Saturday, December 1, 2007


The Beats were non-violent. They were branded by the press of the time as delinquents, but in real life the beats packed most of their excess power into sexual liberation and self-expression, not pugilism.

Maybe we didn't get to hear enough about the women of the beat generation because Kerouac's references to single women living on their own in late-1940s New York City were cut by the publishers from his first novel ("The Town and the City," 1950).

What Works on Which Drugs:

"Tristessa" by Jack Kerouac, 1960 ... morphine
"Magic Psalm" in "Kaddish" by Allen Ginsberg, 1961 ... ayahuasca
"Nova Express" by William Burroughs, 1964 ... heroin
"Wales, A Visitation" by Allen Ginsberg, 1967 ... LSD
"Guilty of Everything" by Herbert Huncke, 1990 ... heroin, marijuana, benzedrine


"Standing on the street corner waiting for no one is Power."

- Gregory Corso

"Poetry is the shadow cast by our streetlight imaginations."
- Lawrence Ferlinghetti

"Death is the mother of the Universe."
- Allen Ginsberg
"One room is all I'll ever own in eternity, one bed -
over tall mountains carrying me away to that nomads

- Peter Orlovsky,
from "Writing Poems Is a Saintly Thing"
Top beat sounds:

* “Raindrops in My Coffee” by Sexsmith & Kerr, from “Destination Unknown" (song included in "Radio Bob: Dylan’s theme Time Radio Hour" CD)
* From “Instant Karma: To Save Darfur” - Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars’ “Give Peace a Chance,” also Regina Spektor with “Real Love” and Jakob Dylan and Dhani Harrison on “Gimme Some Truth.”
* "Nus Gniik" from the Beatles' latest, “Love.”

The words all in caps in Michael McClure's poetry "never mean that the lines are shouted or that they are chanted," explains the poet. The capital letters are a "disruption of the allure of the poem and a reminder that it is a made thing ... Later I experimented with using the lines of capitals to signify a small shift of intensity in the voice or mind ... The lines of capitals at the opening of the poem came to signify the quality of energy with which a poem begins."
(From "Rebel Lions" )

Much of McClure's verse is centered - not so common a practice in the years before word processing. ("By 1955 I began centering poems so that it would be clear they are the stuff of consciousness" - 1991.)

"Jack Kerouac is not for prudish persons. His 146th Chorus'(I almost said Canto, and he does find it hard to get away from the manner of Pound's Analects and Cantos) has unity, a tune, and the feel of the mountains. Allen Ginsberg can foul the nest in a way to marvel at, but it is an innocent enough picture of himself. Gregory Corso has vehemence."
- Marianne Moore, from "The Ways Our Poets Have Taken In 15 Years
Since the War," a review of Donald Allen's "The New American Poetry:
1945-1960" in The New York Herald Tribune, 26 June 1960

Last words of the 242nd, and last, Chorus of Kerouac's "Mexico City Blues" -

with nobody
To save the old man being hanged
In my closet for nothing
And everybody watches
When the act is done -

Stop the murder and the suicide!


Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Record Number of Awards

Mark Howell, of and Solares Hill, seen here with his stepdaughter Melissa and wife Jan at the Excellence in Journalism awards ceremony in Fort Myers, Fla. on October 20, picked up an unprecedented five first-place awards and one second award from the Florida Press Club this year. The awards are for General News, Government News, Serious Feature Writing, Public Safety Reporting, Criticism Writing and Health Writing. Yet none of this writing has served to bring an end to the war or put a stop to Blackwater, so "I'd rather be safe in heaven dead." (JK)


Saturday, October 13, 2007

A Bibliopolist’s Lost Apocalyptico (Jack Kerouac once told Carolyn Cassady that his clientele was "kids who steal my books")

“Can heaven be near?”
Exuberance made me ask it, my eyes dancing down the shelves that swept to the back of the store. Surely, in this leafy little lane, the foothills of Paradise began.

“Say again,” said the man at the cash register.
Ridiculously I repeated the question.

The wooden panel behind him slid smoothly aside. “Go on,” he said. “They’re waiting for you.”

I stepped into darkness, then down two steps and through to the dim light of a low room. Sitting at tables were what the trade used to call bibliopegists — men and women restitching the spines of books, retooling the leather covers. The place smelled of chemicals.

“Are you the new book thief?” asked one of the women. “What you got for us, then?”

So began the first chapter of my manuscript, “The Book Thief,” begun a few short years ago at a retreat in the Georgia woods. Guess what? Someone else has since come out with a book called “The Book Thief.”

My “Book Thief” was intended to be short and sweet. Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief,” published by Knopf, is almost 1,000 pages long and about the Holocaust.

Down the tubes went my own effort, taking with it a story that had curiously prophesied its own downfall — as it should, if it’s really about stealing books.

Suppose the “I” of the story, the fellow who went through that secret door, had stumbled on an operation that supplied just one person in the world with treasured editions of all the greatest books, neatly restored and rebound. My purpose was to address what Henry James hissed about, namely “the black and merciless things that are behind great possessions.”

But as it progressed, things happened to my tale. Suppose the “I” character was easily recruited because he needed the cash to look after his 9-year-old grandchild who had recently and reluctantly (on the child’s part) come into his care. Suppose the child, exhibiting exceptional talent, sold the story of her grandpa’s career as book-thief to a tabloid. What a courtroom scene that would make! Man and child, they love each other to death and now must execute an extreme escape. Then what?

A character’s character is revealed in his or her motives, so to answer that question I needed to grapple deeply, not only with what makes grandparents and grandchildren tick in tune (or not), but with what makes people love books rather than each other. Or collect books rather than read them, stealing books only to collect them.

The amateur shoplifter does not have the motives I sought. Nicknamed a “booster” by professional thieves, the light-fingered bookshop prowler is in it for the chase, a matter of opportunity. Capturing the object of desire is the least of it, especially when the booster realizes he will not have acquired the time to read the damn thing simply because he’s liberated it; some shoplifters take their loot back. These folk are motivated by unresolved issues (“It’s there for the taking,” or “I deserve it”).

The most outrageous rationale for kleptomania is the one that says it’s not really yours to begin with so let’s have it. This will extend to the klepto’s relationships: “After when they disentwine/ You from me and yours from mine/ Neither can be certain who/ Was that I whose mine was you” (Robert Graves).

The professional thief who makes a living by selling stolen stuff is also not motivated in any way useful to my story. Forest Tucker, famed larcenist of the 1930s, explained that “stealing is a way of keeping your sanity in a lifetime of being the hunted. Each new joint is a place to outwit the authorities” -- too dialectical for the emotional range I was after.

But collecting books, hoarding them, is a rage of a different order. This is the rage for order. It is a drive to conceal shortcomings, including the need for order. The condition is made worse by the nature of acquisition, which is addictive and which conceals the truth even more fiercely. Addicts are in a slow burn at helplessness, at being left alone, and they will condemn themselves to a lifetime of withdrawal and solitude. which is so strange.

The murkiest of all motives for a book thief is an unconscious need to rub out the word. Now that’s more like it. The idea of one person hiding all the first editions of all the great books in the world is an echo back from the future, when the question is what happens when all the computers on the planet are unplugged and illiteracy returns. Would that be so bad?

For writers, who have much more difficulty with writing than other people, t'would be bliss indeed. For society it could spell final relief from the toxicity of what novelist John Gardner called “creating art’s effects with the daemonic help of older books.”

I spent the rest of my rural retreat reading some of those daemonic books. I made notes and I jotted down quotes. The accumulated paper trail soon began to tell a tale of its own, a scroll of other people’s thoughts that started with the usual drooling over books, continued through the hanging participles of Babylon until, too late, the languid reader saw the Word turn into the carapace of the Book. Within an eon or two, religion being simple but theology tricky, the verbs had gone viral.

But then there’s Kerouac. His quote on himself as writer is one of the strangest in all literature.

So here we go ,on my bibliopolist’s lost Apocalyptico.

