Friday, July 14, 2006

New Kerouac books

Good to see more of Kerouac’s previously unpublished works coming into print. Comprising prose sketches, notebook entries, a handful of poems, and the like, Book of Sketches (Penguin Books) is published exactly as the author typed it up in manuscript form. This brief description doesn’t do it justice, however, for it somehow manages to function as a cohesive book (as opposed to random jottings), and makes a claim for itself as a major work in Kerouac’s oeuvre. Its cumulative effect is like an experimental novel, a multi-genre tour de force. There is no plot of course, no character, except maybe for the consciousness of the author, which is fragmented, at certain points observing itself, observing the wider world at others, always going further. “I am Mallarmé’s / grandchild,” Kerouac offers. It is perhaps his most alienated book, almost a rejection of an America he simultaneously ... mythologizes is not the right word ... manifests: “since that repudiation of / a human wish Americans / have become adjusted to / their machines—” America as junk heap:

—A redbrick shack
with torn “Notice”—
hints of onetime smiling
people now the shithole
beneath the
viaduct of Iron America
in which at last I
am free to roam—

And a bleak vision of the Statue of Liberty, “her back, / her torch upheld, / to a smoky uncaring / strife torn waterfront / striking Brooklyn—”

At times the book is simply what it says, prose sketches, deep description, scenes. It also fills in experience not widely covered in Kerouac’s other books, time spent in North Carolina for example. At one point he gives us a vastly different perspective on his relationship with Alene Lee, which was the subject matter of the novel The Subterraneans. In Book of Sketches we get brief glimpses from inside Lee’s apartment while she herself is out. The emphasis is on the stains on the walls, old grey paint. This is an unromantic, almost un-Beat work, in which the author enjoins himself to “remember yr FrenchCanadian soul...” It is imbued with a sense of world-weariness, but Kerouac’s belief in his own writing never really falters, and his sardonic description of himself as a “world hater who will / become the greatest writer who ever lived” has quite possibly actually come true.

I was a bit surprised to see that Penguin counts Book of Sketches among its Penguin Poets series, since Kerouac clearly saw it as its own thing. In fact, his own hand-written frontispiece (reproduced in this edition) reads, “(Proving that sketches ain’t Verse) But Only What Is,” and where poems are (rarely) included, they are marked out from the prose sketches. The painter George Condo’s introduction is somewhat hit-and-run. For Condo, Kerouac is a little like Jackson Pollock, or wait, he’s a little like da Vinci, now a bit like Edward Hopper, or maybe Picasso. Finally, “Only Jack and Vincent van Gogh told the inner truth.” Well, okay, I guess I don’t really disagree. And Condo is certainly right on in regard to Kerouac's importance, literary and artistic.

Beat Generation (Thunder’s Mouth Press) is Kerouac’s sole play (never produced), the manuscript of which was apparently lost until recently. Whatever minor criticism I might have had about Condo’s introduction to Book of Sketches pales in comparison to A.M. Homes’ bombastic intro to Beat Generation. Homes trots out all the usual Beat platitudes we’ve been subjected to for the last fifty years, claiming that Kerouac’s style was “a literary atom bomb smashing everything.” Though apparently intended as a compliment, I can’t see how this is actually very much different from, for example, Norman Podhoretz’s attack on Kerouac in the Partisan Review, with his assertion that Kerouac’s motto was “Kill the intellectuals who can talk coherently....” Nor is his work, as Homes writes here, “everything and the kitchen sink too,” “a kind of demolition derby pileup.” This sort of thing really does Kerouac a disservice, in my opinion. It completely ignores his dedication to the craft of writing, his vocation as an artist, and his own sense of his place in a literary tradition. When Homes writes that he “spewed” the play’s dialogue, I am reminded of early reviews of On the Road, such as the one in the Chicago Tribune which portrayed Kerouac as someone who “slobbers words.”

Being charitable, one could put this ill-conceived essay down to the zealousness of a misguided fan. But, at its worst, it is simply bad scholarship. Homes claims that in 1957 (when Beat Generation was written) Kerouac “still had the benefit of a certain anonymity” and had not yet become a celebrity, so “was still, for the moment, the purest version of Jack Kerouac.” However, the play was actually written shortly after On the Road had been published, amidst all the Beat hype that this had generated. It was partly an attempt to capitalize on the publicity, written at the behest of others (still good despite this). Though the play was not ultimately staged, the third act eventually became the dialogue portion of the film Pull My Daisy, which Kerouac himself narrated. Most readers will have been aware of Beat Generation’s existence primarily for this reason. Inexplicably, this fact is not even mentioned by Homes in her introduction. And for all her efforts to put the Beat Generation in its sociological context (yes, the Beat Generation was partially a reaction to the conservative Eisenhower 1950s – haven’t we heard this a million times already?), there is very little discussion of the play itself in the context of Kerouac’s other work. No mention that the main character Milo is obviously based on Neal Cassady, and that this supposed “bumper car version of dialogue” is modeled after Cassady’s own idiosyncratic speech rhythms, just as the character Dean Moriarty in On the Road was also based on Cassady. Etc. Homes’ intro offers no new insights into Kerouac that I can discern, and this is all very unfortunate, since she so obviously loves him. The play itself if of course well worth reading, even if it is not his most significant work.

For scholarship in book introductions, among these three, my vote goes to Paul Maher Jr., editor of Empty Phantoms: Interviews and Encounters with Jack Kerouac (Thunder’s Mouth Press). This book is an indispensable collection, including the renowned interview with Ted Berrigan among numerous others, along with more obscure features and articles not widely available heretofore. Almost every known interview with Kerouac is gathered here, which makes it an extremely important resource. Maher’s intro makes several things clear – one is that all that “beatnik” stuff was silly and stupid and not what Kerouac intended (in case you didn’t already know), and that his definition of Beat never accorded with what the mainstream media wanted to hear. Take this from his interview with Mike Wallace:

MW: What is the Beat Generation?
JK: Well, actually it’s just an old phrase. I knocked it off one day and they made a big fuss about it. It’s not really a generation at all.

As Maher writes, “Kerouac, too, was above all a poet. This he held before him as his banner and shield. Refining his public image was not part of his chemistry. It is in these interviews that we see evidence of a man constantly out of step with his times.” Maher’s view is certainly out of step with Homes’, for example, but undeniably what is finally important is the work, over the hype. Luckily there are some who are primarily interested in Kerouac’s actual writing, and utterances. The rest will eventually be seen for what it is, footnotes.


Anonymous said...

it's good to see these all becoming available at a time for a true draught of quality writing Kerouac is great... i only wish i'd read so i can say more i liked your review style of them.. it makes me want to read them.. maybe soon

Dick Jones said...

Great news. Thanks for an interesting & informative post. Off to Amazon...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Empty Phantoms . . . my intentions were to put Jack's voice out there and to make the 21st century reader aware of how foolish the press was, and IS . . . think of that next time you see another People Magazine with its Most Beautiful Person in the Universe cover issues and how Kerouac would see right through all such utter vapid emptiness and crystallized the human essence. Peace, Paul Maher Jr.

Mike Begnal said...

Paul, thanks for your comments. I couldn't agree with you more...