Truman Capote famously trashed Jack Kerouac’s On the Road with the words: ‘That’s not writing. That’s typing.’ All I can say is, Capote must have been in an uncharacteristically charitable mood that day, because it’s not typing. It’s projectile vomiting.
‘Spontaneous prose’ Kerouac called it. Pretentiously.
'Kerouac typed rapidly on a continuous scroll of telegraph-paper to avoid having to break his chain of thought at the end of each sheet of paper. Kerouac's dictum was that "the first thought is the best thought", and he insisted that you should never revise a text after it is written.'
Wow. That's some seriously misguided egomania right there.
Now there were two things, it seems, that we can blame for spontaneous prose. The first was jazz. Not good jazz, however, but the interminably cacophonous crazy jazz that’s basically an improvised orgy of musical masturbation that you always have to turn down when it comes on the radio because you can’t hear yourself think. Kerouac loved jazz. (And he loved the spirited Negroes that made it!).
The second thing was Kerouac’s friend, Neal Cassady, portrayed in On the Road as Dean Moriarty.
Dean Moriarty is the driving force in On the Road, and the subject of the besotted narrator’s haphazard hagiography.
An odd character to idolise, Moriarty is, amongst other things, a thief, a woman-beater, a practising paedophile, an inveterate bullshitter and a ghastly, unreliable drunk. Worse than all of that, however, at least from the point of view of the beleaguered reader, Dean Moriarty is a monumental bore, obsessed with his own intellect and labouring under the embarrassing misapprehension that each and every one of his rather mundane thoughts and observations is intrinsically interesting.
What really fascinates and arouses Kerouac’s alter ego, Sal Paradise – barf – is Moriarty’s spirit. You see, Dean Moriarty is free. Like the Negroes and the Mexicans and the crippled boys and beggars, like the raw-living big-laughing yokels uncorrupted by affluence, Moriarty has soul and spirit and he lives pure and fast and beyond conventional morality. He does what he pleases. And he doesn’t stop talking and he doesn’t stop moving. He never stops. He is the patron saint of ego-propelled perpetual motion.
I get the impression that in 1957, this was all very interesting.
But I can’t really imagine it. I mean, I can't imagine what it must have been like to have been shocked by the ground-breaking innovation of this book. I suppose too much time has passed. Or else I don't have enough imagination. However, the book is not without its shocking aspects. The paucity of plot, for example, is horrifying. As is the piss-poor characterisation, the leadenness of the imagery, the humour bypass and the more general, all-pervasive joylessness.
They blather on, Kerouac's deadbeats, about their fascination with life, yet they seem utterly incapable of really enjoying it. And why do they have to be so earnest and pretentious and unassailably self-important? I think I’ve met people like Kerouac before. They’re the same people who refer to themselves as ‘artists’ far too readily and rarely, if ever, have the heart to laugh at themselves.
But maybe I’m missing the point. Maybe the book was important because, as Kenneth Rexroth suggested at the time, Kerouac demonstrated to the world – perhaps even unwittingly – that his generation of self-obsessed delinquents were in fact a pack of worthless hypocritical vermin. That’s not a quote. This is a quote:
‘These innocents dash madly back and forth across the country, but they aren’t even very good at hitchhiking … Their values are those of the most conformist members of the middle class they despise, but enormously hypertrophied. They are demoralized and unsuccessful little Babbitts. This novel should demonstrate once and for all that the hipster is the furious square.’
Rexroth also wrote, of Kerouac’s follow-up novel The Subterraneans:
‘The story is all about jazz and Negroes. Now there are two things Jack knows nothing about – jazz and Negroes. His idea of jazz is that it is savage drums and screaming horns around the jungle fire while the missionary soup comes to boil … As a natural concomitant, Kerouac’s attitude toward Negroes is what, in jazz circles, we call Crow-Jimism, racism in reverse.’
Yes! That is so true. In your face, Kerouac! Rexroth is a great writer. You know just from reading a couple of his sentences that he didn't stick with the first thing that came into his head. To be fair, however – if I must – Rexroth also wrote this in his review of On the Road:
‘This is a book you should read. You are humane. You read good novels. This is the price in dehumanization society pays for your humanity. Kenneth Patchen has told people this in many books for many years, Henry Miller, too, Céline and Allen Ginsberg, whom the San Francisco police don’t like. Hosea said it long ago, and all the other prophets in the Bible. Things weren’t so bad then. They’ve got a lot worse. A lot worse. Still nobody pays any attention.’
So there you go. It was the American Psycho of its day.
But fifty years is a long time. Today, historical curiosity aside, On the Road is not a good book. In fact, it really is a car crash.
Having said all that, reading On the Road did inspire me. I confess. Because I’m convinced that it takes a special kind of negative energy to turn a subject as readily compelling as hitchhiking into something as painfully mundane as On the Road, I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and go on the road myself. And by God, if I don’t find something more interesting than Dean Moriarty on the way, I’ll cut off my own thumb and apologise.
So, next week when I begin the first of two weeks’ holiday, I’m going to celebrate by hitching up north to see how my gran’s getting on. I know that 250 miles up the sagging spine of Englandshire doesn’t really compare with Kerouac’s mammoth mythical treks back and forth across the United States, but, you know, size isn’t everything. And if William Blake could see the world in a grain of sand, I'm sure I can see something halfway interesting in the whole of the M1. Well, we shall see....