By Darran Anderson
Every life has a trajectory. Thanks to the autobiographical nature of most of his writing (forming his grand Proustian Duluoz legend saga), Jack Kerouac’s life and work are more plottable than most. There’s the tumultuous arrhythmia of his early years (the Times Square dives, the sailor’s life, the killing of David Kammerer), before his stratospheric ascent with On The Road, levelling out with The Dharma Bums and co, followed by the air-pocket of breakdown and Big Sur and then the steady descent into sourness, conservatism and untimely ruin. Whilst the generation that followed him were still (barely) forging the hippie dream, Kerouac was on his hands and knees, a washed up drunk and embittered patriot, puking blood in front of The Galloping Gourmet. You read On The Road when you were a kid and you feel boundless anticipation for what is out there; when you read it now, older, you see the spiral already beginning and it’s no longer the highways or panoramas that stay with you but the image of him at the end, feverish, holed up and abandoned in Mexico. This, for all the books and Levis and copies of the Lonely Planet it helped to sell, is where the road ultimately lead him.
So where does Beat Generation fit on the graph? Rediscovered, after years presumed vanished, in a New Jersey warehouse, the play seems a tantalising find, a hipster holy grail. Aided by a fine introduction by A.M. Homes, a stylish Oneworld Classics sleeve and an insightful overview of Kerouac’s life and work, it promises much. In the deliverance, sadly it stumbles. Sure it’s got the quickfire bebop dialogue you associate with his early work, the fluid literary-John Coltrane riffs, the thinly fictionalised camaraderie of the Beat group (Ginsberg, Cassady, Corso etc). It’s a slice of wisecracking, literate working class America, on the cusp of exploding overground, taking in the Zen and the deadbeat, Dante and betting slips.
The play’s premise of a bunch of friends sitting around shooting the shit is precisely that and little more. It shows the clumsy charm of stoner juvenilia but comes across too often as a mish-mash; full of dopey dream-talk and ramblings: “Don’t you wanta be a giant cloud, that’s all I am, a giant cloud, leaning on its side, all vapours, yeah.”
A master of Benzedrine-fuelled stream of conscious reminiscence, Kerouac lacks the authority and nuances for the theatrical, evident with the awkward introduction of the characters on the very first page, “Here I am sitting in Julius Chauncey’s kitchen in a clear cool morning in October 1955…”
On script what seems stilted could well come alive when performed but it seems unlikely given the lack of a definable plot or any real attachment to the characters. Even the promise of the much-alluded-to Bishop character fades with his lacklustre entrance. Kerouac virgins chancing upon this would likely shrug their shoulders and say what’s all the fuss? The cod-philosophy and hepcat talk further date the piece as if it were, which in a sense it was, cryogenically frozen in the Fifties.
That’s not to say it’s a poor work, far from it. Even in its failings it is a worthy historical document and an enticing snapshot of the pathology of its writer especially in the references to Catholic mysticism that foretell his later years, some stranded godforsaken saint in a Florida hermitage. It seems Kerouac prophesised and embodied not only the best of the coming generation (rebellion, yearning for adventure, a lust for life) but also the worst; the muddled soundbites, the aimless good intentions but lack of action, the cultural tourism towards the mystical East, the psychobabble and “astral bodies” type ramblings, the sidelining of women while preaching the fraternity of man. It’s all there and it is fascinating.
Perhaps the problem is nothing more than the weight of expectation. Saddled with a title like Beat Generation, it doesn’t stand a chance of living up to what you want it to be, that pining desire for it to be some definitive statement, an example that the magic contained in a lost work may not survive its discovery. It seems Kerouac and Burroughs early unpublished book And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (named after a line uttered by a tearful radio newsreader describing a fire at St Louis zoo) may hold out the hope of one day providing a holy grail. Who knows? What is clear is that Beat Generation will add to the endlessly-interesting legend, provide insight to the group dynamics of a literary movement and keep the ghost burning in a hundred thousand minds. Those already in thrall will devour it, those not yet should start elsewhere. For what he did at his best (On The Road, The Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels, Tristessa), for pointing out the world to us beyond the council estates, the suburbs and the city limits, for the sheer magical flow of his words and experiences, he deserves every moment of remembrance. This may be a slight inessential work but it is still a fragment of the man in all his flawed essential glory.
Beat Generation by Jack Kerouac
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Darran Anderson is co-editor of Dogmatika and editor of the Laika Poetry Review.