Wednesday, September 26, 2007

That's not writing, or typing, it's driving---and in circles

I have my own dreams of the open road. But although I dream them all with a literary finish----not necesarily with a Fitzgeraldian passage of interior monologue summing up America and my place in it, but definitely with a writing down of my adventures---my dreams are inspired by driving not by reading about other people's driving.

Travels With Charley captured my heart because I already wanted to do what Steinbeck had done, pack light, call my dog, jump into the car and drive.

As for Kerouac...

Well, Kerouac.

I read On the Road when I was exactly the right age and in the right mood to take it to heart. I was twenty-two and I was spending a lot of time alone with my typewriter, making what I've come to regard as the biggest mistake of my life, trying to turn myself from a guy who wrote plays sometimes into a novelist and short story writer. I should have been trying to turn myself into a lawyer or an accountant, but nevermind. As long as I was trying to turn myself into a species of professional writer, I probably would have been better off getting a head start on the way things worked out and tried to turn myself into a journalist, especially since in what I was doing to turn myself into a writer, writing a lot, I was mostly practicing a kind of journalism.

Since I was already pretty adept at dialog, I'd decided that what I needed the most practice in was turning what I'd seen into prose. I needed to learn to be descriptive, I thought, so I spent a lot of time typing out descriptions. I wanted an audience though, so I put all my descriptions into letters. My friends became resigned to receiving 15 and 20 page letters from me. Typed. Single-spaced. I didn't keep copies of my letters but I'm pretty sure that taken together they amounted to a proto-blog, a disorganized, unedited, rambling mix of politics, book reports, romanticized reminiscences, anecdotes that didn't adhere strictly to the facts, self-conscious snippets of prose poems I couldn't bring myself to think of as prose poems and so never shaped into anything, and logs of that part of my day that wasn't spent typing up my letters, which, since I didn't sleep much, included a lot of time watching old movies late into the night, which I dutifully reviewed for my friends who I was sure were dying to know what I thought of My Darling Clementine and Mr Smith Goes to Washington.

All this typing, it wasn't writing, had an underlying message.

"I'm dying of loneliness here. Come save me."

Every now and then one of my friends, usually Nora, sometimes Meg, and, when she was in the country, Cathy, would try to save me. And of course I would type up their attempts to save me and send them off in letters to other friends.

I didn't always stick to the facts.

I don't stick to the facts even now. I just changed all their names.

Sharon, the friend I most wanted to come save me, knew better and kept her distance.

I wrote about her anyway.

Although I didn't recognize it, what I was doing in my self-referential, self-pitying, self-aggrandizing letters was writing---typing---the first draft of my own On the Road and so you might think that when I read the book I slapped my forehead and said, This is what I should be doing!

I didn't. I don't think it even occurred to me that there was anything in what I was typing remotely like what Kerouac had written in On the Road.

It wasn't the case, though, that I was fixating on the most obvious differences, that I was nowheres near close to Mexico City, jail, the merchant marine, or San Francisco. I spent a lot of time in New York City, but not Kerouac's New York City, which I'm sure I was convinced was as dead as Peter Stuyvesant's. But I was a long way from Joyce's Dublin, Conrad's Malaysia, and Graham Greene's Africa, and that didn't stop me from thinking I could learn a few tricks from Dubliners, Lord Jim, and A Burnt-Out Case, which I read at about the same time.

I just didn't like the book.

Dean Moriarty---Neal Cassady---was a bore and Sal Paradise was a drip.

I was myself. I "knew" On the Road was an "important" book. I "knew" I "needed" to read it if I was going to be a great American writer. So I thought I had failed somehow, either as a writer or as a reader, in not liking the book. I had assigned myself the job of reading On the Road, as homework for my self-taught course on becoming a writer, and I finished it with a sense of relief, as if it was homework and I was glad to have the task over and done with it.

I was a savvy enough reader to understand that I was being unfair to the book. I was judging it against my expectations and not on its own terms. But I was expecting, and I needed to read, a book that was a dream of the open road, which is to say a book about escape, and On the Road is a book about being trapped.

The point keeps getting made again and again throughout the novel: No matter where you go, there you are. There being stuck inside your own self.

On the Road isn't about being on the road, it's about being in the car and not looking out but looking up, into the rear view mirror, and seeing the same damn face looking back every time.

Since I was already spending far too much time looking in a symbolic mirror in hopes of finding somebody else more interesting looking back and not enjoying it at all, it's no wonder On the Road didn't strike me as a useful literary model.

Ten or so years later, when I was teaching and looking around for books and authors to put on my reading lists, I decided to give Kerouac another chance and I picked up On the Road again, and The Subterraneans, and Big Sur, and Desolation Angels, and Dharma Bums.

