Wednesday, 2 July 2014

On Jack Kerouac

Some thoughts on the recent publication of an early novel by Jack Kerouac called The Haunted Life.

There's an exchange in Douglas Copeland's fifth novel Miss Wyoming, published in 2000, when one character tells another (who has elected to live like a hobo, with predictable results) that ‘the Road is over. It never even was. You’re thinking like a kid at a Starbucks counter, sneaking peeks at his Kerouac paperback and writing That’s so true! in the margins.’ 

That's so true. We no longer live in a world of cheap gasoline, American automobiles on open highways, unfranchised coffee shops and healthy nicotine. Now it's  . . . well, not like that.

Jack Kerouac's estate was valued at less than a hundred dollars when the author died in 1969 from cirrhosis-related internal haemorrhage. 'Good career move', as Gore said of Truman, because by 2004 it had swollen to $20 million.. The impressive posthumous earnings are partly down to book sales - On the Road, still sells around 100,000 copies annually, mostly in the States - as well as numberless volumes of letters, memoirs, biography and critical studies. 

There are also film rights, and some well-heeled fans who are happy to pay big money for the cool aura of the relics: the actor Johnny Depp bought Jack's old raincoat for $15,000; the forty-yard-long Teletype scroll on which the author hammered out a draft of On the Road was sold at auction in 2001 for $2.43 million (£1.7m) and is now the property of a billionaire businessman. It was on show last year in the British Library - an unlovely object that can never be separated from Capote's put down: 'It isn’t writing at all - it’s typing'. There's an established tourist trail in the author's home town of Lowell, Massachusetts (birthplace of Bette Davies and James Abbott McNeill Whistler), a clothing range and for all I know a smartphone app.. The estate, bogged down in acrimonious litigation for years, is now run by the youngest son of Kerouac's third wife Stella. In 1993 he licensed Kerouac's image to the clothing retailer Gap ('Kerouac wore khakis' was the strapline next to a photoshopped snapshot of the author in Greenwich Village in 1958). The campaign to promote cheap cotton pants to a new generation of urban hipsters included this oddly-punctuated full-page ad:

New York in the 40s. 
Hollywood in the 50s. 
Legendary writers, critics, intellectuals with courage. 
All in their cotton khakis. 
Casual. Defiant. 
Khakis just like those we make for you. Gap khakis. 
Traditional. Plain-front. 
Easy fit. Classic fit.

Other legendary writers featured in the campaign were Spillane, Hemingway and Arthur Miller - but there was no sign of any legendary critics. Did Edmund Wilson wear khakis? 

Ginsberg also appeared in a Gap ad, donating the proceeds to the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, 'the first fully accredited Buddhist-inspired university in the United States'. Burroughs high-mindedly held out until Nike came knocking. Both Beats were still alive at the time so I guess they made there own choice when it came to selling out to the man. And if all this bilious preamble seems a way to put off writing about The Haunted Life, the novel under advisement, I can only say that it's practically beyond criticism.

It was written in 1944 when the author was 22. The manuscript came up for auction in 2002 and was sold to an anonymous buyer for a sum equivalent to three-and-a-half raincoats. Now published by Scribners and conscientiously edited and annotated by Todd Tietchen, it's likely to appeal only to diehard Kerouac fans and obsessive Beat completists. There's no shortage of these, but is it a good career move?

No and yes. No because its dull, flat, unaccomplished prose has nothing at all to offer the casual reader or the faithful. Yes, because it adds nothing to Kerouac's literary reputation and that's no bad thing because his reputation isn't that kind of reputation. He's not a great writer, seldom even a good writer, but for his many admirers he's the right writer and even, God help us, a role model. Those admirers are almost exclusively male adolescents (or their adult counterparts): angst-ridden, romantic, disaffected and (ironically enough) anti-materialist. They buy into the simulacrum of freedom offered by a lost world of Hudson Hornets, cheap gasoline, amphetamines and coffee and (in Ginsberg's approving phrase) 'spontaneous bop prosody'. The myth of genius in the grip of passionate creativity has a lasting appeal to some. The one example of the technique in Kerouac's oeuvre is The Subterraneans, written in three days and nights in 1958. It's like being cornered by a garrulous drunk and proof that in fiction, as in life, loquacity isn't the same as eloquence. If On the Road continues to exert an attract this may be down to the fact that its less of a novel and more of a script, best heard and not read, when the rhythmic syncopations outstrip the meaning.

On the Road is the one book Salinger's Holden Caulfield might just have dug because, whatever else it is it's not phony, although I suspect today's Caulfields get their kicks and consolations elsewhere. That the book's integrity seems undamaged by all the posthumous boondoggle says something for its hold on successive generations of readers, its claim on their affection and forbearance. It still seems to stand for something unsullied, authentic and true. It has nothing to do with khaki pants. 

Set in Lowell in a year unspecified but with the Depression a recent memory and America about to enter the war in Europe, the story unfolds through the summer before Peter Martin begins his sophomore year at Boston College. Peter is torn between the world views embodied by four thinly-realised emblematic characters: Garabed Tourian (a Byronic poet), Dick Sheffield (a footloose romantic and progressive Democrat), Joe Martin (a right wing racist bigot based on the author's father) and a Catholic radio celebrity, Father Coughlin. 

It really is that bad. When it comes to publishing Kerouac's early writings the sad truth is that each book, however unprepossessing, turns out to be better than the next. Just over two years ago Penguin issued The Sea is My Brother, an early novel nearly as flat and sophomoric as A Haunted Life. Before that we had Orpheus Emerged (written in 1945, published in 2002) and before that 1999's Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings. The bottom of the barrel has been scraped away and we're now digging into the soil beneath. Still inexplicably unpublished are two early Kerouac manuscripts written in Québécois French: La nuit est ma femme and Sur le chemin. Their appearance in print really would be the last of it.

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