Off the Road

Life is too short for crappy books. I’ve tried to impress that notion on friends, acquaintances and co-workers who would tell me that they were reading [x] but not enjoying it. Now, I don’t mean that a good book is one that panders, just that a reader should have some degree of joy or curiosity about a book.

A few years back, one of my co-workers told me he was struggling with Infinite Jest. I asked him if he felt he was getting something out of it. I knew he was very into tennis, and thought that aspect of the book would at least have captured his interest. “Not really,” he told me. “I’m 400 pages in and bored shitless. I get the corporate sponsorship joke, and that addicts have tough lives, but does this get any better?”

“Depends on what you mean by better.”

“Do you ever find out what’s on the videotape that amuses people to death?”

“. . . No. Infinite Jest is actually a thousand-page novel about boredom. That’s the joke.” In my opinion.

He put it down and went on to something else.

Which brings me to On the Road.

I first tried to read Kerouac’s novel in the summer of 1991. I was staying at a college pal’s family’s farmhouse in Athol, MA, and there was a limited selection of books at hand, one of which was an old mass market paperback of On the Road. Back at Hampshire, it was praised by plenty of people I didn’t like and whose taste I didn’t trust, but I thought I’d give it a shot.

The characters, I recall, didn’t demonstrate much character and the writing itself was plain and uncompelling. Thirty-five pages in, I was bored shitless and put the book aside. Instead I read Gaiman & Pratchett’s Good Omens, which I picked up on a visit to my girlfriend in Worcester.

Twenty years later, I found myself willing to try Kerouac again. At a book party in February, I met the writer Fred Kaplan and his wife, writer and NPR/WNYC host Brooke Gladstone. I’d enjoyed Mr. Kaplan’s writing on Slate for years now (mainly covering the Defense Dept. beat), and mentioned that to him. He told me a little about the book he’s working on and, two G&Ts into the evening, I decided ot tell him that I had yet to read his book, 1959: The Year Everything Changed.

I know authors don’t like to hear about how people haven’t read their books, but I told him that I’d been interested in the book for a while and promised to get it for my Kindle the next day. He was amiable about it. Certainly moreso than Greill Marcus, who once lectured me about the content of Lipstick Traces after I told him that I had only read about 100 pages of it.

Anyway, I did download 1959 from Amazon and read it over the next week. Weirdly, the Kindle format of 1959 puts an extra line-break after every paragraph, so the entire work looks like it’s composed of aphorisms. I enjoyed it, although it didn’t have the voice that I find in nonfiction work by, say, Clive James or Ron Rosenbaum, whose book party we were attending that evening. (Speaking of which, buy Ron’s new book! It’s the bomb! Also, he owes me money!) Still, I found it pretty informative, the thesis largely holds up, and Kaplan’s love of jazz shows up strongly in his chapters on Miles Davis (Kind of Blue), Dave Brubeck (Time Out) and Ornette Coleman (Shape of Jazz to Come).

The sections on Allen Ginsberg and the obscenity case for Howl (tried pre-1959, but setting a precedent that would enable that year’s rulings to overturn federal obscenity laws) made me curious again about Keroac and On the Road. I thought, “It’s been 20 years since I tried it. Maybe it was the mass market paperback’s typesetting. Maybe it was my philistinism. Maybe it’s one of those works that will resonate for me now, one of those books you grow into. Maybe its time-capsule distance from me will prove of interest.”

I bought it for my Kindle, and gave it another shot. This time, I made it a quarter of the way through before surrendering.

I was expecting some sort of lyricism that would show Kerouac’s aesthetic competition with Ginsberg, or a benzedrine-fueled madness that reflected Burroughs’ influence on him, or maybe some of the sheer poetic-mystic beauty of the idler’s life that Henry Miller was so good at in Tropic of Cancer, which I thought was the obvious precursor for On the Road.

Instead, I still found the events uninteresting, the language flat, the characters (still) not having have much by way of character, and no serious observations about America or its crippled, postwar ideals. I’m still incredulous that this book was a monster hit for half a century. I know the Eisenhower years were boring, but was this really such a great alternative?

So I acknowledged that slogging along through a book I didn’t like was reinforcing the crap mood I’ve been in lately, and yesterday I picked up Arcadia, the Tom Stoppard play that I’m seeing this week on Broadway (provided there are no safety violations in the big finale with the multiple Septimus Hodges getting launched by catapult over the audience). According to The List That Knows More Than I Do, it’ll be the fifth time I’ve read Arcadia, but the language is so gorgeous, the ideas so artfully integrated into the stories, the plot and staging so ingenious, that I don’t mind returning to that well.

Moral: go back to the first sentence of this post.

4 Replies to “Off the Road”

  1. I could never read On The Road, either. I felt you could have significantly reduced its word count by taking out every use of “big”, “beautiful” and “crazy”. Seriously, if everything is described as being big, beautiful and/or crazy, nothing is really – it’s a writer jerking off on his own mental state rather than talking about the external world.

  2. Well, I think you are absolutely correct to locate much of Kerouac’s inspiration in Henry Miller & Tropic of Cancer (he even tried calling Miller from Big Sur–long after Miller had left the place).

    BIG SUR, by the way, is AWFUL. I tried for the 3rd & final time to read it last month. It’s just terribly written. TRISTESSA is a very bad novel–I don’t remember a single character or scene from it, not even the Mexican prostitute it was written about.

    I read ON THE ROAD twice, the last time in college more than two decades ago. I picked it up to read over the passages I like–and they are just not very good. Amateurish in the main. Heaping words onto the topic not to find a way to map it out, but hoping more it seems to hit on something by accident that works (“automatic writing” is a complete cop out & was nonsense; Kerouac made plenty of revisions to his mss.).

    I have to admit, as a Kerouac fan, I had meant to defend him, but I was pretty disappointed looking at ON THE ROAD AGAIN.

    It’s a shame colleges will go on teaching this stuff because of the cultural shockwaves it accompanied (or that accompanied it) because on an aesthetic level, it fails.

    That said, if you want to try a decent Kerouac novel, his best is DESOLATION ANGELS. After all thi time, I can’t say how good it is, but it was always head and shoulders above OTR. And his absolute BEST writing is in the first 170 pages or so of VISIONS OF CODY. I’ve read that within the decade, and there is some very fine writing in there, but the book is ruined beyoond hope by some 200 pages of a taped dialogue between Jack and Neal. I’ve never gotten through that nor have I ever managed to finish the book even after skipping the crap conversation.

    And you are righ: Life is too short for crappy books. Try HAUSSMANN (OR THE DISTINCTION) by Paul Lafarge. Quite beautifully written, really musical. And not too long.

  3. I read it in high school, and it moved me to go on the road myself, and I spent four years between the ages of 17 and 21 hitchhiking and riding freights around these here United States. I read most of Kerouac’s oeuvre in these years, and started his first novel (which he wrote when he was in thrall of Thomas Wolfe) when at the end of this run. Alas, the apple harvest I was working ended, and I had to return the book to the local library and get back on the road. I remembered that it moved me, and resolved to pick it up again when fate afforded me an opportunity.
    I picked it up again a couple of years ago and was simply appalled. The prose is the deepest shade of purple, the characterizations treacly, and the setting contrived and grossly sentimental.
    Good job giving it the old college try, though.

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