics liked his books, mothers liked his books, teenagers liked his books. You think it’s easy to write a book that inspires an entire generation to do something?
Until someone else does it, he stays in my frame, with a small inset of Cormac MacCarthy.
Happy birthday, Jack-ero.
“They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn…”
“Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”
“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? — it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
“So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it… and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?”
“This is the story of America. Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do.”