Travis Laurence Naught and Russell Thorburn reflect on some impressionable figures we have lost over the past year and look at the work of literary icon Jack Kerouac.
Death is in the air. Doesn’t matter what day it is, somebody’s breathing their final breath. The sun set on 2016 with a gravitational pull that dragged more than a few role models into the pages of history, including Carrie Fisher, George Michael, and Leonard Cohen. Each of them were inimitable in their own right. They inspired crowds of wonderfully diverse individuals to pursue and achieve levels of success in their chosen fields because they had seen someone like them go before. Carrie Fisher meant a lot more to individuals struggling with bipolar and drug addiction than the nerds whose hands shake in private while looking at images of her in the famed gold bikini. Wham! made catchy tunes for the masses who use pop radio to make it through their days, but they also spring-vaulted a member of the queer community into superstardom. And Leonard? Sometimes it’s just good to remember that hard work over a person’s lifetime is still rewarded.
This recent exodus of talented individuals got me to thinking about one of the iconic figures in my life. Googling “Kerouac Death Date” provides a person with the answer: October 21, 1969. Go ahead. It’s not the last time this information will be looked up. In fact, dive deeper and find out that he died of an exploded liver at the age of 47. There is something comfortable in confirmed knowledge. Funny stuff, that confirmation, because it boils down to trust. An astonishing number of people trust Google. Today it feels good to have someone to trust. This Jack Kerouac quote, provided below his biographical box in the search results, speaks to those times when a person might not be feeling so confident or trusting: “I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.” Sounds pretty real, friends. Pretty real indeed.
You see, lately there has been a lot of conversation about that great confusion. Okay, maybe not THAT great confusion, but A great confusion. The great confusion in question: Can and should artists’ personal lives be considered separate from their creations? Confessional authors like Kerouac craft works that fly directly in the face of this consideration. It is from their lives that the richest material is harvested and arranged for readers’ consideration. Even though the characters become fictionalized versions of true actors, their foundations were written in reality. On the Road, The Dharma Bums, and even the recently discovered And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks twisted true events into novel form until there was just enough blurriness to bring actuality into question.
But what of those moments when artists long to escape feeling trapped by transcribing only their surroundings?
Jack Kerouac wove so many of his real-life experiences, quite explicitly in Big Sur and specifically examined here because of its proximity to the subject matter of death, not to mention the way some authors have interest in showing their own life parallels to this work. So much has been written about the art form of weaving fiction with reality to create an in-demand novel, readers are reminded here again that Kerouac was a true American champion of the genre. And though his topics and styles generally lend themselves to the dialogue of sloppy and unkempt, a little love thrown in the direction of a man who was struggling to survive through writing combined with a keen eye for talent proves Jack as a diamond in the literary rough, though definitely needing polish for some palates.
His written account, Big Sur, of the real-life escape to find peace he attempted, is stirring. There is no better serenity than Monsanto’s, a.k.a. Ferlinghetti’s, cabin. Kerouac’s concern for the mouse (don’t harm a single creature in the world), a sentiment that Isaac Bashevis Singer had as well, and more in this chaotic violent world should think the same. The novel is a wonderful display of talent, camped out in his best language, inventive dashes holding together so many thoughts like a spot welder. An unreviewed movie adaptation was released in 2013. It is scary to think what the filmmakers might have done with the sacred scripture of his beatific mind.
Meeting literary heroes definitely leaves indelible marks on the mind. For example, having met Ferlinghetti at his reading in the brutal upper Midwest blizzard after he stepped into pure whiteness like one of the acrobats in A Coney Island of the Mind and just vanished. These returned-to moments selfishly stored and recalled with wonder. What would it have been like meeting Kerouac? Surely those figures carry around their own moments of wonder to have recalled during times of reflection.
Serenity for Jack might have been alcohol in his later years—but that doesn’t stop other considerations while picking up old copies of Big Sur or Doctor Sax. The line, “Nothing worse than a hanging coat in the dark, extended arms dripping folds of cloth, leer of dark face, to be tall, statuesque, motionless, slouch headed or hatted, silent—” Doctor Sax, a dream ghost. An original copy of that Evergreen edition (love those ancient books) went missing in the post office shredder conveyor belt in a package of paperbacks sent to L.A. for a three-week sojourn in the Mojave National Reserve. The only book of the group that arrived at the destination was Doctor Zhivago, minus a torn first chapter. Too many doctors for them to handle. Or maybe a postal worker saw Kerouac on the floor and pocketed Doctor Sax.
These books have mapped out whole sections of early travelers’ lives. Generations of readers of Big Sur have been deeply affected. In their early twenties, living at home, digesting the details of his relationship fights, his sea song—similar to the effect of On the Road, which led many to the road at an early age, causing parents much worry. The Made in Michigan Writers Series (Wayne State University, Fall 2017) will help to highlight the reality of vagabond days in its entry titled SOMEWHERE WE’LL LEAVE THE WORLD. Probably most everyone at the end drinks away serenity—a pure writer, even Bukowski, drinks deep his darkness and performs secret acts not so secret when they are published in books, like Charles throwing his radio through the window in “a radio with guts,” and the balletic feats read in the pages of so many books of poetry.
