Retracing the Road

People do this a lot, right? There are certainly enough Jack Kerouac fans out there, and the whole point of On the Road was to inspire readers to take their own trips. But I can’t recall anybody doing what Rev. Angus Stuart, an Anglican priest living in Vancouver, has planned—starting next Monday he and a friend will retrace the trip that the second part of Kerouac’s novel covers (inspired by the trip that Kerouac and Neal Cassady took 40 years ago). They’ll start in Lowell, Mass. to pay tribute to the author before officially kicking off the trip in New York. He’s set up a blog to cover the journey, and he explains to the Vancouver Sun that he doesn’t see a disconnect between a man of the cloth undertaking a journey modeled after one full of cursing, carousing, and so forth:

“The immorality of the book? That was just the backdrop,” [Stuart says…. “On another level, and this has become more apparent to me as I’ve reread it, it’s a parable of life.”

To Stuart, the parable can be many things — that one must strive to “suck out all the marrow of life,” as Stuart said, quoting Thoreau; that the path of excess, he said, quoting William Blake, leads to wisdom; that life is a gift not to be squandered; that you may find your home by leaving it. Whatever it is, what is important is the going.

1958: A Pretty Good Year

Gregory McNamee, writing at the Britannica Blog, notes that this year marks the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac‘s novel The Dharma Bums. That factoid, combined with the news that the book shares an anniversary with with Breakfast at Tiffany’s, prompted me to see what other novels came out in 1958. Among the notables: Our Man in Havana, The Leopard, Dr. No, and Candy were all published that year. So was Kerouac’s The Subterraneans, not the writer’s finest hour but the book of his that I have the most affection for.

McNamee’s brief case for the worth of The Dharma Bums ends with a brief video taken from a marathon reading from the book in Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell, Mass., in October—part of the town’s annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festival.

Beats: An Accounting

The Brits have funny ideas about American culture if they think that Smokey and the Bandit is somehow part of the Beat legacy. (Hey, why not RV, then? Kenny Rogers’ Six Pack?) But I appreciate the London Times asking—in the wake of the universally scathing reviews of the Jack Kerouac-William S. Burroughs collaboration, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tankswhat useful legacy the Beats actually have. Not much, on the evidence presented here, though the story is pretty fluffy. Still, it gets at a couple of the relevant issues about the Beat influence on American literature and culture, and calls out what is indeed one of the worst Beat lines: Kerouac’s “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”

The Independent recently ran a more substantive piece about the genesis of the Kerouac-Burroughs collaboration and its final publication. Which leads me to ask: Are the Brits the only people who care about the Beat legacy anymore?

Links: International Anthem

Roberto Bolaño‘s 2666 may be the Great American Novel.” Well, can’t blame a critic for trying.

In related news, on Sunday National Book Award chief Harold Augenbraum will appear on WordSmitten, where, if the rhetoric of the accompanying press release is to be trusted, he will all but strap on the brass knuckles and set to pummeling Horace Engdahl live on air. Actually, looks like he will arrive brandishing…a reading list.

Speaking of which: A recommended reading list for Barack Obama includes a pair of novels—David Lozell Martin‘s Our American King and Norman Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam?—as well as Tobias Wolff‘s In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War.

Toni Morrison responds to John Updike‘s review of A Mercy: “‘He says I like starting stories smack in the middle of things and you don’t know what’s going on,’ she says softly, a smile on her lips and a spark in her eye. ‘I was laughing at that because I thought, all stories start in the middle of things!'”

One of the more entertaining sections of William Least Heat-Moon‘s new book, Roads to Quoz, is a defense of the Beats framed around his visit with Jim Canary, the caretaker of the scroll version of Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road. “Sometimes I wish he would have written on sheets, but then I wouldn’t have had this job,” Canary tells the Loyola University Phoenix.

Links: Curse Words

Dennis Lehane on just how easy it is to spend five years writing a historical epic: “How the fuck am I gonna finish this? What did I get myself into? This is going to be the one everyone figures out I’m full of shit.”

The publication date for Curtis Sittenfeld‘s American Wife in the U.K. has been moved up from Feb. 2009 to, uh, yesterday.

Jack Kerouac‘s early days as a football prospect and wannabe sportswriter.

Writing in Prospect, Julian Gough finds a way to whack David Foster Wallace and George Saunders simultaneously. The complaint—which you may have heard recently—is that a writer’s ambition and creativity gets stifled when he or she is planted in academia. Bring it, Julian:

[I]t happens to most American academic novelists (like the superbly gifted writer George Saunders who, at 49, has still never written a novel or left school.) They waste time on America’s debased, overwhelming, industrial pop culture. They attack it with an energy appropriate to attacking fascism, or communism, or death. But that culture (bad television, movies, ads, pop songs) is a snivelling, ingratiating, billion-dollar cur. It has to be chosen to be consumed, so it flashes its tits, laughs at your jokes, replays your prejudices and smiles smiles smiles. It isn’t worthy of satire, because it cannot use force to oppress. If it has an off-button, it is not oppression. Attacking it is unworthy, meaningless. It is like beating up prostitutes.

The End of the Road

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, 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.

Coming Soon: Kerouac/Burroughs Collaboration You Won’t Want to Read

The Telegraph notes that in November, Penguin will publish And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a book that Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs wrote in 1945. It’s never been published, but nobody seems particularly enthusiastic about it seeing the light of day, though:

Gerald Nicosia, who wrote Memory Babe, the widely recognised definitive biography of Kerouac, said the pair would find it funny such a juvenile work was seeing the light of day.

“This was one of the first books they wrote… it’s probably pretty bad. But I’m not surprised it is being published now because it’s a sure-fire way of making money,” he said.