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The Last Anniversary - An Altamont Memoir

Desolation Row -The lonesome cry of Jack Kerouac

Faster Than a Speeding Mythos: Superman at 50 - Superman at 50: The Persistence of a Legend

When Art is No Object -The Eloquent Object - At the Oakland Museum, Great Hall, through May 15.

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Search for Honesty in Post-war Life - Plenty

Armageddon Averted: Where Will You be on August 16. 1987? - Inside Art Goes to the Frontiers of the Mind

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George Coates - The Physics of Performance and the Art of Iceskating

No Escape from the SOUNDHOUSE - Maryanne Amacher

A Pynchon's Time

Grants - State of Art/Art of the State

Poetry from Outside the Pale - Allen Ginsberg

Once Upon a Time - In Berkeley

The poet from Turtle Island - Gary Snyder

Noh Quarter

Joyce Jenkins and the Language Troubles

Philip Whalen

Desolation Row

The lonesome cry of Jack Kerouac


Anyone, like me, who has read and enjoyed Jack Kerouac's books over a number of years has long since learned that this predilection will not be viewed favorably by the great preponderance of one's fellow readers, or by critics, writers, and other literary types. And there comes a time when you begin to sympathize with the aversion expressed by such people, and even to see their point—indeed, you may go through periods where you find yourself subscribing to their view.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Their view, of course, is that Kerouac's novels—principally On the Road, The Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels, Doctor Sax, The Subterraneans—are notable mostly for their lack of craftsmanship, their narrative self-indulgence, the poor definition of their characters, their tiresome perpetuation of an ultimately tiresome myth wherein Kerouac and his friends wander back and forth across America experiencing epiphanies and digging jazz.

Most writers and critics who pride themselves on how hard they work to turn out cogent, articulate pieces of prose or poetry, understandably find little in Kerouac's improvisational method—in which revision is eschewed as a form of lying—to recommend it. I'm putting it mildly: They consider it nothing less than an affront, an insult, and they're far from hard-pressed to find substantiation for their negative opinion in his books, which are shot through with long passages that demonstrably clank and blather.

During those times when all of this seems irrefutable, it's just about impossible to suppress the realization that Kerouac's work does fail to measure up to most criteria of literary quality. Memorable characters in his densely populated novels are few and far between, and those few that are memorable owe their memorability not to anything subtle or profound but to a kind of raw force that pours out of them by dint of Kerouac's fascination with the persons upon whom they are very closely based. (You find few, if any, "composite characters" in Kerouac's books.) Finally, Kerouac can't seem ever to take leave of himself: Constantly, the reader is thrown together with this boastful, sentimental drunk whose every third word seems to be "I."

At times like these, one may still allow that there is a kind of pulsating life running through Kerouac's works, and that their significance as cultural documents—as protocountercultural manifestoes—is ungainsayable. But stacked up against the accomplishments of our nation's recognized great writers, from William Faulkner to Raymond Carver, what appears on the plus side of Kerouac's ledger doesn't seem to amount to much.

Maybe only when a lesser-known work of Kerouac's, not previously read or not read for a very long time, swims into one's ken is it possible to look at what Kerouac has done without the cognitive interference of all those "But is this sufficiently artistic?" considerations and realize that Kerouac's achievement is in fact awe-inspiring, the work of a man who so thoroughly immolated himself for the sake of his books that at the end not a stone was left standing.

Just such an occasion is upon us now as Penguin issues new paperback editions of Tristessa and Big Sur, two novels likely unfamiliar to the vast majority of readers who found the fast-moving aimlessness (and transparent commercialism) of On the Road and the overdense lyrical fantasy of Doctor Sax, say, not conducive to a further look. Making the moment even more opportune, City Lights has just published Pomes All Sizes, a previously unpublished volume of Kerouac's verse.

In form and subject matter, Tristessa (originally published in 1960) bears a strong resemblance to The Subterraneans, a far better-known Kerouac novel about a drunken, unsuccessful bohemian novelist (Kerouac) and his brief, intense love affair with a young bohemian black woman amid an early-'50s milieu of pot-smoking literary bohemians. The Subterranean, which is famous for having been written under the influence of Benzedrine in three days and three nights immediately following the events it transparently fictionalizes, possesses the remarkable emotional urgency of a story told by a man who has just gotten done driving away—by means of insanely jealous and self-destructive behavior—someone who might have given him at least a momentary happiness, a man whose self-loathing will prove unbearable unless he manages to purge himself by writing it all out. This isn't Proust spending a lifetime slowly sublimating and transmuting his inability to find love into a vast and splendid fictional tapestry—this is a man who's going to throw himself under a bus tonight unless he manages to get his torment onto paper right here and now.

