The beat goes on

October 21, 1999|By Rafael Alvarez

LOWELL, MASS. — LOWELL, MASS.-- I am a grave robber.

Jack Kerouac died a drunken mama's boy 30 years ago today in St. Petersburg, Fla. I found his grave at Edson Cemetery after seeing highway signs for this old mill town in northeastern Massachusetts.

The simple marker, flush to the ground and littered with liquor bottles, reads: "He honored life."

Jack did, as the tender stenographer for the ants-in-my-pants soul of America.

And he didn't, drinking himself to death by 47, denying his daughter and urinating on the gift that produced "On the Road," "Vanity of Dululouz," and "The Dharma Bums."

Along with bottles, notes and letters are left on Kerouac's grave. They arrive regularly with visitors from around the world. In deference to the life he honored and in defiance of the one he destroyed, I took the notes and left the bottles.

A cat named Charles Brown wrote: "If only I could remember the things you said to me last night in my dreams."

Another dreamer asked: "Where have you been all my life?"

And Paul drove his family -- wife Geri, children Julian and Zoey -- from Detroit to say: "This is just a stop in my life, my family's life. I leave these words for your life. For your death, I leave a can of alcohol. It consumed you faster than words did."

More than 40 years after hitting American literature -- about the same time that Elvis kamikazed pop music -- "On the Road" is consumed by more readers than ever.

The book was lived by Kerouac between 1947 and 1950 -- with a pass through Baltimore to practice driving in traffic! -- written in New York City in April 1951, published by Viking in 1957 and will be in print forever.

Reading it is a common rite-of-passage not confined to the toll road that bridges adolescence and adulthood. Wherever you are in life, Kerouac's yearning for "all that road going . . . all the people dreaming in the immensity of it . . ." can take you to the next stop on the way.

Read it at the wrong time, and it might kill you.

Or set you free if the time is right.

"Nobody," Kerouac writes, "knows what's going to happen to anybody."

When I was 18 and sailing between Baltimore and Beaumont, Texas, on a merchant ship, I banged out primitive stories on the steward's typewriter and studied Dickens to learn structure.

Had I been reading "On the Road" that summer, I might have jumped ship in New Orleans and never found my way home.

A dozen years later, without knowing why, I started reading a beat-up paperback copy at stoplights as I drove my kids to school. I disliked my life enough to be seduced by Kerouac's descriptions of things that no longer existed in America.

At every crossroad, he claimed in verse worthy of Robert Johnson: "There were mysteries around here."

The year I read "On the Road," my marriage collapsed. I went to live with my grandfather in Highlandtown and settled down for a self-imposed apprenticeship in fiction.

And, through a grace that eluded Kerouac in this world, gave up some things that he never did.

On the edge of downtown Lowell is a park honoring the town's most famous son. On upright slabs of polished granite, Kerouac's words reveal his true self: "I am actually not a beat, but a strange, solitary Catholic mystic."

And I am an unrepentant grave robber.

Rafael Alvarez is a reporter for The Sun. His forthcoming book of fiction -- "Orlo and Leini" -- will be published by Woodholme House in the spring. He can be reached at rafaelalvarez@sevarez.com.

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