Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Beatnik Birthday

2009 marks the 52nd anniversary of the release of Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

I was 15 years old when I first read On the Road. It was a lightning bolt, if not a divining rod. Kerouac was the first writer that made me aware of sentence structure, narrative technique and word usage. Some people get that from Melville, I got it from Jack Kerouac. While his technique is often described as formless, even the most casual examination of his writing illuminates a careful word selection that made reading him such an enriching experience. Like Poe or Shelley, there is a specific meter to his sentences that holds the promise of epic poetry within the confines of (then) modern life. If his material was escapist, his approach was erudite.

I grew up about twenty minutes away from Lowell, where Jack Kerouac was born. My aunt lived there, and so did my orthodontist, so I spent a lot of time in Lowell. A few years after I first read Jack's most famous novel, his hometown erected a monument in his honor and dedicated a town square to the beat movement he helped launch. By being just ahead of the popular curve my timing had seemed impeccable. (It is a coincidence I've been fortunate enough to repeat with some regularity throughout the years, whereby my interests, obsessions and overall fascinations are mirrored by the mass public after a brief passage of time. I should have developed an interest in lottery numbers, I guess.) I attended the dedication ceremony, and I probably still have the North Shore Sunday News that ran the cover story. I spent literally hundreds of hours searching through microfilm at the public library, amassing an incredible collection of clippings, articles and ephemera about the beat generation and the writers who cataloged it. I bought records from bands named after the books I'd been reading like Dharma Bums and Naked Lunch, and by the time I'd read Jim Carroll's confessional memoirs, I realized that cough syrup must have been a rite of passage for teenage juvenile delinquents everywhere.

I moved away from Lynn when I was 19.

I crashed my car in the snow about a month after my birthday, and dedicated all of my efforts toward moving to California before I turned 20. I had pretty much blown off college and decided that music was a good enough reason as any to make it out to Los Angeles. I knew it was foolhardy, and I didn't care. I rented a U-Haul trailer, and drove with a friend in his Mercury leadsled across the country on our very own road adventure. I had summoned a little Dean Moriarty from within myself, and chosen the road. It's somewhat incredible that things have worked out fairly well, almost 20 years later. It's also nearly inconceivable how little I identify now with that teenage kid and his pulp novel hero. The desire to not conform to anything, to live recklessly and travel aimlessly seems like a quaint recollection rather than a philosophical epitome.

I recently re-read the book. It had such a dramatic effect on my life as a young man, but over the years I had come to resent it. I hated the people I saw reading it in coffee shops. I loathed the fashion beatniks with their late edition Burroughs reprints and wanted nothing to do with them. I found out that Kerouac held a monumental contempt for the trend hoppers that had bought his books originally, and it's evident throughout his book Big Sur that he wanted to be left alone to shoulder none of the responsibility that society had heaved upon him. He would've hated me, too.

As I closed the back cover of On the Road for the first time in 20 years, I saw as an adult the sadness in Dean Moriarty that I had chosen not to see as an adolescent. As I read the last words of Sal Paradise's narration, I realized that Dean is that dangerous mix of passionate exploration and lack of self accountability that characterizes each of us at various stages of our lives. That bundle of frustration that leads some to inspiration and others to introspection. And after careful consideration, I'm just happy that I confronted that part of myself as a young man, and not as an adult.

copyright, © 2009 Panik