And they all had as one of their themes the same unattractive (to me) theme as I saw in my first reading of On the Road, Kerouac's self-disgust and his wishing that he was another, more interesting, happier, or at least more well-adjusted, man.

The trouble is that what makes the men Kerouac wishes he were interesting at all is the work they produced on their own, and so it's more profitable and enjoyable to read their books and their poems, listen to their music and look at their paintings, than it is to read Kerouac's extensive chronicling of his man-crushes on them.

In an essay on On The Road in the New Yorker, Drive, He Wrote, Louis Menand looks at this theme as it appears in On the Road in a more sympathetic light:

Satire and polemic are, on some level, defensive. It’s possible that something about the Beats simply made people uncomfortable. For the nineteen-fifties images of the Beat—Partisan Review’s bohemian nihilist and Hollywood’s hip hedonist—are almost complete inversions of the character types represented in “On the Road.” The book is not about hipsters looking for kicks, or about subversives and nonconformists, rebels without a cause who point the way for the radicals of the nineteen-sixties. And the book is not an anti-intellectual celebration of spontaneity or an artifact of literary primitivism. It’s a sad and somewhat self-consciously lyrical story about loneliness, insecurity, and failure. It’s also a story about guys who want to be with other guys...

The car is also a male space. The women who end up being driven in (never driving) the car are either shared by the guys (Marylou, for example, whom Dean hands off to Sal, as Cassady handed off LuAnne to Kerouac) or abandoned (as happens to the character Galatea Dunkel, and as happened to her real-life counterpart, Helen Hinkle). But the car is not an erotic space. Driving is a way for men to be together without the need to answer questions about why they want to be together. (Drinking is another way for men to be together, and there is a lot of drinking in “On the Road.” There is a lot of drinking, period.) In this sense, “On the Road” is a little like another sensational road novel of the time: Humbert and Lolita drive obsessively back and forth across the continent because that is the only public way for them to be together. As long as they’re driving, they’re not doing anything they shouldn’t be doing.

But maybe we should not understand the sexual themes in “On the Road” too quickly. Maybe the best thing to say about those themes is that they are murky and underrealized, not entirely within the author’s control. Sal has a crush on Dean, in the way that attractive but insecure men can form attachments to gregarious and self-confident men. Sal gets close to women vicariously by being closer to Dean than Dean’s women are (until he, too, gets dumped, in Mexico City). This is perfectly consistent with the “Ocean’s Eleven” genre of buddy stories: there is always a dame, but the real bond is between Brad and George. They have something with each other that neither could have, or would care to have, with a woman.

Menand also sees that On the Road is not about being on the road. The road isn't taking Sal and Neal and the various women they pick up and drop off anywhere. They all want to go somewhere, but they can't get there because the road they want to take to get there doesn't exist anymore, it's lost in the past, recoverable only through memories and regrets, and the point becomes simply being in the car and being on the way to somewhere:

Nostalgia is part of the appeal of “On the Road” today, but it was also part of its appeal in 1957. For it is not a book about the nineteen-fifties. It’s a book about the nineteen-forties. In 1947, when Kerouac began his travels, there were three million miles of intercity roads in the United States and thirty-eight million registered vehicles. When “On the Road” came out, there was roughly the same amount of highway, but there were thirty million more cars and trucks. And the construction of the federal highway system, which had been planned since 1944, was under way. The interstates changed the phenomenology of driving. Kerouac’s original plan, in 1947, was to hitchhike across the country on Route 6, which begins at the tip of Cape Cod. Today, although there is a sign in Provincetown that reads “Bishop, CA., 3205 miles,” few people would dream of taking that road even as far as Rhode Island. They would get on the inter-state. And they wouldn’t think of getting there fast, either. For although there are about a million more miles of road in the United States today than there were in 1947 (there are also two more states), two hundred million more vehicles are registered to drive on them. There is little romance left in long car rides.

In fact, the characters in “On the Road” spend as short a time on the road as they can. They’re not interested in exploring rural or small-town America. Speed is essential. The men rarely even have time to chase after the women they run into, because they’re always in a hurry to get to a city. A lot of the book takes place in cities, particularly New York, Denver, and San Francisco, but also Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Mexico City. Even there, the characters are always rushing around.

The bits and pieces of America that the book captures, therefore, are snapshots taken on the run, glimpses from the window of a speeding car. And they are carefully selected to represent a way of life that is coming to an end in the postwar boom, a way of life before televisions and washing machines and fast food, when millions of people lived patched-together existences and men wandered the country—“ramblin’ round,” in the Guthrie song—following the seasons in search of work. Robert Frank’s photographs in “The Americans,” taken between 1955 and 1956 and published in Paris in 1958 and in the United States a year later, with an introduction by Kerouac, held the same interest: they are pictures of a world not yet made plump and uniform by postwar affluence and consumerism.

