Bebop

Andrew O’Hagan

  • Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-56 edited by Ann Charters
    Viking, 629 pp, £25.00, August 1995, ISBN 0 670 84952 9

New York in August, and inside is the only place to be. The people around me, each at his own console, were watching their chosen moments in the history of American airtime. Elvis Presley’s top half on the Ed Sullivan Show; John F. Kennedy’s live debate with a melting Richard Nixon; an early episode of I Love Lucy; a dinner-table scene from The Waltons; Neil Armstrong’s One Small Step; the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald; the pilot show of Roseanne. Each viewer wore headphones; all you could hear was the giggles and gasps. On my little TV, where the picture was jumpy at first, was Jack Kerouac. He was sitting up at a white piano, and Steve Allen tinkled away at the keys. Kerouac is very clean, very neat, but he looks nervous. Allen is smug. He’s a polyester-clad uncle sitting at the piano.

‘You nervous?’ says Allen.

‘Naaah,’ blows Kerouac, and in answer to the next question, he says he wrote On the Road in three weeks.

‘And how long were you on the road?’

‘Seven years.’

‘I was on the road once for three days and it took me seven years to write about it,’ says Allen, to a little symphony of canned laughter and applause. Kerouac looks depressed, bored, and he lifts his finger, as if he sees the next question coming.

‘Can you define Beat?’ says Allen.

‘Sympathetic,’ huffs little Jack, as if ready to embrace death. A minute or so more of this, then Kerouac begins to read from his novel, while the host licks away at the keys. As he reads from the very end of his book he seems to see the corny world lift: ‘and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Mor-i-ar-ty.’ He looks upwards. And that’s it: the light dims, and he disappears.

I left the Museum of Television and Radio and started walking uptown. I was thinking about Jack Kerouac, about the way he’d looked on that show. By 1959, he was famous, and somehow ruined; he would be dead in ten years at the age of 47. He was already in retreat on the Steve Allen Show. The publication of On the Road marked the start of the end of this writer. A few years later, he’d lounge on those chat shows willing to have him on, drunk and hopeless; he’d bum money off kids in bars, grab at girls, shout ‘I’m Jack Kerouac, the world-famous author!’ He may now be the sort of writer whose life is just as well known as his writing.

When I reached the area near Columbia University, I remembered that as a student young Kerouac had looked out of his Livingston Hall dormitory straight at a frieze on the side of the (then) new Columbia library. It said ‘Goethe ... Voltaire ... Shakespeare ... Molière ... Dante ...’ And sure enough, just as you’d feared, Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, that little football scholarship guy from Lowell, Massachusetts, had wanted his name on the wall too. Yes he did. A few years after his appearance on the Steve Allen Show, Kerouac’s name turned up on the bathroom wall of the White Horse Tavern in Hudson Street. I thought about it as I went down that way later the same day. It had said: ‘Kerouac Go Home.’

If the publication of his best book, and his appearance on the Steve Allen Show, marked the end of something for Kerouac, then perhaps the letters, written between 1940 and 1956, the year before On the Road’s publication, would give ideas and clues to much that had run up to that sort of end. Kerouac’s road was always one that led back to the beginning, an open road that forever led back to his mother, and to Lowell, to his dead brother Gerard, and his childhood friend Sebastian Sampas, who died on the beach at Anzio. Jack Kerouac never really left home; all his roads went through him, and brought him back again and again to the home of his mother – Mémère – a home he was never certain of.

I zipped up my bags, and headed off to Baltimore. My American friends were there when I arrived, sitting outside the station in a white mini-caravan. She is a clinical psychologist, and is just winding up her graduate training at the University of Maryland; he is a poet – one of those who care a great deal for the writers of Eastern Europe, and the experiments of William Carlos Williams and the Beats. I’d first met him when I was a student myself, in the Eighties, when travelling across America by car seemed like the right sort of thing to be doing. There was a gang of us then, and we got jobs working in pizza places or in all-night bakeries, turning the bread. We’d driven together to Alabama in the middle of Hurricane Charlie, in 1988, and crashed a Drive-Away car in New Orleans. (Drive-Away cars, like the white van we were setting off in, are vehicles you deliver to an agreed destination for a removal company, at no cost to yourself. You lay down a deposit, then get it back when you deliver the car.)

After the New Orleans crash, we had made our way through Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California in a couple of other cars, one of which we bought off a tearful Christian for $300. Every teenager who read those Kerouac novels, and reread them, wanted to drive over America. It was a fantasy of recklessness and irresponsibility and independence – just as it had been for Kerouac and his pal Neal Cassady – and that sort of trip, that sensibility, had become very fixed in images of American life. When not comparing himself to Shakespeare and Goethe, Kerouac would admit that On the Road was ‘the original daddy of the rock ’n’ roll novels’. Kerouac was a romantic excessive – not only that, but certainly that – and teenagers usually are too. His writing speaks directly to a sort of yearning in your average romantic teenreader, the sort of reader who might like the sound of chaos as well. My friends went on talking in the front seats as we drove out of Baltimore, on Route 70 West, and I sank down in the back, sinking a little into my own past readings and drivings, and into the past being revealed by Kerouac’s book of early letters.

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