The sun set on 2016 with a gravitational pull that dragged more than a few role models into the pages of history, including Carrie Fisher, George Michael, and Leonard Cohen. Each of them were inimitable in their own right.
Thankfully, there are contemporary presses willing to continue printing words born in madness. There is plenty to go around these days, on all sides. Maybe one day we will be reading the reflections of a writer who was there for the recent riots in Berkeley. Had Kerouac been there, perhaps he would have been smiling, understanding those crowds were breaking some law of Buddha in their active calls for justice.
Doctor Sax and the Book of Dreams both presented Kerouac’s subconscious reckonings for fans to wade into. These books serve as literary equivalents to the biology texts where different layers can be explored by peeling pages back to see what’s going on at the next level. They have provided benchmarks of inspiration for new fictions to be crafted by. Like the sequel to the noir Salt and Blood (forthcoming via Marick Press), featuring a private detective, shadowy Kerouac character on the prowl, a stakeout, wearing one shoe through the Sonoran Desert. Jack’s sentences patrolled in and out of the author’s consciousness. It is described as a dream book in the style of literary dream manufacturers Kerouac, Cortazar, or Borges. The key mode of travel is by foot or riding in one of three ’67 El Dorado convertibles, the third driven by Bob Dylan on his way to the border.
Written in a similarly fast style as his autobiographical prosaic masterpieces, Doctor Sax melds Kerouac’s childhood memories into a narrative fictional tale that is almost vampiric in nature. Book of Dreams, on the contrary, was piecemealed together between 1952 in 1960. There is zero narrative structure. At times, it felt downright awful to be returning to the wild confusions that made up its pages. But there were so many connections available in each of the short vignettes presented, readers gain some valuable insights into some of the characters in his other works.
Most frequently appearing in Jack’s dreams were his mother and father. There was definitely an air of wanting to provide better for his mother, to be better for her, while there was some frustration coming to her about his dad’s earlier death. Someone with a bachelor’s degree in psychology might want to make some erroneous connections here, but as Jack lets us know in the pages of Book of Dreams, these random lightning storms in the brain ought not to be muddled by the Freudian search for meaning, rather they need to be accepted as no more than visions provided by the universe to be enjoyed, or not. A person should recognize them as depressing at times, exciting at times, but nothing more than just flashes that have gone by. An exact quote from the book regarding the situation is, “dreamer Mind is not concerned with such arbitrary Conceptions as… whether it took place or not, all its thought memories are active, pulling out of absent blue air the empty images of a dreamer world.”
In this disregard of any meaning, there is little wonder why his other recurring characters appeared so frequently to be undergoing mundane actions in his dreams. There was so little disconnect from life occurrences presented in the pages. Irwin Garden, Kerouac’s fictionalized Ginsberg, appeared as a sexually ambiguous, thought-provoking quiet man across several scenes. Bull Hubbard, his code name for Burroughs, nearly always appeared as a provocateur, generally in his more depressive sleep-filled visages. It is quite telling that there were no, or at least extraordinarily few, fantastical journeys. Kerouac is a man who knew his place in the world and who was comfortable defining the world around him. From one of the not so many, and how much stronger it would be if there were more, waking thoughts that he presented in these pages: “The world is drearily repetitious of itself.”
Still, Jack Kerouac gave us this collection. A true literary waypoint, iconic figure, person who allows other authors to write these confusing and run-on sentences with the belief that some reader, somewhere, will understand exactly how jumbled their brain must be to think them up and still choose to be brave enough to follow with them down the rabbit hole, opened a blank notebook over the space of eight years to share himself with generations of fans. Wow! And in those pages, though he arguably should have given more definitive transcriptions of when and where he was when these dreams occurred, a new appreciation has risen for the formulation of his fiction. His dreams of San Francisco and Mexico. His language formulating new American ideas from Middle Eastern words like Fellaheen. His false interactions with death and separation. Kerouac delivers all of these in passages ranging from one or two lines to as long as three pages.
During one particularly well-described dream, he raced into a bar to retrieve a bottle of whiskey for his brother-in-law dying in the streets after being shot in a duel. In another, Jack found himself on a bus away from home with a longing to return, watching the rambunctious children of a man sitting next to him, asleep, fully erect in his pants, wishing he could take better care of his own kids. Finally, somewhere in the middle of the book was a somewhat prophetic dream in which an executioner was gutting a man. Kerouac does not mention that his point of view is of the dying man, but he does comment on how the “victim watches… heartbreaking lamblike expectant curiosity.” It cannot be conceived as anything but the way this man, who struggled with decisions most often leading to what society would deem as impurity, just wanted to affect the world in a positive manner. His hard work (Cohen), his inner demons (Fisher), his superstardom (Michael), his final moments at home with his mom in Orlando.
Whether they are experiencing Heaven or Hell or any other continued existence, here is a Kerouac-penned poem from the pages of Book of Dreams that seems a wonderful way to think about the long sleep of our lost heroes, hoping for all of them that they have finally found comfort and rest:
Which now in solitude
I dive into once more
In own silent room
of mind serene