“O my darling books! Others may buy and possess you — persons, perhaps, less worthy of you than I — yet how dear to me are you all! Have I not chosen you one by one, gathered you in with the sweat of my brow? I do love you!”
— Silvestre De Sacy

“Pearls were poured upon the poets, in keeping with the teaching that poets are next to the angels. Wealth began to accumulate from trade arriving from all directions. A method of making paper from flax and hemp appeared, and the new technology produced books in quantities inconceivable before. Within 40 years, Baghdad was a city of booksellers, bathhouses, gardens, game parks, libraries. The palaces were of marble, rare
woods, jade and alabaster, with carpets and wall hangings, fountains and interior gardens. Concubines greeted guests with sprinklers of rosewater and powdered musk and ambergris. A poet wrote: ‘Live, Oh live to thy heart’s content!”’
— “A History of Baghdad”

True collectors, like lovers, have an infinite sadness, even in their happiness. They know they can never put the world under lock and key in a glass case. Hence their profound melancholy.”
— Anatole France

“The word is now a virus. The flu virus may once have been a healthy lung cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the central nervous system. Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting your sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even 10 seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the Word.”
— William Burroughs, from “The Ticket That Exploded”

“Ah, my love, the glory of works which have been lost forever, of treatises which today are mere titles, of libraries which burned down, of statues which were demolished! How much more beautiful the Mona Lisa would be if we couldn’t see it. And if someone were to rob it just to burn it, what an artist he would be, even greater than the one who painted it! How sublime to waste a life that could have been useful, never to execute a work of art that was certain to be beautiful, to abandon midway a sure road to victory.”
— Fernando Pessoa
(“The Book of Disquiet”)

“I am not Solomon; I am he who watches the Lamb; I am he who has adopted the Sorrows; I am he, John L. Kerouac, the Serious, the Severe, the Stubborn, the Unappeased; he who is pursued by the Hooded Wayfarer; he who wants Eyes; he who Waits; he who is Not Pleasant, and hears Silences; he who Works; he who Watches, and has Hidden Thoughts; he who Grinds the Stone and even the faces — with Eyes.
“He who is not Satisfied.
“He who hates Satisfaction.
“He who loves the White Valley of the Lamb.
“He who Eschews, and Waits, and Watches, and Sleeps, and Works in Anticipation of the Lamb, the Lamb so Meek on the
— Jack Kerouac (Journal, 1947)

“Reading these lines I can easily convince myself that I am inking down the words, that I am this Jack Kerouac. It is as if, hidden somewhere in his book, there is a writing that hasn’t been written yet and will never be finished. Recently in a dream I tried to convince him to release some of his unpublished writings, or persuade his widow to release them, but he answered, refusing, ‘writing settles nothing.’”
— Clark Coolidge
(“Now It’s Jazz”)


Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Key West Interview: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 1994

by Mark Howell

… “Watchman, what of the night?” …
“Seeking refuge from the anxieties of the modern age, much amplified by amplification”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti came to Key West in March 1994 for his first visit in more than 50 years. He was 75 when he gave us this interview plus some unpublished poems. He had just celebrated his birthday in Jacksonville, Fla. with his daughter Julie. His son Lorenzo was “joining the working class” as an arborist in Bolinas, Calif. Their mother, the poet explained, was Selden Kirby-Smith, granddaughter of the last southern general to surrender in the Civil War. The subject of Kerouac came up soon enough ...

Lawrence Ferlinghetti: One of the bonds Jack and I had was that we both spoke French with our mothers. When Kerouac went to France he was very paranoid about his Quebecois accent, which of course the French put down like he was a country bumpkin. So Jack was really very unhappy when he went to France, he ended up drinking more and more. The French are so snobby about their language.

Mark Howell: How French are you?

LF: My mother was French-Portuguese-Sephardic. She was actually born in Providence, Rhode Island, but her family had left Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition, gone into France for a couple of generations, then took a Danish crown colony expedition to St. Thomas in the Virgin islands. The graveyard in St. Thomas is full of my mother’s ancestors. When I was born my mother had a complete nervous breakdown. My father had died before I was born, she had five sons and I was one too many. She went into a mental hospital, so her French sister took me to France. When I came back to this country with my French aunt, she disappeared. I used to write her letters, it was the first writing I did, like Anais Nin writing to her absent father. My own father was from northern Italy, from Brescia. Ferlinghetti ain’t Irish.

MH: Kerouac called you Monsanto in his novels.

LF: My mother’s maiden name. Another bond I had with Kerouac, we were both Thomas Wolfe fans. Essentially Kerouac had the same sweeping vision of America that Wolfe had, a pre-World War Two America that no longer exists today except in forlorn, lost, dusty old Greyhound buses stations in the outback.

MH: Your own first novel, “Her,” did anybody influence you on that?

LF: I wrote it in an extraordinary mood. My sensibility in the Paris of 1948 was a very strange one, perhaps mood is an understatement. It was very much affected by Djuna Barnes’ “Nightwood,” which is one of the great books of American writing. The heroine is Robin, the lady with the cape. She’s searching Paris for a woman she’s in love with. She goes from café to café and ends up visiting an Irish expatriate alcoholic transvestite, surprising him in bed wearing lots of lipstick and a very beautiful costume. She says to him in a distraught state, “Watchman, what of the night?” and he starts in on this monologue that is some of the most beautiful prose in all literature. I once told Djuna Barnes that I thought she wrote a man’s prose. I wouldn’t have dared say that today. But she said she considered it a high compliment.

MH: Is there something wrong with men these days?

LF: I think the American male today has generally been raised by a woman because of the large number of homes where there’s no man around. Men have been raised to please women, and they tend to abdicate their masculinity in order to please women. It was much worse before. The man did what he was gonna do and the woman had to trail afterward.

MH: How goes capitalism?

LF: Capitalism is the most wasteful form of economic organization that you could possibly have. Capitalist organizations are spreading out all over the world, and you’ve heard their motto: “Think globally.” Well, they’re thinking globally of where the cheap labor is. They’re in a race to the bottom, rushing to the country that has the cheapest labor.

MH: You always refused government hand-outs to you or your press?

LF: I don’t see how one can take money from a government that has been killing millions of people overseas in illegal wars.

MH: Did you ever think that you might not prevail?

LF: When I got started in San Francisco and we opened City Lights bookstore in 1953, it was the height of the McCarthy era – or error. Freedom of expression was really under attack. We were busted for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” I mean, we were just a little one-room bookstore with no resources for legal aid, and it would have sunk us if we hadn’t had the ACLU to defend us for free. Freedom of the press is a continuing battle in which every victory is temporary.

MH: What was the high point of the 1960s for you?

LF: When I put on my beads and went to the Filmore and started dancing. The first time I took LSD wasn’t necessarily my high point of the Sixties, but certainly LSD was the high point in the liberation of consciousness. That part of the revolution did happen. What didn’t happen was a political revolution, which was aborted by the troops at Kent State. And by a general absorption into the middle class of the many Sixties heroes, especially in the musical world, who became so successful and rich that they were ingested into the system.

MH: You are an exhibited painter these days.

LF: Painting is a bride of sorts. It’s more of a – what’s the word? We can’t carry this analogy too far, I’ll get into trouble. Painting is more demanding than most wives, and very uncompromising. You can’t get away with anything with this bride, the bride of painting. That’s a good line.

MH: How about Kerouac?

LF: Jack’s first book, “The Town and the City,” is I think a much greater book than “On the Road.” It was the book he wrote before he was infected by the beat virus and it was modeled on Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel.” Kerouac had the same sweeping vision of America that Wolfe had, a pre-World War Two America that no longer exists today except in forlorn, dusty old Greyhound bus stations in the outback.

MH: And America?

LF: Inasmuch as the empires of the world have been crumbling – first the French empire went, then the British empire went, then we watched as the Russian one went – now it’s our turn. The American empire is going to disintegrate. I feel that in the 21st century we’ll have more and more secessions. San Francisco never did consider itself a part of the United States. I think Key West has a great idea. Good luck to the Conch Republic.

MH: This is your second visit to Key West?

