We Live On The Road
5 September 2007 |
There is much to say on this, the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Oh, it still reads fast and luxuriant.
“And where is Dean?”
“Dean is in Denver. Let me tell you.” And he told me that dean was making love to two girls at the same time, they being Marylou, his first wife, who waited for him in a hotel room, and Camille, a new girl, who waited for him in a hotel room. “Between the two of them he rushes to me for our own unfinished business.”
“And what business is that?”
“Dean and I are embarked on a tremendous season together. We’re trying to communicate with absolute honesty and absolute completeness everything on our minds. We’ve had to take benzedrine. We sit on the bed, crosslegged, facing each other. I have finally taught Dean that he can do anything he wants, become mayor of Denver, marry a millionairess, or become the greatest poet since Rimbaud. But he keeps rushing out to see the midget auto races. I go with him. He jumps and yells, excited. You know, Sal, Dean is really hung-up on things like that.
Sal is the perfect narrator; he’s you, the you you are when you’re honest; also the you you wish to be; impressionable, sensitive, searching, but no push-over. Dean won’t stop; he’s repugnant and beautiful. Hollywood has destroyed this character, but he stands up here, fifty years strong.
In no time at all we were back on the main highway and that night I saw the entire state of Nebraska unroll before my eyes. A hundred and ten miles an hour straight through, an arrow road, sleeping towns, no traffic, and the Union Pacific streamliner falling behind us in the moonlight. I wasn’t frightened at all that night; it was perfectly legitimate to go 110 and talk and have all the Nebraska towns—Ogallala, Gothenburg, Kearney, Grand Island, Columbus—unreel with dreamlike rapidity as we roared ahead and talked. It was a magnificent car; it could hold the road like a boat holds on water. Gradual curves were its singing ease. “Ah, man, what a dreamboat,” sighed Dean. “Think if you and I had a car like this what we could do. Do you know there’s a road that goes down Mexico and all the way to Panama?—and maybe all the way to the bottom of South America where the Indians are seven feet tall and eat cocaine on the mountainside? Yes! You and I, Sal, we’d dig the whole world with a car like this because, man, the road must eventually lead to the whole world. Ain’t nowhere else it can go—right? Oh, and are we going to cut around the old Chi with this thing! Think of it, Sal, I’ve never been to Chicago in all my life, never stopped.”
“We’ll come in there like gangsters in this Cadillac!”
“Yes! And the girls! We can pick up girls, in fact, Sal, I’ve decided to make extra-special fast time so we can have an entire evening to cut around in this thing. Now you just relax and I’ll ball the jack all the way.”
“Well, how fast are you going now?”
“A steady one-ten I figure—you wouldn’t notice it.”
On The Road was published a month after WFIL’s first national broadcast of American Bandstand (my old cohorts at The Enterprise Center just celebrated that anniversary—something tells me Dick Clark still hasn’t made a financial contribution to that organization, which renovated the studio where he became a brand name, and whose mission is to help the current seekers of opportunity to “hit it big”); a cultural historian could build an interesting argument for the summer of 1957-before-1968 as the bellwether.
In the early eighteenth century Benjamin Lay, from Colchester, England settled in Philadelphia; at 4’7” and hunchbacked, he cast a strange figure. As a vegetarian hermit who ranted against slavery—he didn’t wear anything made from animal or picked by the hands of slaves and he once burst into a meeting of the city’s Quakers and drove a sword through a bible filled with pokeberry juice, which he sprayed at the slave-holders in the room—Lay may have been the first figure of the counter-culture. (Thomas Paine was certainly the first dark star.)
Kerouac didn’t invent the genre, he just foretold a coming change. And there too was William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg (who I remember meeting in the basement of Logan Hall at a function I helped organize but can’t remember why, or what he read) and out there in Colorado (Denver looms large in On The Road) was Hunter Thompson.
But I love On The Road for the same reason I love Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (1949), Leaves of Grass (all of the nineteenth century, no?), Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), William Carlos Williams’ Patterson (1946-58), anything by James Baldwin: these are the sounds of America, the voices of real America. The only other place I find those voices in such an unbland and heaving cadence is right here, on our streets. Surely these are the twisted voices—of hurt and bare opportunity—that mark us as a people. We are fortunate to live amongst the poetry.