In a past life, I was a Jack Kerouac junkie. No, not in the Burroughsian sense of “junkie.” I mean in that, “wow, Jack was so cool and misunderstood, the voice of a generation, who was deeply romantic and henceforth tortured a la Heathcliff, and who was always seeking a deeper connection and real spirituality through whatever avenues were available to him, and he tried his hardest to live in the moment when really he was always simultaneously stuck in the past and already in the future, and wow, was he sexy when he wasn't looking so wasted...” That kind of junkie. I had a bit of a crush, really, and even went through a phase of digging Kerouacian fellows, or at least those who read Kerouac.
Well, those days are past, for various reasons, but primarily because writing a dissertation and focusing all one’s intellectual and therefore most other energy on a topic and a group of writers tends to lead to overdose. I needed a break. And I needed to find some fellows who never even heard of Jack Kerouac, much less read any of his works.
So. My scholarship turned towards romance novels, and fashion, and food. My fellows read John Grisham novels (okay, admittedly not an improvement, really. Where are the fellows who are, say, Michael Pollan devotees? That kind of fellow I could settle in with.)
From time to time I think of Jack and the gang and feel a twinge of something...not longing, but a sense of loss. Back in my doctoral days, I could’ve recited the publication dates of Jack’s novels. I could’ve rattled off some impressive anecdotes about the Beats. I could’ve told you which female Beats slept with which male Beats, and how those relationships ended (which they always did. end.)
So yesterday I received my NYTimes Book Review preview email and saw two articles about Jack and the 50th anniversary of the publication on OTR. I needed and wanted that paper, but wasn’t sure where in my new small-ish town I could locate the Sunday Times.
This afternoon, after whittling away at my foodie romance article, I braved the cold (62 degrees) and rainy day to head to Starbucks in search of liquid rejuvenation and my NYT. They had it! I settled into a comfy chair with the Kerouac articles and my tall non-fat misto (cafe au lait). As I read about Jack’s infamous first draft of OTR (the scroll), the Starbucks music shifted from a bluesy-jazzy mix, to something that sounded suspiciously like the Grateful Dead. “Cold Rain and Snow.” Followed by “Uncle John’s Band” and “Casey Jones.” How more Beat could it be? And how much more could I be propelled back into the past, say 2000-2003, when this particular mix of literature and music filled my days? I finished the Kerouac articles, picked up my American Lit anthology to prep for class and laughed out loud as the Dead gave way to Dave Matthews. “Stay or Leave,” from Dave’s solo album.
I sipped my coffee and waited for that pang of longing to be back in 2000, listening to Dave and the Dead (throw in a little Sarah McLachlan, Indigo Girls, and Shawn Mullins for authenticity) and reading about the Beat boys and girls, while living in sunny Alabama and at the zenith of intellectual prowess.
And the pang didn’t come. I was content to be in a Starbucks, which looked and felt like it could be anywhere in America, in my new lakeside town in Wisconsin. Happy to be preparing to teach American Lit. Thinking of how I could use these articles, and maybe even some of this hippie music when I teach Kerouac’s *The Dharma Bums* later this fall. Really, DB is my favorite of the few Kerouac novels I’ve actually read in their entirety. Rather than the frentic and at times completely alienating motion of the road, I always identified more with the Kerouac who longed to lay in green fields and free chained dogs. The Kerouac who didn’t want mystical orgies but wanted real soul talk between lovers (okay, in that case I’m back to OTR).
And so this, my 100th post on my little blog, is devoted to Jack, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of OTR. The publication of which would alter his life dearly, and, if the insights of some of those who knew him best at that time are to be believed, an event that would begin his long, slow spiral downward, madly burning to be saved.
What I always loved best about Jack’s writing was the sense of wide-open possibility, of a never ending seeking, of a yearning for something transformative. It's that message that today’s readers, perhaps more than ever, need to hear. We’re still searching, still looking to see if “God is Pooh Bear,” still looking for our forefathers (and mothers) to show us some better ways, and still searching for personal and national redemption...