On the Road Again
Updated: Mar 8, 2022
Jack Kerouac will turn 100 on Saturday, March 12. Ulysses, from which Kerouac borrowed his hit-the-road Jack, stream-of-consciousness technique, was published in its entirety for the first time on Feb. 2, 1922, James Joyce’s 40th birthday.
“I can tell you now as I look back on the flood of language,” Kerouac wrote immodestly in a letter to Allen Ginsberg, describing his seminal novel On the Road, “it is like Ulysses and should be treated with the same gravity.”
That was setting the bar impossibly high, but there are moments that aspire to the sublime in the dizzying roman à clef that launched a million acolytic trips (of the road and drug variety):
“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn't know who I was — I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I'd never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn't know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn't scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”
Ulysses is a far greater work of art than the combined outpourings of all the Beats together, but Truman Capote was snarkily deluded when he famously dismissed Kerouac's spontaneous prose as typing rather than writing.
Breakfast at Tiffany's didn't help mold Dylan, the Beatles, the Doors and the people the Baby Boomers became. The Beat Generation authors did.
John Leland has it about right, I think, in his book Why Kerouac Matters: the Lessons of On the Road (They're Not What You Think): "We're no longer shocked by the sex and drugs. The slang is passé and at times corny. Some of the racial sentimentality is appalling," but ... "the tale of passionate friendship and the search for revelation are timeless. These are as elusive and precious in our time as in [Kerouac's], and will be when our grandchildren celebrate the book's hundredth anniversary."
That'll be in 2057. We lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.
Bonne fête, Ti-Jean. You egomaniacal, self-loathing, melancholy, angel-headed prose hipster, terrible husband, lousy father, devoted mama’s boy, good Catholic, lapsed Buddhist, bisexual misogynist, loathsomely anti-Semitic, fervently anticommunist, Joseph McCarthy loving, Vietnam War supporting, reactionary, hippie-hating, dope-smoking, Margarita-swilling, jazz-intoxicated co-founder of a Countercultural Revolution you detested.
"Think you're escaping and run into yourself," Joyce had warned. "Longest way round is the shortest way home."
May the fabulous yellow roman candles on your centenary cake burn, burn, burn and explode like spiders across the stars.
Bonus track: Here's a fascinating Rad-Can interview conducted two years before the by then sodden-witted author finished drinking himself to death at 47 in 1969: