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.

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