LF: I was last here half a century ago, in 1943. It’s hard to believe. It was like Hemingway’s Key West back then. We were at the Navy base on escort vessels, and going to submarine school to find out how submariners thought. We went down in submarines here. I think we only stayed six weeks, maybe two months. We ended up spending a good deal of time at the Carline Street house of Jesse Porter Kirk, through a buddy of mine in the Navy who was a marvelous piano player. He played ragtime, he played South Pacific music, he was great person to have at a party. Jesse would invite us to every party she had at her gorgeous house.

MH: Didn’t you invite Jesse’s daughter Jeanne out on a date last night?

LF: She was nowhere to be seen. I think she was 16 when I first visited here, just running around the house and the garden, skipping. A whole bunch of us did go out last night, but I think Jeanne had retired already. We went to a very noisy bar up the street and stayed about 10 minutes. You know, tourists could be weaned from the electronic age if the city of Key West became known as the one place in the whole of the United States where you could go and hear nothing but pure, non-amplified music. We pollute Caroline Street with electronic music. The hope is that some electronic angel will make our ears mutate so we don’t hear this awful racket. People who are seeking refuge from the anxiety of the modern age, which is much amplified by amplification, would be able to come down here as a last refuge. Key West could become famous for that. The last refuge.


Ferling Ends Up in the Cemetery:Four Key West Poems by Ferlinghetti

Done Wrong
[Writ at Heritage House, Key West Republic, March 26, 1994]

She calls me from a pay phone
outside of a filling station
outside of Paris Texas
I can hear the countrywestern singer
on an old car radio
singing She Done Me Wrong
I’m calling to tell you I done you wrong honey
she sings out to me on the phone
and hangs up
I rush out of the filling station office
and find her just escaping
the phone booth
we throw our bodies ’round each other
and live unhappily ever after

Three Key West Poems
[Writ in Key West, March 28, 1994]

Great breakfast at Pepe’s …
Over-age beachboy
in broken down running shoes
seats me in a booth
In comes a couple of Miami bimbas
in pink shorts pink sunglasses
and pink breasts
the latter very prominent in very
pointed bras
The beachboy steps back a bit
and seats them at the next table
fanning himself as he walks away
They study the menu
no doubt looking for fried shark
And I am a camera
fixing them in the emulsion
of my eternity

Key West’s cemetery …
A total of seven stone angels therein
The small ones like cherubs
with pathetic little wings
which couldn’t possibly
carry a soul away
One big beautiful white angel
with the end of one folded wing
broken off
I think of Thomas Wolfe’s stone angel
And of “a stone a leaf an unfound door”
Still unfound

And there is a great plaster laughing figure
Standing on a raised tomb
His head too large for his body
and his left hand pressed to his stomach
as if he had a sharp pain or were just about
to double over with mad
uncontrollable laughter
He has a weird grin on
his stoney face
With his foot on the head of his son
resting just below
I hear a faint crying
from a hundred years ago


Stoned With Cassady, Stoned with Kesey: Robert Stone on the Sixties

by Mark Howell

(“If you don’t go to the edge, the edge will come to you.”)

Robert Stone and his wife Janice have been married for 47 years. At their bungalow in Key West earlier this year, the night watchman sat with Bob over a cup of tea to reminisce on their remarkable life together.

He was born in 1937, in Brooklyn, the only child of Gladys, a single mom and a schoolteacher, herself the daughter of a tugboat captain and raised on Park Avenue when it was still the railway into the city. Bob grew up where Lincoln Center is now.

He dropped out of high school, long division being beyond him, in favor of reading and “goofing.” By 1956 he’d joined the Navy, in under 18 and out at 21.

After a trip to the Antarctic as something called Journalist First Class, he found himself a civilian in New York. There he met Janice, who had a day job but was a nocturnal beatnik, the archetypal beat girl who changed at dusk into the black stockings, skirt and sweater required of a night in the Village. When she got a job at the Seven Arts Gallery, the pair was introduced to the painters and poets then remaking America’s sensibility.

The couple would have two children, their daughter Deirdre and their son Ian, born just after President Kennedy was shot. But first the honeymoon, which they spent in New Orleans. It was in the deep South that Bob found his first post-sailor job on an assembly line; he was soon terminated for “attitude.” His vilest job at that time was census taker, forcing him to question people about their lives as they sat around a deathbed, for example.

It was in New Orleans that Bob Stone began work on a novel eventually published in 1967 as “A Hall of Mirrors.” It was an endless stint in the salt mines — “I really thought he would never finish it,” says Janice today — although Bob recalls the ordeal as nothing compared to the civil rights sacrifices of Viola Liuzzo or Mickey Schwerner. It was his writing that won him a fellowship to study with Wallace Stegner at Stanford University in Southern California, a life-altering opportunity that incidentally exposed him to the mind-altering powers of peyote and lysergic acid diethylamide.

In his latest book, “Prime Green” (2007), Stone recalls how he and Jan and their friends, on trips to San Francisco, would ingest a loathsome, dinosaur-colored ratatouille of peyote-cactus meat in order to enjoy John Coltrane at the Jazz Gallery and Lenny Bruce at the hungry i (sic). “On peyote there are no metaphors,” writes Stone. “The Great Lizard of the Dawn of Time” is exactly that, providing all with “a grinning rictus of terror.”

His first dose of LSD came from an atomizer spray provided by Richard Alpert Ph.D., now known as Baba Ram Dass, who got the drug from a Dr. Vic Lovell to whom a hospital orderly named Ken Kesey would one day dedicate “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Acid was everywhere at Stanford back then because the Department of Defense supplied it to the university’s Research Institute, from whence it found its way to the Palo Alto Veteran’s Hospital. What is now the work-obsessed Silicon Valley, reveals Stone, back then was a playground for Homo ludens.
On thing led to another, specifically to “the world’s greatest driver, who could roll a joint while backing a 1937 Packard onto the lip of the Grand Canyon.” This was Neal Cassady, hero of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” famed for his supernatural skills at the wheel, driving flat out through rush-hour traffic and impregnating a librarian or two as he did so.

Cassady performed what Stone calls “an uncanny reverse homage” to “On the Road” by traveling east on Eisenhower’s new Interstate system to attend the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The vehicle was “Furthur,” a day-glo painted school bus that carried Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters into all kinds of craziness. “A Vote for Barry [Goldwater] Is a Vote for Fun” went the banner on its side.

The Pranksters’ other destination in New York was the West 97th Street apartment of Bob and Janice Stone, who had moved to the city where Bob took jobs at The Daily News (“Marines Mash Cong in Mud”) and at a lesser tabloid, the National Mirror (“Skydiver Devoured by Starving Birds”). It was at the after-bus party at the apartment that Kerouac made a legendary reappearance from his alcoholic stupor to meet the hippies, afterbirth of the beats. Stone thought the King of the Beats might be an impostor, like another fellow at the party purporting to be Terry Southern who most certainly wasn’t. When Bob tried to bum a cigarette, the surly Kerouac told him, “You should buy your own smokes.”

Then it was off by bus to Millbrook, in upstate New York, to meet Timothy Leary and indulge in a multitude of drugs “unrivaled until the prison pharmacy at the New Mexico state prison fell to rioting cons.”

Of Kesey, Stone writes that he was a “libertarian shaman, fearless friend.” Elders among the Pacific coast Unitarians had taken to calling him God because of gnomic Kesey utterances like, “If you’ve got it all together, what’s that all around it?” The year following the Merry Pranksters’ trip across the nation, written up by Tom Wolfe in the Sixties’ bestseller “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” (though Wolfe did not ride on the bus), Kesey was busted twice for possession of narcotics, first in La Honda and then in San Francisco — just as Cassady had been busted, six years earlier, for selling a couple of joints to a pair of narcs and serving two years in San Quentin although already a world hero for “On the Road.”

Stone was dispatched by Esquire magazine to find Kesey, who with his wife, Faye, and the kids had fled to Mexico before his trials. Hiding out on the western coast at Manzanillo, Kesey and friends took long walks on the beaches. This was but four decades ago, yet there was not another person to be seen, let alone a house. In Manzanillo “we had ourselves an opera,” writes Stone, sometimes “a Marvel comic.”