By contrast, the story of Kerouac's — excuse me—Jack Duluoz's confused attraction to an Indian junky whore named Tristessa during a stay in Mexico City in around 1954 is bumbling comedy shot through with moments of heartbreaking despair and characterized throughout by descriptive writing that is astonishingly sensual and immediate. When Duluoz leaves Tristessa's dirty apartment, where he's sat for hours drinking whiskey while she and her drunken sister and their criminal fancy man and a rooster and a cat and a dog and a dove scheme and curse and scratch and yip amid garbage and craziness, and goes trudging home to his room through rainy streets lined with whores and cabs and kids and cops, eating "stinking liver" tacos purchased from curbside stands as he goes, you find yourself questioning Kerouac's standing as a practitioner of the literary art from the other side of the fence. This is barely literary—it's more akin to living inside someone else's head and skin for better or worse. Later, you don't remember certain passages as something you've read so much as you remember them, in unguarded moments, as something you've actually experienced:

It's the dismal rainy night caught up with me—my hair is dripping water, my shoes are slopping—but I have my jacket on, and it is soaking on the outside—but it is rain repellent—"Why I bought it back in the Richmond Bank" I'm tellin heroes about it later, in a littlekid dream.—I run on home, walking past the bakery where they don't at 2 A M anymore make latenight donuts, twisters taken out of ovens and soaked in syrup and sold to you through the bakery window for two cents apiece and I'd buy baskets of them in my younger days—closed now, rainy night Mexico City of the present contains no roses and no fresh hot donuts and it's bleak. I cross the last street, slow down and relax letting out breath and stumbling on my muscles, now I go in, death or no death, and sleep the sweet sleep of white angels.

Still, Tristessa has a stunning natural symmetry and an almost unparalleled narrative economy. For all Kerouac's much-maligned run-on sentences, false starts, and unfinished phrases, there's scarcely a word in this book that doesn't help build the emotional and sensual picture he wants to convey. Kerouac's detractors may find the comparison specious, but his prose in Tristessa truly is like a great, free-ranging jazz solo: colloquial one moment, reaching for the sky the next, moving swiftly and instinctively from idea to idea, finding new material to work with every time his fingers move across the keys.

Kerouac's Big Sur (first published in 1962), which shows the author's alcoholism carrying him to emotional and psychological depths, is one of the most frightening pieces of extended prose on record. Malcolm Lowry may have laid his own alcoholic soul bare in Under the Volcano, but it was all literary. In Big Sur, Kerouac describes an acute state of paranoid schizophrenia brought on by an extended binge and, he believes, by too close proximity to the raw oceanic nature of the California coast. In 1960, Kerouac had been a famous and controversial novelist for three years—since the 1957 publication of On the Road, which received one note of fulsome praise in The New York Times before being savaged by every literary personage from Truman Capote to Norman Podhoretz. Chronically drunk, chronically besieged by admirers, sycophants, and parasites, living at the house in Florida he purchased for his mother, he traveled to San Francisco for the purpose of spending three weeks in solitude and natural splendor at City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Big Sur cabin. After almost blowing the scheme by going on a roaring drunk with all his literary pals immediately upon his arrival in the city, he managed to get himself out to Big Sur, where he stayed off and on for the sober and write a long poem about the ocean.

Stay sober he could not, and he ultimately drank himself into a state of ambulatory delirium tremens indistinguishable from psychosis. At the same time, and even in his nondrinking moments, the vast might of the ocean and the gnarl of the coastal cliffs and forests struck him as essentially hostile. Narrowly escaping Big Sur with his sanity tenuously intact, he got on an airplane and returned to Florida. About a year later he sat down and committed the entire episode to paper. If he left anything out of his account, you don't want to know what it is.

