Reading between Jack Kerouac's lines

March 20, 1995|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

Jack Kerouac helped create a literary myth and a persona, but by the end of his life, he was rejecting both. When he died in 1969, at the age of 47, he had been living quietly for more than a decade, his years of free-wheeling escapades "on the road" long behind him. And he was weary of talking about the Beat Generation, the term he had coined two decades before.

Destroying a myth, however, may be more difficult than creating it. As these two volumes reaffirm, there's still something alluring about the image of writer as free spirit, the restless seeker of truth.

But his writing, too, has had an enormous impact. Bruce Cook, author of "The Beat Generation," lists such writers as Ishmael Reed, Amiri Baraka, Tom Robbins and Richard Brautigan as being influenced by Kerouac. No doubt there have been thousands of less-talented writers who have tried to re-create Kerouac's "spontaneous prose," with markedly inferior results.

As "The Portable Kerouac" reveals, Kerouac himself was a wildly uneven writer. He wrote one great, true book, his 1957 novel "On the Road." "Big Sur" and "Desolation Angels" have their moments, but on the whole his fiction can try even his most ardent fans. Too often, it comes across as juvenile and affected. One has to be stoked on youthful exuberance, or stimulants of some kind -- or both -- to get through such passages as this, from "Tristessa":

"Through the crazy Saturday night drizzle streets like Hong Kong our cab pushes slowly through the market ways and we come out on the whore street district and get off behind the fruity fruitstands and tortilla beans and tacos shacks with fixed wood benches -- It's the poor district of Rome."

As Ann Charters, one of Kerouac's early biographers and probably his best, notes in her excellent introduction to "The Portable Kerouac," his autobiographical novels were meant as one extended work -- what he called his Duluoz Legend.

"Duluoz" was one of his several pseudonyms and noms de plume, and his novels, from "Visions of Gerard" to "Big Sur," graphically chronicled his life from blue-collar birth in Lowell, Mass., to semi-retirement as a somewhat reluctant literary hero. Kerouac explained his approach in a rather immodest aside to writer and friend John Clellon Holmes:

"Would Mozart blam all the 86 [sic] keys of the piano at ones with his 86 figures? or divide his ball into suitable symphonies, concerti, sonatas, serenatas, masses, dances, oratorios . . ."

Well, as "The Portable Kerouac" shows, Kerouac was not the literary equivalent of Mozart. He had major-league ambitions and worked hard at his craft, but it's hard to shake the image of him rewriting the same book over and over.

More of interest, to me, is his "Selected Letters," also ably edited by Ms. Charters. She points out that, more than most writers, Kerouac depended on letters to express himself, to work out his fiction through his letters to Allen Ginsburg, William Burroughs and, especially, Neal Cassady, his famous alter ego.

The Kerouac who emerges from these letters is a far darker figure than the fellow in his fiction. Over and over, he complains of being lonely, of being broke, of being misunderstood. He wrote "On the Road" in one glorious three-week stretch in April 1951, with several long letters to Cassady written a few months earlier (included in this volume) serving as a sort of jump-start.

But then it was six more years before the book was published, and Kerouac suffered innumerable disappointments and frustrations. When Ginsberg wrote to Kerouac in 1952 that "On the Road" "just drags itself exhausted over the goal line of meaning to something else," Kerouac fired back in a bitter letter:

"Do you think I don't realize how jealous you are and how you . . . would give your right arm to be able to write like the writing in 'On the Road' . . ."

There is no myth at work here: This is a scared, angry writer with one novel behind him, convinced on the one hand that he has written a great work and wondering on the other if it would ever be published.

This is the hard part of being a writer, one not conveyed in Kerouac's fiction, with its endless passages of ecstatic nights and hot jazz and weeks out on the open road. And that is why "Selected Letters" is both troubling and affecting, as moving a testimonial to the writing life as you will find.

Mr. Warren's reviews appear Mondays in The Sun.


Title: "The Portable Jack Kerouac"

Editor: Ann Charters

Publisher: Viking

Length, price: 626 pages, $27.95


Title: "Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1940-1956"

Editor: Ann Charters

Publisher: Viking

Length, price: 629 pages, $29.95

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