At this point in his life and times, Neal Cassady considered it “liberating to restrict his diet to methamphetamine,” reports Stone. “He never ate, never slept, never shut up, nor did his parrot, Rubiaco.” (The parrot would outlive Cassady by 25 years, startling Bob and Janice and Kesey and Faye by spouting pure Cassady one fine morning in Oregon: “Grand theft auto! I tell them that ain’t my beef!”

During the Esquire visit, on the anniversary of Mexico’s independence, Cassady shot up a suckling pig with a hypodermic full of LSD topped off with methedrine, a memorable experience should anyone have been able to remember it. Twenty years earlier, Cassady and Kerouac had found Mexico “a garden without so much as the shadow of a snake.” But that’s not what Stone and Kesey saw. The chapter in “Prime Green” on Agent Number One, a Mexican narc who haunted the American visitors in 1964, was published in the New Yorker and extensively quoted in Solares Hill’s “Soundings.” To Stone, that agent represented the beginning of pot prohibition, the end of liberation.

Later that year, Bob and Janice headed to Paris, where they met a fellow hipster, Michael Horowitz (whose daughter is Winona Ryder), then on to London. Fame and fashion now tumble forth from “Prime Green” as the author recounts the pre-dawn call from Paul Newman (then 44) to buy the movie rights to his first book, also the visit by the Hell’s Angels to the Beatles’ headquarters on Saville Row, plus a journey to Vietnam to cover the war. By the 1970s,” he says, it was “no longer cool to be unhip.”

Throughout these adventures, Stone characterizes himself as the demure, even timid one compared to front-line Pranksters such as Ken Babbs, a Vietnam vet whose commanding voice over the bus speakers would put cops to flight, and the insanely attired George Walker. It is a characterization confirmed by his distant experience as a waiter in Calais, Maine, where the restaurateur told Stone never to work in a restaurant again because he “brought some kind of strange atmosphere to people’s dinner, a fateful tension or pessimism about dinner and life.”

Heroic or not, his place in the Sixties — a period he identifies as “the postwar withheld,” when the wheel of time became visible to all — is central. A time of magical coasts and holy mountains, it was also an era of social integration, of integrating into a new society, of integrity in the individual. There are plenty of “who knows?” in his memoir, conclusions like “We won a little and lost a lot, depending.” On the one hand, he writes, “Maybe I believed that if you worked at it right you could have all the lives you wanted at once, all the loves, all the lights and music.” On the other hand, “We couldn’t imagine it at the time, but we were on the losing side of the culture war.” Because of people like Agent Number One, “The prank was on us.”
Stone’s final conclusion is chilling to unreconstructed hipsters everywhere: “We regret nothing except our failure to prevail.”
Writing this story about Robert Stone is to write the story of my life, in more ways than one. Although he is all of seven years older than I am, our lives have almost intersected more than once.

A few years after he lived on Clark Street in Brooklyn, I lived a few blocks away on Henry Street. While the Pranksters came from California for the New York World’s Fair, I came from Wales for the same purpose. As the Stones crisscrossed the country in the mid-Sixties, a friend and I crossed the country masquerading as two of the Stones. We both worked in tabloids. And we both acquired legal prescriptions, in London, for tincture of cannabis.

This last mention snagged Stone’s acutest attention. “Did you know George Andrews?” he asked. George Andrews, whoa! He was the author of “The Book of Grass” and I helped publish his “Drugs and Magic.” We agreed that Andrews, in Stone’s words, dwelt at the core of “strangeness and criminality.” Once again, Bob Stone — as he had with Kesey, Cassady and Agent Number One in North America — zeroed in on the heart of the matter, London wise. “I’ve been very lucky,” he told me. “For every great moment, there is confusion. That is where I served.”

One other intersection in our lives is the most direct one. When my son Rafael was born in 1971, I slapped the name Cassady onto the birth certificate as his middle name, a defiant gesture in the belief that Cassady would always prevail — and I (like Rafe) regret nothing.

But the question remains, has Cassady, who died of a heart attack at the age of 41 while counting railroad ties outside of San Miguel de Allende, truly prevailed?

To date, Cassady has starred in seven Kerouac novels and one Robert Stone novel (“Dog Soldiers”), also in books by Ken Kesey, Hunter S. Thompson Tom Wolfe, Charles Bukowski and Alan Harrington, plus five biographies, six literary studies and collections of letters, four movies that include Stone’s co-scripted “Who’ll Stop the Rain” directed by Karel Reisz (with Nick Nolte, who has twice acted as Cassady) and, not least, in a Grateful Dead song.

All of the above items are still available to the public, all are big hits on So, can it not be said that Cassady, despite the drugs and the madness, has prevailed?

I personally received my first copy of “On the Road” in 1960, from my English teacher at school. Bob Stone received his in 1957, from his schoolteacher mom. Stone said that he could not at the time believe that “anyone, anywhere, ever talked” like Neal Cassady in that book, but he was wrong,” and, as they say, be careful what you wish for.”
To give a taste of what Bob is talking about here, I have transcribed two Cassady quotes from a couple of sources, one a rare film moment of the Adonis of Denver, the legendary Hero of the West, tossing his eternal railroad hammer.

The first burst is about changing a fuse on the Prankster bus: “The secret of the fuse is to think of the soul and not the ego. It took the Red Chinese years to discover swallowing tadpoles by the dozen doesn’t make for effective contraceptives.” Now this from the film footage: “I washed my hair and it shrank. Natural catastrophes are happening everywhere, all forms are dead, all forms are known. Life goes where the forms are. It’s already too late, the Pentagon’s doing it deliberately as far as that goes. Enjoy it.”

Tell me, I asked Bob, something I don’t know about Cassady.

We moved to the kitchen to check if the water had boiled for our tea. It had not. “It’s like we’re at a great altitude,” he said. I said we probably were.

“I’ll tell you this,” he said. “It was a workout to listen to him. One of his passengers on the bus, Jane Burton, she said she wouldn’t have stayed on it for a single day if she hadn’t lost her purse. Neal was a kind of good-natured thug. He was not tall, he was a car thief. To do Cassady best on the screen you’d need Robin Williams as Popeye. Muscles popping, bragging out of the side of his mouth —Neal was Popeye.”

We had our tea and we came down to earth. “Everything comes to an end,” said the novelist. History’s narratives, he concluded, are already being revised to suit “our sorry times.” In Stone’s estimation, the nation has now handed over Presidential power to “a completely unqualified person who is influenced by men who have never doubted, who have no sympathetic imagination. I don’t know if we’ll ever come back from this.”

Have, then, the lives of disaffiliation and experiment conducted by him and Janice (let alone by me or my wife Jan — amounted to naught?

Ah, he replied, that’s not the point. Not the point at all.

“If you don’t go to the edge,” he explained, “the edge will come to you.”


“Milky Ways Across the Night” - Kirby Congdon, Born to be Beat

by Mark Howell

...from “The Cat’s Story” by Kirby Congdon

All living things are born
To be canned as cat food.

But we don’t can people
Because people have can openers
And, so, are useful.

All animals have their uses.
A cat, however, does not need to be useful.

He is born a cat, he stays a cat, and he lives forever.
Any cat is the oldest and wisest
And the most beautiful creature
In the whole animal kingdom.

Be thankful you’re a cat.

I first met the cat called Kirby Congdon in an alley called Appelrouth Lane. Back then it was a bopping place of poetry and the neo-beat life, and the very first time he turned up for a reading we almost missed him.

I was racing up the lane to retrieve Harry Calhoun, who’d checked out of our opening night at the Appelrouth Grill by running away and I don’t blame him. I felt he should take another shot. At least another shot of tequila from an upturned shot glass, snorted up the nostril.

That was then. And blow me if we didn’t get back to the grill to find it packed with poets, among them Kirby. “Milky ways across the night,” he told us, “are what this world is all about.”
Kirby was a cool, flustered guy in blue shirt and leather pants, with a huge motorcycle on the street outside. “Wild, nameless, untamed” was another line of his.