By almost any standard, the behavior described in the preceding paragraphs is not that of a literary man. I wrack my brains—I think of Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, alcoholics all, who created alcoholic characters and feelingly conveyed the alcoholic's wretchedness and despair. But I can think of no writer before or after Kerouac who even attempted to use his writing to plumb the prolonged fires of alcoholic hell without at least taking the precaution of placing the burden on an invented character. Big Sur is about Kerouac, no one else. He isn't trying to get your sympathy, and he isn't trying to make himself look like anything except what he is. Nor does he beat his breast. Nor is the book a formless, semi-intelligible post-alcoholic scrawl—he recounts nightmares and hallucinations with an exactitude that is totally convincing and pitiful:

I arrive at Mien Mo Mountain which is like Raton Canyon again but has a large tho dry rot river running in the wide hole and down there on many rocks are huge brooding vultures—Old bums row out to them and pull them clumsily off the rocks and start feeding them like pets, bites of red meat or red mite, tho at first I thought the eccentric old town bums wanted them to eat or to sell (still maybe so) because before I study this I look and see hundreds of slowly fornicating vulture couples on the town dump—These are now humanly formed vultures with human shaped arms, legs, heads, torsos, but they have rainbow colored feathers, and the men are all quietly sitting behind Vulture Women slowly somehow fornicating at them in all, the same slow obscene movement—Both man and woman sit facing the same direction and somehow there's contact because you can see all their feathery rainbow behinds slowly dully montonously fornicating on the dumpslopes—As I pass I even see the expression on the face of a youngish blond vulture man eternally displeased because his Vulture Mistress is an old Yakker who's been arguing with him all the time—His face is completely human but inhumanly pasty like uncooked pale pie dough with dull seamed buggy horror that he's doomed to all this enough to make me shudder in sympathy, I even see her awful expression of middleaged pie dough tormentism—They're so human.

The poor, poor man, that he could remember such frightful things in such frightful detail. Kerouac takes his own misery and shame, still bleeding, and somehow finds the cold blood to fashion a book out of them.

In his introduction to Pomes All Sizes, Allen Ginsberg—whose aggressive, brooks-no-opposition support of Kerouac's work has probably done it more harm than good with the critics—speaks of "lovely familiar classic Kerouacisms, nostalgic gathas from 1955 Berkeley cottage days, pure sober tender Kerouac of your yore, pithy exquisite later drunken laments and bitter nuts and verses..."

This is all very well and good, and perfectly true as far as it goes. Ginsberg apparently wants to sell us on the idea that by reading these poems we'll get a nice bath of vintage Kerouac, a late-breaking taste of the kind of irresistible wine-and Zen-soaked evenings that a lot of people remember fondly from Dharma Bums even if they've since turned their backs on Kerouac's work. But there's a great deal more going on within the pages of this book than nostalgic gathas, more than charming odd doggerel.

I pass lightly over poems like "The Bowery Blues" that continue the Big Sur "theme" (quote marks because it seems unlikely that Kerouac ever consciously trafficked in themes) of looking into the fires of urban, alcoholic hell—because these are highly disturbing and almost too-powerful works that make sport of commentary. Instead, I notice that Kerouac's feeling for the modern poetic line—in poems like "If I Were Jesus, God" and "Silly Goofball Pomes" and "Pax" —is sure and true, and apparently as naturally and truly arrived at as anyone's poetic line in this century. It is impossible to imagine a more perfect poem than "Pax":

I demand that the human race ceases multiplying its kind
and bow out
I advise it

And as punishment & reward for making this plea I know
I'll be reborn
the last human 

Everybody else dead and I'm an old woman roaming the earth
groaning in caves
sleeping on mats

And sometimes I'll cackle, sometimes pray, sometimes cry, eat & 
at my little stove in the corner
"Always knew it anyway,"
I'll say
And one morning wont get up
from my mat

In trying to fit Kerouac into the scheme of American writing, though, poems like "Pax"—small studies in literary perfection—may represent a red herring. And even if we are deeply moved and amazed by Tristessa and Big Sur, we will probably still find ourselves at a loss when trying to equate Kerouac's prose achievement with what was accomplished by Faulkner and Hemingway and those who have come after them.

Kerouac the novelist stands alone—without progenitors (Thomas Wolfe, his major early influence, never approaches Kerouac's honesty or lack of "artistry") and, one almost hopes, without descendants. His best novels are personal documents written out of his own torment and humor, with no mediation. They throw a scary light on just how essentially decorous and genteel most fiction is.

Those of us who find much food for heart and mind in Kerouac's documentation of his suffering are likely to be frustrated for a long time to come in our irresistible desire to see him placed in critical perspective, the simple fact being that within' the great white whale of American literature he remains an indigestible element. Next year, Viking will begin issuing volumes of previously unpublished prose by Kerouac (notably Some of the Dharma, his reflections on Buddhism). Any hope that this will help his work gain some measure of critical recognition is probably chimerical. For the time being, all we have is the work itself—sloppy, raw, disconcerting, and painfully true.


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