Justin Nobel travels to France to explore the setting for Jack Kerouac’s second-to-last novel, Satori in Paris (1966), an autobiographical work about the Beat writer’s search for a town in Brittany that bore his family’s name. In one scene, drunkenly arriving at an airport, Kerouac realizes the next available flight is to Florida – a destination Nobel sees as an emblem of the the great writer’s decline:
Florida? That doesn’t sound like a Kerouac sort of place. But at the time he was living in a small house in Orlando with his mother. And so there it is, the mighty Kerouac traveled to France to find his roots, drank himself into a series of stupors and rushed home to read the comics. You begin feeling bad for Kerouac. The boozy womanizing thing can only go so far. Youth lets a writer flick off the world, and sometimes it even makes for exceptional writing, but you get just one On the Road. After that there are two options, stop writing and disappear, a la Rimbaud, letting your work stand as a pure but narrow tongue of fire, or progress along with your ideas. I’m not sure Kerouac ever did.
I still call On the Road the most important book I’ve ever read. It showed me that you don’t have to live the life set out for you, that you can juke and waver, making the rules up as you go along. But looking back now I see how much Kerouac actually missed in life. The spontaneous prose that moved the country may really just have resulted from his inability to think through his own thoughts. Kerouac invented a style that ensured he would never have to face his weaknesses as a writer. And in that we see an odd sort of irony: the man who lived more freely than anyone had barricaded his own mind.
Update from a reader:
I swear, every time I read someone saying that On the Road is Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose” and he never did anything else as good, I just remind myself that this is how the canon works. People like Justin Nobel read On the Road, and don’t know enough of the details, but figure that going on their own road trip to “find” Kerouac is somehow deep. But then they write things that show they don’t know their Kerouac from their elbow.
Nobel is surprised to find Kerouac was a raging alcoholic as late as 1966? He was one in the 1940s. Surprised that Kerouac seemed like “an over-the-hill frat boy”? He was a fading frat boy, had been since getting kicked out of Columbia. Kerouac was a goddamn scholarship football player. He was always a frat boy, just one tortured by his own sexuality (probably at least bi, maybe very deeply closeted gay, which would explain the many failed heterosexual relationships and perhaps even the alcoholism and mother-fixation (sorry, that’s a 40’s/50’s Freudian read on gayness: but that’s what Kerouac would have been steeped in. . . )) and booze. Kerouac’s last publication? An essay in the Chicago Tribune in support of the Vietnam War, decrying hippies. Yet writer after writer confuses the media image with the man, and, even worse, On the Road with his whole oeuvre.
On the Road is not his finest aesthetic achievement by a longshot. Either The Subterraneans or Doctor Sax, both novels written after he finished “the road book” and before On the Road was edited half to death and finally released by Viking only AFTER Howl and other events made the Beats potentially marketable, are better examples of what’s truly revolutionary about his prose.
But everyone stops with On the Road, is surprised when Kerouac’s biography doesn’t live up to the myth of the media image of his life. And laments. Read The Subterraneans. Read Doctor Sax. Read the poetry. That’s where Kerouac matters.
(Photo: American Beat writer Jack Kerouac (1922 – 1969) leans closer to a radio to hear himself on a broadcast, 1959. By John Cohen/Getty Images)