He was different from the rest of the poets. In the limelight his face was a parchment with a photo printed on it of a poet from the nightclub called the hungry i. He looked sharp and he seemed kind and we loved him right away.
“Then I go the other way,” he said of the way he trips the listener.

I had an inexpressible question of the beats at the time but it went unasked of Kirby because I had no real idea of what the question was. Maybe later, I thought.

Todd Swift, a book reviewer in England, once called Kirby avant garde “only by virtue of being completely unknown.” Of the anthology in which Kirby appeared, Todd said, “Never have I seen an uglier front or back cover. It bears every resemblance to the smallest of smallest publishing ventures. For that reason alone it merits a nod of respect.”

I’ll give him that nod of respect, and to Louis Weingarden too. Louis was the composer whose “Inquiries of Hope: Ten Poems of Kirby Congdon” is the earliest musical composition to address the epidemic of AIDS. Louis owned a boot shop and erotic art gallery on West 4th Street in New York City, where he exhibited Robert Mapplethorpe and Tom of Finland. In the summer of 1978, Louis organized a group of leather men called SMASH (Society to Make America Safe for Homosexuals). Where Louis was, you could find God. You could find God where the leather men were. Kirby was a leather man.

He started it. At 18 he had joined the army for three years, then went to Columbia on the GI Bill. He went out one day and bought a motorcycle and the leathers to go with it. Leather was a release, he explained, especially for army veterans “old enough to express themselves.”

Kirby has written of industrial machinery, motorcycle fantasies, heroes from the comic strips, rural Connecticut and cats. I never did talk with him about God or about that question I had.

The big book we all associated with Kirby’s was one of his first, “Iron Ark: A Bestiary,” a wholly original work that e.e. cummings found attractive and Marianne Moore liked as well. But the New York Times failed to review it – too original – so Kirby was assigned to public obscurity.

Poets, however, recognize him. “‘Iron Ark’ poems are truly fine,” said beat pioneer Gregory Corso. “You is a poet, son.”
Kirby went on to write “Juggernaut,” “Dream-Work,” “A Key West Rebus” and a dozen other books of poetry and prose. His language, says Alyson Matley, is a liquid connection between inconsequential perfection and primal forces.

His house on Baker Lane is a bookman’s temple. His partner of 41 years, Ralph Simmons, also his primary designer and publisher, has never been able to throw a book away.

The cottage is floor to ceiling with them. Kirby bought this house, right across the lane from where Richard Watherwax lives, in 1959, when the beat movement was at its height.
Kirby’s other home on Fire Island he inherited from his first love, Jay Socin, who died three months after him and Kirby split. Fire Island is where he and Ralph go in the summers, the setting of many of his poems.

Kirby once told me how he it was he got to know Gregory Corso, the Lancelot of the beat round table, in the early 1970s. An editor named Eli Wilentz could no longer take the divinely inspired Gregory hanging out at his New York pad, so Kirby and Jay took him in, or on. Corso’s life was a mess of drugs and marriages and children that would finally came to rest (he was the last of the founding beats to die) right next to Shelley in the cemetery in Rome.

I listened to this while sunlight mellowed in the great window behind Kirby, silhouetting his sinking profile as he sat in the big, deep couch. My eyes roamed the room. At the piano was an open piece of music.
On the table lay a chap book with the title, “What is Poetry For?” I took a taste.

“The sense of reality,” wrote Kirby in this book, “depends on a live and changing environment of facts and influences. Otherwise it disappears from view, and becomes blank. And we become blank. Without a flowing and changing context, every item we know becomes invisible, even if it is one’s own identity, one’s own name, one’s own sanity.”

How’s this for a change of context. Kirby Congdon is 81 years old; Ralph Simmons is 73. “Let my tight heart’s hope live on air,” says Kirby.

I meet mostly Ralph these days, on his trips to the newspaper office to deliver the latest from Kirby. I wish him well with his health, then ask him to pass on a message or two to Kirby.

Kirby’s mother was from Norway, where the average high school education beats a college education in the United States. His dad was a New England native. From those roots Kirby has cultivated a body of work that has attracted collectors.

Kirby’s works (as they used to call William Burroughs’ drug equipment) are gathered at the Kurtzman Collection of Beat Literature at the University of California, along with first editions of Burroughs plus Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Also collecting the works is the Kenneth Spencer Research Library in the Department of Special Collections at the University of Kansas, home of the Burroughs papers.

He surely is, then, the man to answer my question, the man to solve the puzzle, the man to tell me what it is about the beats that I wished to ask.

Like, how did I miss the boat?

And more directly, What’s God’s plan now?
A week or so later I received a postcard in the mail.

“Ralph shared your confidences with me,” read the black ink in Kirby’s recognizable hand. “Sometimes the only thing we have to fall back on is the assertion that we bear injustice and disappointment with dignity.

“Before we have any champions on our behalf, we have to believe in ourselves.

“That is an irrational position, but anything else, anyone else, isn’t very sane either!

“With affection.”

Next I received a puzzling package in the mail.

Inside was a little book with the words “Dear Fathers” on the cover. It had been published by Kirby in 1972 and consisted entirely of the typescript, verbatim, of a letter from Gregory Corso to a monk.

“Man is the closest thing to angels and angels are sensitive things,” says Gregory in his letter, chiding the church for collecting souls. (Collecting souls is what the devil does.) “Life will always be subject to drive people mad. It is not death holds the wonder and mystery and horror and sadness. It is life needs to go to heaven, not man.”

It was addressed to the only beat Benedictine in all of Christendom, a monk who lived in a monastery in the west of England, an abbey on the very same hillside where my brother and I had been raised. He was our neighbor, Dom Pierre Houedard. An ocean away.

Of all people. Being lectured by sweet Corso. In a package from Kirby.

My ego crumbled with the punch line.

“I have it in me to put myself down for no reason at all,” confesses Corso. “Maybe it’s because sometimes I feel so way above. And believe me, above is not a very pleasant place.

“You’re alone there, and help is of no avail there.

“That is the sorrow I see in God.

“And no one can help him.”

(first published in "salt," fall 2007)


Monday, September 24, 2007

Ginsberg and Gorbachev: Meetings With Famous Men

by Mark Howell

(This story has won first prize in the Florida Press Club Awards for Excellence 2007 in the category of Serious Feature ... Go Ginzy! Go Gorby!)

I guess the most famous person I ever met was the most obscure.

He was a monk who came to speak at my school when I was 12. He told us he had never seen himself in a mirror, had never seen his reflection in all his life.

It was not the main point of his talk and most of the kids let this news slide over their heads. But I have never recovered. He was a carelessly shaven man of utter integrity and fortitude. To the whirlpool of schoolboy self-consciousness that was me, he signaled that you need not complicate your inner battles by implicating a mirror image.

Consider the mirror for a moment. It gives you an image of yourself, yet it is you in reverse.

It is one thing, then, to say a cop mirrors a criminal. It is quite another to realize the cop is the criminal in reverse. And still another — there’s no end to this hall of mirrors — if you mean the honest thief, the tender murderer, the “dangerous edge of things” that Robert Browning called our primary interest always.

In my unmirrored monk I saw no reverse. I got his picture right away. He was all of a piece. It would be stupid to doubt him, rude to question him. This was not celebrity nor notoriety and I have forgotten his name if I ever knew it. His was the nameless fame that rings true right away.

By such a test, the only A-list characters I’ve met who were so clear of vanity that my response was bear-hug acceptance — and I did get to hug them, sort of, so to speak (how to explain this?) — were Gorby and Ginzy.

The ignescence of the Sixties came in colors everywhere. Expansion of consciousness was a political act and you could tell who your homies were from the length of their hair.

On the steps of the great Fitzwilliam Museum in 1965 hovered an avatar of all that. Allen Ginsberg, author of “Howl,” our generation’s very own “The Waste Land,” on tour in England and here he was in Cambridge, alone and looking for company. Here was the real-life Irwin Garden from Kerouac’s “On the Road.” Here was the word made flesh.

“One of the wiggy prophets come back,” according to poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, his publisher, Ginsberg was smiling as we approached him on the museum steps.

“What’s your name?” he said.

