The Fame That Killed Jack Kerouac

New Yorker

This is a review of a review of the book On the Road, by Jack Kerouac. Subtitled What the Beats were About.

It is not an easy read – you will be interested in it only if you are interested in Literature. And the very strange people who produce it.

Here are some quotes:

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.

It was three years before he finally dropped the idea of a conventional novel and simply wrote down what had happened. This was the celebrated scroll, a continuous length of paper, a hundred and twenty feet long, on which Kerouac typed the first complete draft of the book in three weeks in April, 1951, with the assistance of his second wife, Joan Haverty, and a lot of coffee. (Not, as legend has it, Benzedrine—which is not to say that Kerouac was a stranger to amphetamines.) He immediately retyped the book on regular paper, and then spent six years revising it.

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.

And the car is the place to be. Why? The obvious answer is that nothing happens in the car. Everyone has an irresistible urge to get to Denver or San Francisco or New York, because there will be work or friends or women there, but, after they arrive, hopes start to unravel, and it’s back in the car again. The characters can’t settle down except when they are nowhere in particular, between one destination and the next. But they want to settle down somewhere in particular.

He was shy with women; he was devoted to his mother and his friends; he was a workaholic (as well as an alcoholic); and he didn’t like to drive. His drinking was self-medication; it was not for fun. He was not a macho anti-aesthete. He was the opposite, a poet and a failed mystic.

On the Road” might be called the first nonfiction novel: Kerouac’s book came out eight years before Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” It is certainly one of the literary sources of the New Journalism of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, the outburst of magazine pieces, by writers like Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion and Hunter Thompson, that took America and its weirdness as its great subject.

Read this review, that will be much easier then reading the book.


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