Though we insist on calling Jack Kerouac a novelist, we also insist on not quite believing it. The Lowell bard’s Duluoz Legend, the 14-volume series of which
On the Road is the showpiece, aids our quick conflation of fictional hero and heroic author. Kerouac’s own travels along Sal Paradise’s routes entwine with his protagonist’s. The names of his characters often mimic their real-life models down to ethnicity and syllable (Neal Cassady = Dean Moriarty; Lucien Carr = Remi Boncoeur). Sometimes Kerouac doesn’t even bother with standard handles, as in Gary Snyder’s
Dharma Bums conversion to Japhy Ryder, probably the only instance of the forename “Japhy” in American letters.
Officially deemed fiction, these books present as gloriously transparent travelogues, which makes the newly published Book of Sketches—a few Moleskines’ worth of journal jottings, boxcar hymns, and dramatic poesy, equal parts diary and style exercise—appear redundant on arrival: yet more cranked-up road odes, only
sans the name sleights and with even less editing.
In fact, Sketches is a refreshing addendum to novels that could be exhaustingly holy. Kerouac’s famed “bop prosody” style, with its marathon Benzedrine sessions and endless typing rolls, sought a straight route to revelation. But this at-all-costs spontaneity was itself a heavily predetermined and calculated conceit, often overwhelming the story it meant to free with its own massive ideological torque. It was forcibly unforced. By contrast, the sketches here are genuinely dashed off, and sparkle with the sort of humdrum bits that Sal Paradise might believe in but lose beneath his radar. Kerouac’s description of a friend cooking supper is gleefully minor: “She/prepares the aluminum/silex for coffee—never/puts an extra scoop for/the pot—makes weak/American housewife coffee/—but who’s to/notice, the Prez. of the/Waldorf Astoria? . . . Out/comes the bacon and the/yellow plastic/basket of eggs—What’s/she going to make?” Not bound by the Duluoz strictures, Jack stumbles onto their goal.
Though Sketches is also populated with typical Kerouac subjects (stoic railroad brakemen, quixotic farm workers), which satiate as On the Road outtakes, it’s the author’s self-aware wit that invigorates the work. One of Kerouac’s central ironies was being a lifelong homebody who clung to Mother (hence the vibrancy of every adventure Away), and here he admits the comedy of his nostalgia for the hearth. “Did I ever get my/kicks as a kid with/date pie & whipt cream . . . the oranges/& walnuts in a bowl,/the heat of the house,/the Xmas tinsel on the tree . . . On the Road
that/if you will, Sex/Generation that/if you will.”
But most revealing is when the inward gaze turns sour. In “Sunday in the Yards,” the author interrupts himself to question his whole enterprise: “As/if this was what a/man would want to write/who has nothing left to do/in his life but keep his/joy in secret scribbled note-/books—no, I’ll have/to try again, start all over,/again—
Enthusiasm/is a design that has to/be re-woven in this/bare barking heart.” It’s a sweet, vulnerable moment, but the young novelist knows writing his own pathos is itself an indulgence. A page later he mockingly quotes those lines, ending, “says the Goddam/motherforsaken fop/who calls himself Kerouac . . . ” Pausing to divvy himself up into writer and subject, Jack breaks bop prosody’s rules but ironically makes its point.
Less valuable to the Beat canon, but still packing some vicarious pleasures and a scatter of luminous insights, is The Poem That Changed America: “Howl” Fifty Years Later. The collection of essays and ruminations ranges from taut academic pieces by the likes of Marjorie Perloff to lo-fi recountings of “the time I met Allen.”
“Howl,” like all paunchy rebels, finds itself in a bind at 50: Its perpetual rediscovery keeps it young, but it is also a poem that states its generation in line one (an announcement that now may read less as pride and more as confession). The contributors to Fifty Years feel this concern, many arguing for its relevance by locating it in their own removed generations. For Rick Moody, who got to it in the early ’80s, ” ‘Howl’ was a great article of constitution of the punk rock years.” Others suggest its continued firepower by remaking the poem in its own image. Some of these scaffolds work (John Cage’s parallel columns of rearranged phrases, run through with vertical chains of capitalized ALLENGINSBERGs); others are more rickety (Anne Waldman’s superimposition of modern politics: “Guantánamo holy? Abu Ghraib unholy!/ . . . Cloning holy?/Stem cells holy?”).
Waldman’s stiff substitutions do raise a tricky question: What can “Howl” do now, when there’s plenty of Molochs to howl against but the poem is mixed up in them? For just as Kerouac’s “the only ones for me are the mad ones” line has been hijacked by ad campaigns looking for edge that isn’t, “Howl” has become an icon of rebellion. And while many of these essays artfully treat that concern, their ready assent is itself a problem. The scream can’t sound atonal if it’s sung in chorus.