I knew there’d be a problem with this.

“You’re kidding!” he cried, our first misunderstanding. “Howl?”

No, no, no. “It’s from the Welsh, hywl,” I said, explaining the surname. “Same root as the word longing.”

“Then so is howl,” he said.

“I think so,” I said. The longing for life, a fuel for afternoons of adventure, leaked from our hearts instantaneously so I introduced my friend Murphy. “Take me to a cathedral,” said Ginsberg. Having been exposed to Blake’s engravings in the museum, Ginsberg now wanted the full glory and his eyes glittered with the possibilities.

“Ely cathedral,” I said. “Not far at all.”

Ginzy sat up front with Murphy while I squeezed in back, the car tinier than the tiniest booth in the Trieste Cafe. But we were not in North Beach, we were on the windswept steppes of Albion and this balding, bearded geezer in open shirt and bluejeans was beyond ablaze. He started to chant a mantra, striking two little Tibetan cymbals in rhythm, hunched in his seat and calming himself marvelously.

Across the tundra we raced, zipping by other tiny cars on a flattened landscape of bare ruined choirs (Shakespeare) that was three-quarters sky (Tennyson). I stewed in the back. He was all of 40, we must have been half his age. It seemed to me that the Beats, let alone the Beatles, were sucking up every bit of the fame that would otherwise befall the rest of us. So I wanted to discuss power. Where is it? How d’you get it?

“Power’s in that chimney over there,” murmured the poet. Pausing in his chant, he might have been making a practical point until you caught the twisting column of bricks he was pointing at, stacked like a wish and a prayer on top of a Tudor house, a tube for smoke that made a spectacular case for the existence of the divine, groping for eternity through a marvel of time.

And I had missed it altogether.

I don’t recall much of the cathedral, not because I wasn’t paying attention — I knew now that the mantra of power lay in breath, in breathing open the doors of perception — but because my memory gets snagged by a group of autograph-hunters who held us up in the nave (“It’s for my daughter, OK ... We saw you on the telly?”).

I do remember Ginsberg making the rain come down in sheets on the return trip — unexpectedly and, insists Murph to this day, at the climax of his chanting. But I would not see the bard again until his phantom appearance at an event in London several weeks later. Wholly Communion, a night of poetry held at the Royal Albert, was, in Ginsberg’s view, disastrous because he was drunk (English beer is as warm as wine and as lethal when swigged). But British heads were totally sent by the affair and its musky secrets became synonymous with the capital’s nascent counter-culture: “Now we know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.....”

Immediately following his trip to Cambridge, Ginsberg invited the Beatles to his birthday party in Chester Square, a posh part of London. By the time John and George arrived with wives Cynthia and Patti, a naked Ginsberg’s underwear was on his head and a No Waiting sign hung from his penis. John was upset. “You don’t do that in front of the birds,” he said.

Ginsberg also had a terrible time, I’m told, at a do called the Dialectics of Liberation where Stokely Carmichael, Emmett Grogan and Britain’s Michael X were supposed to meld their minds with his. Stokely’s whitey tirades made it unworkable. “This is dreadful,” Allen told everyone. “This is not going to get us anywhere.”

Instead he went to Wales where, in four days in the Summer of Love, he composed one of the greatest poems in the English language. “Wales Visitation” is as grand a piece of pastoral psalming as any in world literature, with the best lines to buss Britain since Wordsworth’s “splendor in the grass, glory in the flower.” Two phrases in particular, the palpitating “a solid mass of Heaven, mist infused” and “wavelets of Immensity, lapping gigantic through Llanthony Valley,” stand as keys to the bigness of that bantam land.

So, the next time I met Ginsberg (almost a decade later) he had already penned masterworks about my homeland and the war in Southeast Asia continued to lumber on.

The Beat bard was in London once again, visiting his friend William Burroughs who was a ghastly wraith at the time, still deep into his “Exterminator!” period.

The shock and awe of a phone call from Mr. Ginsberg received while I was in the toilet threw my family into fits for years.

“Give me the phone,” I begged through a crack in the door, then spent the next half-hour sitting on the john while Allen told me how to make a movement — a literary movement, scooping up all the Beat angels swinging into the capital even as he spoke. The names of the luminati he recited from his address book sounded like the code to paradise regained.

If there was any mirror to Ginsberg it was in the way he mirrored U.S. foreign policy in perfect reverse, reaching out to distant shores but instead of dumping race-based nervous breakdowns on other countries, he cast compassion about and enlightenment all around.

We met up the following night on a crowded sidewalk outside some party somewhere. I had my son with me, just 18 months old. Allen was on crutches.

I was fascinated by his T-shirt that listed that year’s American dead in Vietnam and Cambodia to date. He was quite taken by my boy Rafael and gave him a happy face, a toothy, crinkly grin that stretched his beard.

I asked him about the crutches; he said he’d slipped and sprained his ankle.

“It’s from those names on your back,” I said.
“Here,” he said, putting the crutches aside. “Let me hold the child.”

I transferred Rafe to Allen’s arms, handing him over to the prophet wounded in the leg. Shades of Parsifal or Ahab must have spooked Rafe’s psyche because he’d have none of it. He struggled mightily, Allen beamed patriarchally, I reached out to retrieve my son from the patient cup of the poet’s arm just as Allen reached out with the other arm to get a hug from me. All three of us collided ridiculously, coalescing into a knot of snuggled warmth that I have cherished ever since and which, to turn that phrase again, calmed Rafe marvelously.

Ginzy’s last work, 1999’s “Death and Fame, ” was published a couple of years after he passed away in his Manhattan apartment at the age of 71. Among his later haikus:

In the half light of dawn
a few birds warble
under the Pleiades.

“A lyrical genius,” said friend and fellow writer Bob Dylan. “The single greatest influence on American poetical voice since Whitman.”

A lot to embrace.

Gorbachev was 71 when I met him. I was on assignment for Solares Hill and on a secret mission for a doctor in Key West.
The former Soviet president, perpetrator of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (transformation), Mikhail Sergevich Gorbachev had come to Miami to attend a Children’s World Blood Bank dinner at the Mandarin Oriental.

I drove up the Keys in a shimmer of expectation. I was to meet a man described by Tolstoy’s great-grandniece Tatyana as “a phenomenon not yet explained,” whose biographies in the press reminded her of “how a biologist, psychologist, lawyer or statistician might describe an angel.” This was the person who dared to euthanize Soviet communism and was ready to cut a deal with President Reagan that would eliminate all nuclear weapons from the globe (until the apparachiks on both sides put a stop to it).

That Iceland summit where Gorby discussed this deal with a fellow the radicals called Rayguns was what I wanted to talk to him about. The doctor in Key West was writing a paper on the incidence of mental disability in American presidents and proposed a competency test for presidential candidates. Sounded good to me. Not long after the Reykjavik summit, people in Washington openly began to wonder whether Reagan had recovered from his shooting. During the Iran-Contra hearings, Reagan kept saying he couldn’t remember and a lot of people, including Col. Oliver North who once told me so, realized he really couldn’t.

Is it possible that Planet Earth almost reached nuclear disarmament in 1985 because a blue-eyed optimist sat in the Soviet seat while, in the American saddle, sat a brylcreemed actor who’d reached the letter “z” in Alzheimer’s?

Let’s find out.

At my dinner table, which was one of 20 full tables in the ballroom, a lady asked if there were any questions for the guest of honor after dinner. “I wonder,” I said, “if you would ask whether President Gorbachev found President Reagan to have been non compos mentis in Iceland? Or not?”

“No, no, no,” she said. “Only about his work for the children’s blood bank, please.”

I figured that was it, so I settled in to enjoy Gorbachev unquestioningly. His speech was memorable though his voice was not, sounding like the grumble of tractors in mud. The translation by Pavel Palazhchenko, however, was resonant as the Bible and gave us time to ponder the map of New Zealand on Gorby’s brow, the oceanic blueness of his eyes, the translucence of his message: “Any attempt to dominate the world will not work. No country or group of countries alone can cope with what the world faces ... Politicians lag behind events, yet leaders are paid to govern! ... Children and mothers, that is where we need to act.”