The sadness that soaks through Kerouac’s story comes from the certainty that this world of hoboes and migrant workers and cowboys and crazy joyriders—the world of Neal Cassady and his derelict father—is dying. But the sadness is not sentimentality, because many of the people in the book who inhabit that world would be happy to see it go or else are too drunk or forlorn to care. They do not share the literary man’s nostalgie de la boue; they are restless, lonely, lost—beat. “There ain’t no flowers there,” says a girl whom Sal Paradise, the Kerouac figure, tries to pick up in Cheyenne by suggesting a walk on the prairie among the flowers. “I want to go to New York. I’m sick and tired of this. Ain’t no place to go to but Cheyenne and ain’t nothin in Cheyenne.” “Ain’t nothin in New York,” Sal says. “Hell there ain’t,” she says. She wants to get in the car, too.

Nothing worth staying at home for. Nothing in their destinations that make them worth the drive or worth sticking around in once they get there. Nothing to see out the windows or stopping along the way to explore because all that's worth seeing and exploring has vanished. Nothing to do then but drive.

On the Road is one of the most claustrophobic and static novels not written by a French existentialist.

Menand clearly admires On the Road much more than I do, but he sees the book's importance as being primarily biographical and historical not literary. He doesn't try to argue that On the Road is a great American novel. He does point out that it's a better written book than is sometimes thought. It's the stuff of literary legend how Kerouac typed the first draft of On the Road on one long roll of paper in a frenzied and caffeine-(not drug)-fueled three weeks. That's not why Truman Capote dismissed On the Road as typing not writing though. Kerouac may have banged out the first draft in a blur, but he took his time with the following drafts, polishing and revising the book over the course of ten years. Kerouac, says Menand, made a deliberate aesthetic choice in shaping On the Road that his one hundred and twenty-five foot page of paper helped him achieve:

He saw that this-happened-and-then-that-happened had literary possibilities, and the scroll was a way of forcing himself to stick to this vision. (A little later, Frank O’Hara made poems using the same theory. “I do this, I do that” is how he described them.) The scroll was therefore a restriction: it was a way of defining form, not a way of avoiding form. In religious terms (and Kerouac was always, deep down, a Catholic and a sufferer), it was a collar, a self-mortification. He did, after he finished the scroll, go back and make changes. But first he had to submit to his discipline.

Capote was probably refering to Kerouac's "this-happened-and-then-that-happened" approach to his subject. But he might just as well have been referring to something else. On the Road is a written book. But it is not an imagined one.

I mentioned Joyce and Conrad and Greene earlier as writers I was reading for the first time around the same time as I read On the Road. Coincidentally, all three of them, like Kerouac, drew heavily on their experiences and personal biographies in their fiction.

But unlike Kerouac, the other three managed to see and re-create their experiences as having shape and meaning apart from their original sources. Kerouac worked hard at not letting that happen to his stories. I don't think Capote was right, On the Road isn't just typing, it is writing, but in the end it's a particular kind of writing. It's journalism with a get out of the facts free card attached.

Conrad, Greene, and Joyce aren't American writers, of course, and I think it's best when comparing Kerouac to other writers to see him as part of the American grain. Menand mentions Hemingway, Pynchon, Updike, and, not as oddly as it might at first seem, Nabokov---after all, Lolita is the other notorious American road novel from the period. And there's no getting away from or around the other Beats and their sons and heirs, particularly Ginsberg and Burroughs, but also Gary Snyder and Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson.

Gee, no women. What a shocker.

But the American writer who always springs to mind whenever I think about Kerouac preceded him on the road, although he didn't go very far down it, by a century, his fellow Massachusettsan, Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau is another one who took himself as his main subject. But unlike Kerouac he was never tempted to write up his adventures as fiction and, as cranky as he could be, and as unforgiving, he was basically a cheerful man who got a kick out of other people, even if he didn't always like them very much. He was egocentric, but not self-absorbed, and so he was a more active and more objective observer. Makes him more entertaining and more informative company. Thoreau famously traveled extensively in Concord. He got up to Maine too, and over to Cape Cod, but mainly he stayed at home. Kerouac went back and forth across the continent several times. But of the two of them Thoreau did travel. He got away. On his short hikes and lazy canoe trips, in his bean patch, and during one night in jail, he managed to escape. From himself and from his demons.

Kerouac went a long way to get nowhere.

Done and done.

Cross-posted at newcritics.

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the publication of On the Road and Tom Watson salutes it by taking a more Thoreauvian position and celebrating the pleasures of Staying Put.

Your turn: What reputedly great book have you read that disappointed you?

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