Thursday, March 12, 2009

Kerouac Day: Patron Saint of Literature

On this day in 1922, Beat Generation co-founder and writer Jack Kerouac was born. He is my favourite writer since I "discovered" his books in 2001. Actually, I had heard of him back in the 1980s but never read any of his books. In fact, throughout the 1990s, I would hear a nagging voice in my head to "Read Kerouac, read Kerouac." I ignored it. His books didn't seem interesting to me. Though I was vaguely aware of his more famous works (On the Road, The Subterraneans, and The Dharma Bums), I always thought of him in the mold of James Dean and Marlon Brando. An icon of rebellion from an era I wasn't even interested in (the 1950s).

During my "Dark Night of the Soul" period of late 2000 and the first half of 2001, I was open to new discoveries (in this time period, I also discovered numerology when I realized how often the number 22 appeared in my life in positive ways). So, I decided to pacify that inner voice in my head about reading Kerouac. I bought two books. One was a biography about him (by Tom Clark) and the other was one of Kerouac's last books, Satori in Paris. It was a short read.

Listening to that prompting resulted in one of the strangest experiences of my life. In Satori in Paris, I was shocked to read that Kerouac got into an argument with someone on a train from Paris to Brittany about the proper pronunciation of the town "St. Brieuc." A French friend of mine lives in Plerin, a small town on the outskirts of St. Brieuc. In fact, when I visited him and his family, I had to get off the TGV in St. Brieuc. I always pronounced the name wrong and had my own arguments with my French friend about the proper pronunciation (do you pronounce the "c" or not?). Additionally, the number 22 comes up a lot in Kerouac's life. He was, after all, born in 1922. There were quite a few coincidences between what Kerouac wrote in Satori in Paris and my own life. Though the book is kind of lame, out of all of his books, its probably the one that has the most coincidences with my own life. I'm like a character straight out of his novel. Did Kerouac dream me into existence?

In the Tom Clark biography, I learned many other similarities between him and I (he had an older brother, though he died when they were young children; and he had a sister). He was obsessed with his French heritage, tracing his family roots back to Brittany. Though I have no French ancestry, in elementary school, I thought I did and hoped that I did. I have no idea where my deep love for France comes from. Certainly not my parents!

A decade has nearly passed since I first started reading Kerouac and most of the books I have on him are still in storage back east. I highlighted everything we had in common and hoped to write it all in a journal someday. Never in my life have I ever come across another person where I had so much in common, hitting the motherlode of coincidences. Who knows what it means? I have my theories, but someday in the spiritual realm, I'll learn the truth about these coincidences between his life and my own. All I can say is that I read about 6 different biographies on him and most of his novels, and never have I freaked out so much each time I came across a coincidence between him and I. Truly, I feel like my whole life has been nothing more than a plagiarism of his works. Perhaps I am a character in his imagination, an idealized version of himself, living in some fiction world and none of this is real.

Though I aspire to be a published novelist myself and have a vision of the kind of writing career I desire (a mix of Michael Crichton, Nicholas Sparks, and John Grisham), I consider Kerouac to be my "Patron Saint of Literature." However, most of his books are a mess. I can totally understand why critics hate him, why Truman Capote dismissed his writing speed as "that's not writing, that's typing," why he struggled to get many of his books published. The only novels of his worth reading for most people are On the Road and The Dharma Bums. The others are only interesting to people fascinated by this tragic figure of American literature.

What is it about Kerouac, anyway? He wasn't focused. He moved from place to place (so many cross country journeys). He depended too much on other people, particularly women. He had three wives (though not at the same time!) and treated them all like crap. They paid the bills while he wrote and traveled and wrote some more. He was every bit as restless as his novels.

Part of his tragic life was due in part to his inability to be his own man and step away from his mother's overbearing control over his life. She basically made him feel guilty his whole life over being the one to have lived instead of his "saintly" brother. To cope with life, Kerouac drank. By the end of his life, he was a terrible alcoholic, badly out of shape, and a belligerent and mean drunk. If anyone doubts the ability to destroy one's physical appearances through self-indulgent bad habits (such as alcohol, drugs, or smoking), check out his pictures as a young man versus pictures of him in his 40s. Hard to believe its the same guy. He was blessed with looks that attracted hoards of women (back in the 50s, there was such a thing as "literary groupies") and a writing talent that was squandered on the vain attempt to mythologicalize his unconventional life. What he might have written if he actually created fictional characters and dreamed up situations he never experienced personally.

Is he a great writer? Or did death make him a literary icon that endures to this day? I personally find his life interesting and worth reading about. He is my favourite writer, but only because of the deep personal connection I feel and all the coincidences his life and mine have in common. I doubt that I will ever meet another person on this earth whose personality, views, and life experience closely resembles my own (though I've always had a strong aversion to any form of drug usage and only drink alcohol occasionally but never to excess). From an objective point of view, however, I don't rate his books as high as others, because I've read some pretty amazing novels. You can tell that a lot of creative thought went into the stories, characters, plot, subplots. That's worlds different than merely taking the most interesting experiences of your life and changing the names. Most of his novels lack a plot. You're basically reading it to learn more about how he views his own life experiences. That's not the kind of novelist I intend to be. I prefer the creation of memorable stories with coherent plotlines.

On this day, however, I observe Kerouac Day and seek ways to pay tribute to this iconic writer whose works and life history gave me one of the greatest experiences of my life when I first started reading his works in 2001. Should I have read his works earlier, when I first heard the voice telling me to "read Kerouac!"? I think some things happen according to their own time and I might not have appreciated his works until I was ready for it.

Later today, I might listen to his Dr. Sax that I have on CD. That was perhaps his most unreadable "novel." Hopefully the CD performance of the readers will make it more interesting (I had a hard time reading that book. It's obvious he wrote it while on drugs). Fans who leave cigarette packs and empty bottles of alcohol on his gravesite in Lowell, Massachusetts don't have a clue. Those were the things that destroyed him before age 50. If people want to leave anything on his grave, how about a pen and an empty notepad? Then hit the road, Jack!

I like the photo of Jack Kerouac above and didn't realize until later that I had a similar pose in a photo of mine (below, taken in August 1999 at the St. Paul MN Capitol grounds).

1 comment:

zach said...

hey man,

you're a fool.