Turning to my table, he announced he would show a short film about the summit in Iceland. Pay close attention, he said, a baffling plea to many but my hair stood on end.

The film showed Reagan making a speech, introducing the Soviet premier with a couple of words in Russian. In the film, Gorbachev looks at him and smiles. Reagan’s speech continues and, once again, there are those words in Russian. He closes his speech with the same line. Gorbachev looks over at Reagan once more but he isn’t smiling. “You always say that,” he says. Reagan’s face peers placidly into the middle distance. “You always say that.”

Obviously he’d been talking to a hollow man out there among the ice floes but it did not matter because Gorby was so focused on what did matter. “In real life,” he told the diners, “the most important thing is the birth of a human being.” Whatever might save a life from immolation would be worth it and, yes, the film clip revealed Ronnie to be much more spaced out than most of Gorby’s spaced-out L.A. friends (of whom he and his late wife Raisa had many; he still does).

It occurred to me over dinner that Gorbachev may have divined the very earliest discovery, earlier even than the invention of the wheel, that makes our lives possible. The idea of exchange — something of mine traded for something of yours — is what wheeled us furthest from the cave and life would be slavery and serfdom without it.

Though still debated, it’s my bet that Gorbachev offered peace in exchange for all of America’s nuclear weapons, on the proviso that Reagan offer him peace in exchange for all of Russia’s nuclear weapons.

Crazy. And both sides would win the Cold War!

Plus no more nukes, anywhere, ever.

“The uncontrollable fury of nuclear weapons should never be held in the hands of any mere mortal ever again, for any reason,” is what Gorbachev told the world.

The deal failed to happen but I could hug him for trying. I asked his Miami handler, Rachele Scholes, whether that might be arranged.

“It’ll never happen,” she said and so it was. But I did get to ask Gorbachev, in the lobby, if he was happy.

Ringed by people facing out, Gorbachev spoke his two-stroke tractor talk, the rumble made lovely by Pavel. “I’ve lived a dramatic life, walking the edge,” he was saying. “I have no regrets. It seemed like someone was leading me.”

Is it a happy thing to be an agent of change?

“That is a most difficult question,” he said, time running out, the group nudging him to the door. But Pavel kept pace. “I thought until recently there were no happy reformers,” went the traveling translation. “Now I conclude differently. We are all in the flow of history. Those who are against the flow are unable in any way to affect the flow, those who understand their times are the lucky ones who can catch the flow. The opportunity to live to one’s potential does not come to everyone. Today I am a happy man.”

I could just hug him.

But he was gone.


Sunday, September 9, 2007

‘Why Else Should I Live?’ - A review of the Scroll Version of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" by Mark Howell

