51 years on, On The Road still feels immediate, vital and alive.
There's a lot of great writing about jazz, especially about smokey jams by bar bands (with Dean Moriarty always flailing right in front of the soloist, sweating like a pig). Kerouac's prose has a lyric beauty at such times, as also when describing the vast expanses of America he traverses, and the people therein, that has a lot in common with the questing, improvised work of great jazz musicians; it also conceals a honed artistry and forethought in common with these musicians. Some of the passages about a tenorman in full flight could well describe what I've come to understand and infer about Kerouac's own writing style - free-flowing, yes, as spontaneous as certain, sure, but with deep structure and extensive rehersal behind it.
There's an innocence and romanticism in Sal Paradise, at best, a yearning for freedom and fulfillment but also a strange uncertainty about finding it or commiting to it.
Dean Moriarty is a manical, glib-talking, bullshit-spewing phony whose only real distinguishing characteristic is this total lack of self-awareness or inhibition, which made him into something of a force of nature. I wouldn't know how true this is of his original, Neal Cassady. The point is, I've known people like this, and they are tiresome exhibitionists who die badly.
In fact I feel like I know a lot of the people in this book, or at least people just like them. I was never very comfortable with them after the initial buzz of meeting a total spazzing freakazoid. After sometime, you realise they're getting all that energy by leeching it off you.
The Beats had no business being in adult relationships - the greatest tragedy of this book, if taken as roman a clef, is the number of young women who are exploited and cast aside during the course of it.
Kerouac was naive and parochial, and it's not clear how much all his travel really changed that - he is full of stereotypes about African-Americans and Mexicans - fond steretypes as opposed to racist slander - but still, stereotypes.
The scene in the Mexican brothel makes me feel a little sick.
The Beat lifestyle, like the hippy lifestyle it spawned, was a lot of noise, and haze, and filth, and confusion, and hustling, and bullshit, and cliquism and squalor. It did however give people like Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg and others the opportunity to lead interesting lives and use their new freedom to create new ways of writing and seeing things.
Burroughs is consummately cool. The bits where everyone camps in Old Bull Lee's house are just about my favourite part of the story.
I don't think a book like this could have been written by anyone except an American.
I'd like to get a hold of the edition comprising of the entire text of the original scroll that was released last year.
Seamus Heaney strikes me as writing just the sort of thing you would write if you read some Elliot and Pound and thought to yourself 'Oh well, then, let me go get an expensive education in the classics and then write allusive, navel-gazing poetry and put a lot of dull parochialism in.' And then, every now and then, there is a passage that trips me up and makes me gasp in awe as the perspectives open out and something universal is illuminated.
Odd stuff, that.
I'm now reading Catherine Moore's tales of Jirel Of Joiry, swords-and-sorcery pulp heroine. Moore's prose reads itself aloud in my head in a sonorous, intrepid tone that's just a little corny and just a little awesome, like Shatner's rendition of the Star Trek mission motto or the narrator in The Powerpuff Girls.
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