Elaine Malone takes a closer look at Kerouac’s magnum opus.
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”’
The road is an ever-changing land, boundless and eternal. It unwinds towards the sun, black tar and white guiding line. For Jack Kerouac it was the key to nirvana and experience. In 1957, a book emerged that was simultaneously hailed and vilified. Bob Dylan said, ‘it changed my life like it changed everyone else’s,’ while Truman Capote bitterly exclaimed, ‘that’s not writing, it’s typing.’ Criticisms and witticisms aside, Kerouac, a profound and prophetic figure, achieved a great feat when he chronicled seven years of the degradation and salvation of the Beat Generation in On the Road, under the guise of Salvatore Paradise, a stumbling evangelist, mad to live. His greatest ally is the figure of Dean Moriarty, the holy conman with the shining mind.
Their passage from East to West, typed in three frenetic weeks, within the threshold of the Chelsea Hotel, where Warholian muse Edie Sedgwick set her room alight applying false eyelashes by candlelight and where the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas did not go gently in that good night. The pages are drenched in alcohol and sweat, and the ink, black liquid Benzedrine. The soundtrack is the errant spontaneity of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, Bebop Jazz. It encapsulated the ferocious rebellion of the Post-War youth, disillusioned with the white picket-fenced American Dream and the death of patriotism. Drugs, jazz, sex and rebellion became the four elements of life. ‘Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.’
It has, as these things often are, become deified, and there is a fine line between deification and defecation. Hyped to a ridiculous height, I read warily, and yet it surpassed all expectations. It reads how water falls, fluid and overwhelming. It incites pure wanderlust and a great desire for experience. It is inherently mindful and momentous. To read Kerouac is to exist within that glorious circle of writers who obliterated the literary landscape with an H for Howl Bomb and built upon it a dystopia. William S. Burroughs incarnated as Old Bull Lee and Allen Ginsberg, the sorrowful poetic con-man with the dark mind. The search for IT, a profound spiritual awakening, is not achieved ultimately, but in the intricacies of each moment.
It was inevitable they would try to make a film of the unfilmable. In one regard, it represents a threat against the purity of imagination and of the prostitution of art, to extort money from the willing masses. But it also triggers hope – hope that the gospel according to Jack will reach many more eyes. Could a reel of film ever replicate the erratic beauty of that 20 foot scroll? The sad truth is that it probably can’t. Ginsberg opened his seminal poem Howl with the lines, ‘I saw the best minds of my generation, destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked’; these words could act as a blurb on the back cover