Wednesday, September 05, 2007

This is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac’s (Jack Crackerjack, a friend called him) On The Road. I think it can be argued that On the Road turned out to be the most influential novel of the second half of the last century. My opinion, maybe not your’s. Not the best novel, nor the most interesting, but clearly one of the most creative.

Kerouac’s novel inspired, of course, thousands of hitch-hikers to start moving back and forth across the country. It turned out to be the ultimate road novel. When I read it, I realized something had happened in American lit. I was young and in college and really didn’t know shit, but I did know that something had changed when that book came out. I remember no one in the English Department at the college had read it; they viewed it as simply another Thomas Wolf clone, a flash in the pan. It wasn’t, of course.

Kerouac, on the basis of that and a couple of other novels—neither as startling as On the Road—became a monument in American fiction. He wasn’t a good candidate for that job. He was a misfit no matter where he was. Another sad case of a tortured, emotionally stunted, and alcoholic writer. He was a flash in the pan; On the Road has endured and so has Kerouac’s off-center career.

I couldn’t see that at the time, of course. I was young and out of a stuffed-up southern California environment. What Kerouac had done seemed like the most romantic thing since Byron drank wine out of a skull. He, and his pal, Neal Cassidy, drove back and forth across America, drunk, stoned, wired, and definitely alive. Kerouac’s be-bop inspired prose echoed his altered brain chemistry. He had fun, even when he had the blues.

Damn’ right I wanted to be that way. I already knew I was a misfit. But the so-called “beat generation” seemed like a nation of misfits, ready to accept just about anyone who wanted in.

That was fifty years ago. My god, fifty years ago.

Fortunately, I realized that “fitting in” meant fitting in to a crumbling stage set or Hollywood back lot. It meant taking on a role, learning to play a part that really didn’t have much to do with who I was.

I never did learn to fit in. I learned that Kerouac was a lonely and unhappy drunk, underneath it all. He died a drunk, way before the end of his life expectancy. Neal Cassidy was, to be nice to his memory, a womanizer, a speed freak, and a talented sociopath. He died early, too. I’m still here, and I like that just fine.

Did you know that The Gap sells a line of "Kerouac Jeans"? He's worth more money now than he was when alive. Another one like that.

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