Friday, March 12, 2010

Flashback Friday: Jack Kerouac at 88

Today marks the 88th Anniversary of the birth of Jack Kerouac, my favourite writer. I have written posts about this notable author each year of my blog on this date, so I don't know if I can add anything new to say about him.

In case you're wondering why he is my favourite writer, its quite complicated. Most of his books are a mess, and for the casual reader who merely wants to get a sense of his writing, I'd recommend reading just two of his books: On the Road and The Dharma Bums. I still haven't read all of his books (and 40 years after his death, publishing companies still release books under his name...either re-issues of his classic or new biographies or the unpublished manuscripts he had left behind). Each March and October, though, I set aside a Kerouac book to read (or biography or literary critique). Right now, I'm reading The Beat Generation, which was a play that Kerouac had written, which was only published recently.

Although I've been aware of Kerouac since I was a teenager, I never had a real interest to read his books. Then, in the early 1990s, I started "hearing a voice" that kept telling me to "Read Kerouac! Read Kerouac!" I ignored this voice. Or I would look at his books in the bookstore and read the back cover and put it back on the shelf. Part of what turned me away from reading Kerouac was the reputation he carried. Even though I knew very little about him, I got the sense that he was a washed-out, drunken rebel who wrote plotless books about his life. His books can't really be considered "novels" since they are pretty much based on his life experiences and have no real plot. As Truman Capote said of Kerouac: "That's not writing, its typing." If anything, Kerouac was a speed typist, who could crank out novels on teletype paper in all night Benzedrine binges. Man, what he might do with a computer! Of course, he died before personal computers came into being.

In the summer of 2001, I finally got worn down by "the voice" telling me to "read Kerouac! Read Kerouac!" I picked one biography on him and one book, and bought them. The biography was by Tom Clark and the Kerouac book I bought was his last one published before he died: Satori in Paris. When I read both, I was in complete shock by how much he and I had in common. I have never met a human being who had so much in common with me (both in how we think, how we write, and some of our life experiences). Satori in Paris was incredible to me, because he had experiences in France that I did (such as arguing with a French person on the proper way to pronounce the name of the town St. Brieuc). He even used obscure French words that I had written down as a teenager in my high school notes (particularly "farceurs" and "surete"). With these amazing set of experiences between us, I was hooked and had to read more. So, for the rest of 2001, I bought as many Kerouac books as I could afford, and read one after another. The coincidences between us continued and continued. I began to feel like a fraud...like I was not real, but a character created in the mind of Kerouac. I often feel like I'm a character in his book. I wanted my life back! Why did I give in to that mysterious inner voice to "read Kerouac! Read Kerouac!"???

I consider him my "patron saint." A cautionary tale. Kerouac and I have some inexplicable spiritual bond. That much I'm certain of. In a cool rhyming passage in The Dharma Bums, Kerouac wrote: "Who played this cruel joke on this poor bloke?" Is that me? Is my life real? Or am I merely a character in his book, living according to the script he is writing for me? Maybe that's why I loved the movie Stranger Than Fiction. As I read Kerouac's books, I often feel like I'm one of his characters, without ever desiring to be one. Why can't I be one of John Grisham's characters who ends up outwitting the mob and becoming rich? Or a character in Nicholas Sparks' novel where I get the lady of my dreams because she fell in love with my romantic side? Time for me to write my own script, I think. However, I appreciate reading about the life of Kerouac (I think I've read about seven biographies on him already). For better or worse, his life represents an excellent cautionary tale of a man running back and forth across this continent, with the occasional excursion to Mexico City or Tangiers, unable to find a meaningful relationship to anchor him into a community and contributing back. In a word, Kerouac was way too self-indulgent in his lifestyle and thus did not surprise anyone when he died of symptoms brought on by years of alcoholism.


For Christmas, my best friend Nicholas gave me the book Why Kerouac Matters, which I read in January. Its not an actual biography, but more of a literary critique, or a look at examples from Kerouac's life and writings to explain why his life matters (critics never really liked him). At times, the book reminded me of a doctoral thesis that a literary grad student submits to a panel to defend before being awarded the highest academic honours. I'm not a fan of academic writing. They tend to be purposefully boring, designed to put you to sleep. Yet, this book also has quite a few gems throughout. Its good to see someone appreciating the works of Kerouac and finding deeper meaning, though Kerouac himself might have not intended such meanings when he wrote. That's one of the funny things about literary criticism. The writer works in flow...of words and ideas. Maybe the meaning becomes apparent later, during the editing process. But speaking as one who has written an (as yet unpublished) 700-page novel, I can tell you that its nearly impossible to write a fictional story with the overall meanings in the forefront of your mind. This is what propagandistic writings attempt, and they make for lousy reading. The flow of the story and characters come first...the meanings or interpretations of such meanings, much later.

One example of a good Kerouac quote that reflects my beliefs is: "I believed in a good home, in sane and sound living, in good food, good times, work faith and hope. I have always believed in these things. It was with some amazement that I realized I was one of the few people in the world who really believed in these things without going around making a dull middleclass philosophy out of it."

My favourite Kerouac quote, though, was his response when someone asked him what he wanted. "I'm just waiting for God to show His face." Amen. I feel the same way.

If Kerouac had lived these past 88 years (he was 47 when he died), his life would have most likely continued to degrade in quality if he couldn't kick his alcoholism. His later books were truly a mess, so it was unlikely that his mind would have been sharp and brilliant enough to create a literary classic that surpassed his most famous novel. However, I think he would have really loved the invention of the personal computer, blogging, and the Russian film Hipsters. Fortunately for Kerouac...I get to experience all that for him. Even more awesome, there are two films that feature Kerouac coming out this year. Not another documentary or docudrama...an actual movie with big name actors, a script, and a storyline. Can't wait!

Happy Birthday, tiJean!

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