Jack Kerouac Day was a couple of days ago. You missed it, probably. I know I did, and I happened to have Kerouac on the brain lately. A week ago I was at the New York Public Library to see its exhibit Jack Kerouac: Beatific Soul (n.b. to NYC readers: It closes tomorrow). It’s . . . OK. There’s a facsimile of the scroll on which he wrote a draft of On the Road, some Allen Ginsberg photos, some scribblings about religion, some movie posters, cards and notes for an amazingly intricate fantasy-baseball game he came up with as a kid. (Something Paul Auster also got into, as he details in his excellent memoir, Hand to Mouth.) But though I still remember the electric charge I got out of reading The Subterraneans when I was in high school, I have the feeling that picking it up again would only be a letdown.
I’m not alone in feeling so conflicted about Kerouac: Bill Peters, writing at masslive.com, pays tribute to the ambivalence that Kerouac inspires, the way his books can make you feel like the whole world’s burst wide open when you’re 15 but just feels gassy and meandering when you get older:
And Jack Kerouac – like Charles Bukowski and Jim Carroll – is a writer who you grow up with, want to imitate, and eventually rebel against in a way that seems mature at the time but, in hindsight, is actually kind of childish. Jonathan Lethem wrote an article in the New Yorker a while ago that sort-of addressed this: when you realize, at age 19, that your favorite writer isn’t perfect, their entire body of work feels like a travesty. You take it personally.