He rolled it out across the floor and it looked like a road (the very opposite of square). His publisher dismissed it out of hand and sent him away. Fifty years later, that 120-foot scroll of “On the Road” sold for $2 million and the book itself has earned for Jack Kerouac’s estate $15 million and counting. Thanks to a good man called John Sampas, the brother of Jack’s widow and the copyright owner of his work, the scroll version of “On the Road” is now available as a hardcover book (not, regrettably, as a scroll ). The publisher, Viking, is the same company that put out the original bestselling book in 1957, all of six years after the scroll was completed and only after the manuscript had been “redrafted,” including the insertion of paragraphs, by the author and six editors and lawyers. This one-paragraph scroll version has been awaited by Kerouac readers all of their literary lives, and its final appearance in public is an event that raises live-or-let-die questions. We will get to them. But first, about the scroll itself, taped together from individual sheets of paper. Jack finished typing his book onto it in one draft accomplished in 20 days. Fueled largely by coffee, he wrote at the rate of 6,000 words a day, plus the 12,000 words on the first day and the 15,000 on the last day. He went through several T-shirts each day, hanging them up to dry in the apartment on Manhattan’s West 20th Street. The result is a single paragraph that is 120 feet long, all in the first person. I was daunted by this until I came to see it was the whole point, there was no other way to write what Jack had been struggling to say. The single paragraph is consciously done and the effect could not have been achieved otherwise. This is not stream-of-consciousness writing, these are not run-on sentences or experimental in any way, they are punctuated normally and the style is clear and deliberate. Yet I can think of no other book that set out to be popular and accessible and dared be written in a single paragraph. Kerouac’s great shot here is that life cannot be lived in paragraphs. Characters in novels live in paragraphs, but novels, as Kerouac’s friend John Clellon Holmes once said, are European things. Paragraphs come after the fact. Jack Kerouac’s memories are all new, all the time. Real life is more like a riff. The single paragraph means you can leave and re-enter at will, like going to the bathroom in a jazz club. You slip back in with no trouble. How is that possible? Because something huge is happening on every page, all-engrossingly and in the most intimate detail. Who are these people? What will happen to Helen? The solo riff is as a soft wall of sound placing all its actors on a level field of play. And it barrels right through chapter breaks: “I never dreamed I would see Neal again and that it would start all over again, the road, the whirlwind road, more than I ever in my wildest imaginings foresaw. BOOK TWO: It was a year and a half before I saw Neal again.” There’s another typesetting surprise on the very first page, in the very first line. It turns out to be a British joke; Sampas chose English novelist Howard Cunnell to edit the scroll edition — lucky bloke, he’ll be in print a hundred years. The opening line to the scroll has a misprint by Kerouac that Cunnell has let stand, although all the other (very few) misprints have been corrected. He did so, he says in a note on the text, “because it so beautifully suggests the sound of a car misfiring before starting up for a long journey.” The line reads: “I first met met Neal not long after my father died...” Did you catch the putt-putt? My wife Jan comments on how appropriate that is to the real Neal. In the originally published “On the Road,” the 1957 bestseller, the opening line went, famously: “I first met Neal not long after my wife and I split up,” which helped secure a certain readership, whereas the “after my father died” of the scroll is truer to Jack’s condition at the time. Once the father is dead, there is room for Neal. For Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, cocksman of Denver, became more than his lost brother Gerard, dead at 9, more even than the Dionysian side of Catholic Jack’s conflicted nature. “I was the only guy without a girl. ‘Where’s Neal?’ I asked everybody.” Neal was Jack’s paramour and their relationship outlasted their marriages. Neal was the “holy goof” whose driving skills, born of car thieving, would take them five or six times across the country and sailing down the mountain passes in neutral. “The madness of Neal had bloomed into a weird flower,” writes Jack. It was Neal, a talker but not a writer, who’d taught Jack how to get his writing right. “He leaned over my shoulder as I typed rapidly away and said ‘Come on man, those girls won’t wait, make it fast,’ and I said ‘Hold on just a minute, I’ll be right with you as soon as I finish this chapter,’ and I did and it was one of the best chapters in the whole book.” (That was “The Town and the City,” its style influenced by Thomas Wolfe; “On the Road” was Kerouac’s second book, wholly original.) In one of his earlier, stilted stabs at “On the Road,” Kerouac inserted the words “Dear God please help me I am lost” in the middle of a sentence. Then he received a letter from Neal, a first-person sexual confession, and thereafter he wrote by no other creed than “first thought best thought.” Jack had always had a supernatural ability to imitate in depth — he was forever lapsing into an English squire routine in bars in later life (in his early 40s, that is). He also found words that acted charismatically, saying more than their simplicity at first might suggest. “The gold of old in the inn within.” He had it in common with Hemingway, although Kerouac fans claim he is the more effective in getting to the lotus heart of things and casting a mood upon the reader. It could be afternoon sweet: “Someone in Denver saw [Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady] going down South Broadway; Neal was running and jumping to catch high leaves, Allen, according to the informant, ‘was making notes about it.’” Other times it could be dark. “Neal had a sweater wrapped around his ears to keep warm. He said we were a band of Arabs coming in to blow up New York.” (This was in 1951, everyone.) What Jack and Neal had in common were multi-planed imaginations. “It seemed I had a whole host of memories leading back to 1750 in England and that I was in San Francisco now only in another life and another body,” writes Jack in the scroll, going English again (Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, born in Lowell, Mass., was French-Canadian through and through). It is Neal’s patter that sets the pace of the book, Jack shambling after, “as I’ve been doing all my life after people that interest me.” It sets the style of the language as well. Now, says Neal, “‘we’re heading down to New Orleans to dig old Bill Burroughs and ain’t that going to be kicks and listen will you to this tenorman blow his top’ — he shot up the radio volume till the car shuddered — ‘and listen to him tell the story and put down true relaxation and knowledge.’” With girls there was another drift. “‘We won’t go into all these explanations — and I’ll tell you why... no listen, I’ll tell you why.’ And he told her why, and of course it made no sense.” So who are these people? In many ways they seem uncannily like us, who can zoom back and forth on the Interstate system. Their travels predate the Interstate system but they did intuit the payoff. “As we roll along this way,” goes on Neal, “I am positive beyond no doubt that everything will be taken care of for us.... We know America, we’re at home; I can go anywhere in America and get what I want because it’s the same in every corner, I know the people, I know what they do.” In other words, they are not GIs overseas, they are the almost-postwar generation that didn’t get to fight, a lost world in some ways — “the beatest characters in the country swarmed on the sidewalks” — but a prophetic one nevertheless; the range of rides that Kerouac hitches is a democratic vista taking in most post-war types, comically too. The book is hilarious. But when this unwritten story of the late 1940s was published in the mid-1950s, it was misunderstood. The delay, caused by publishing fears, sexual squeamishness and the desire to paragraph everything, meant that its vigorous boppers became confused by critics with the beret-wearing beatniks of the late 1950s. The drugs brought in by the soldiers, and the promiscuity of working girls with among a limited number of men, appealed to the young back in the late ’40s, with no war to face, only their own journeys, inner and outer. But they struck the straights of the Cold War era as not OK. The fact is that the kings of the beats (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs), let alone the queens (see Soundings this week), were Very Sensitive People. They got reputations for being delinquents because, well, they were that as well. Kerouac said it best in answer to critic Robert Brustein: “None of my characters ‘travel in packs’ or are a ‘juvenile gang’ ensemble or carry knives. I conceived ‘On the Road’ as a book about tenderness among the wild hell-raisers like your grandfather in 1880 when he was a youngster.” The original scroll version is a completely new and superior experience to the originally published “On the Road” most of all because it keeps the real names of all these rascals, just as Kerouac dreamed would one day happen in reprints of all of the 14 books of his Duluoz Legend in which pseudonyms were used because of lawyers (Duluoz was a pseudonym for Kerouac; Neal was usually Cody or Dean). It’s a treat hearing real news about real people. Al Hinkle, for example, who is Ed Dunkel in the name-changed edition, is here characterized as a fellow “who had married a girl for gas fare.” That girl, Helen Hinkle, is called in the scroll “a tenacious loser.” These are “first thought best thought” characterizations that are undoubtedly correct yet still unsayable until now. Helen died in 1995, a friend of Neal’s wife Carolyn Cassady ever since she and Al went on the road with the boys in ’48; I have a picture of her at home. I have a picture of Al taken in 2006, still not caring what anybody says about him. Joan Burroughs, depicted in the scroll as a radiant benzedrine hag, was accidentally shot to death by hubby Bill just six months after Kerouac finished typing it, so no libel there. One scene cut altogether from the bestselling version is a laugh-out-loud libel of Alan Harrington and his family (Harrington would one day come to write a book called “Psychopaths” that included Neal Cassady). The Bostonian Harringtons are living in New Mexico when visited by Jack and Neal and Neal’s girl Louanne. Things soon unravel. “Once,” writes Kerouac, “I looked out the picture window and saw Alan Harrington galloping by on a horse with a shot of whisky in his hand.” A scene follows in which Neal goes after the maid, then after the wife of a neighbor, John. “When Neal vanished with the pretty wife and John went upstairs with Louanne,” writes Jack, “I was beginning to get scared things would explode before we had time to eat, so I ladled out some chili with the maid’s permission and ate standing up. I began to hear arguments and crashing glass upstairs....” That’s three laughs in one sentence: “Things would explode;” “before we had time to eat;” and “with the maid’s permission.” Kerouac and his friends finally say goodbye. “‘It certainly was pleasant,’ said Harrington looking away.” It was sad, said Jack, to see his tall figure receding in the dark as they drove off, “just as other figures in New York and New Orleans: they stand uncertainly underneath immense skies and everything about them is drowned. Where to go? what to do? what for? — sleep.” The Harrington scene seems newly minted today, a full 50 years after its emwombment (Cunnell’s word). So, would the scroll version now published have been the hit that the paragraphed version of “On the Road” turned out to be in 1957? All I know, and I was in publishing for years, is that young readers in Key West, if they could have picked up a paperback copy of this version the year after it was written, in 1952, would have delighted all the sooner in the important glory of its language: “So the stars shine warm in the Gulf of Mexico at night. From the soft and thunderous Carib comes electricity, and from the Continental Divide where rain and rivers are decided come swirls, and the little raindrop that in Dakota fell and gathered mud and roses rises resurrected from the sea and flies on back to go and bloom again in waving mells of the Mississippi’s bed, and lives again." It is Christmas every day when I read Kerouac, that’s Christmas as in holy. When I say his writing puts me in Paradise I mean it literally, in the blasphemous sense (Sal Paradise was Kerouac’s pseudonym in the 1957 edition). “I have thrown up the threads/ and hit the streets of God,” wrote Kerouac in a notebook from the scroll period, “and though he is mad at me/ I am seeing what I will never see again.” They said he couldn’t write, but the scroll edition proves otherwise. Now a new generation may appreciate how hard it is to write in a natural language. Much harder than the unnatural and ornate way, the usual way out for easy liars. No other writer actually writes like Jack Kerouac, any more than anyone paints like Jackson Pollock or plays like Charlie Parker (although, in their time, it was always said a chimpanzee could do it). The reason nobody can copy him is that Kerouac was not, ever, trying to be anybody other than himself writing. His work is the spontaneously overlapping memoir not only of his actions and thoughts but of his image, a subject seen in the readers’ eyes (and in the author’s fantasy) as “strange and ragged and like the Prophet that has walked across the land to bring the dark Word, and the only word I had was Wow.” Those of us always trying to be Kerouac are, of course, trying to be someone other than ourselves. Kerouac’s authenticity is what make his life worth riffing repeatedly over a raft of books that we never wrote. Kerouac's life illuminates our own, with the added jjoy that in his life he delivered, completing before he died from the consequences of a hemorrhage on the john a legend of one man’s life in print. (He followed the scroll version with a reworking of the same story in greater depth, calling it “Visions of Neal,” which was published after his death as “Visions of Cody”). The legend is now officially complete with Viking’s publication of “On the Road: The Original Scroll,” which will probably join the 1957 “On the Road” as a book that’s kept behind the cash register; it remains the most-stolen book from stores. And there is still so much to enjoy in Kerouac. A single day could bring him, he wrote, from “rickety Mexican trucks to announcing a radio show ...Why else should I live?” It’s in the scroll version, more than in the edited version, that Jack lets himself act the doofus, just as Shakespeare did with his folderol and James Joyce, too, with all his knicker-talk. The silliest thing about the scroll, however, is that the dog ate the end of it. A handwritten note at the bottom indicates that a dog called Potchky had eaten the last few feet. The dog belonged to Lucien Carr, a dashing but shy beat icon, only recently deceased (his son is novelist Caleb Carr), who worked at United Press and gave Kerouac the scrolls of newsprint he used for later writing such as “The Dharma Bums.” What the dog ate — the last line of the extant scroll is: “and it does not pause for a minute” — Cunnell replaces with the last words of the very next draft that Kerouac wrote of “On the Road,” including the immortal last words, that echo of a trinity of longing when all the criss-crossing of the country has come to an end: “...and in Iowa I know by now the evening-star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks in the west and folds the last and final shore in, and nobody, just nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Neal Cassady, I even think of Old Neal Cassady the father we never found, I think of Neal Cassady, I think of Neal Cassady.” End of paragraph.