A few days ago I learned Jack Kerouac's novel, ON THE ROAD, from the late 1950s was made into a film. Netflix had it. Saw it today. It took me back to an early part of myself as well as the beginnings of what became known as the Beat Generation, the Beats. I think it was early 1960 or late 1959 that I read the Signet paperback of On The Road. Several years ago I found a first edition of that paperback for a dime. I don't care about its value. I'm sure it has very little. I just like having it. Senior in high school, barely literate enough to look at Time magazine with a little bit of comprehension, though not much. A guy in my class I assessed cool without being a jock, was reading it and talking about it with the people who read books. I was beginning to read books by then, starting with things way over my head like Alan Watts' Way of Zen, which I didn't get, but it opened my eyes to something. It made me realize I couldn't read with comprehension. From there, I started reading Ben Hur after seeing the movie. The sense I got from the guy in high school talking about On The Road was that I too could be cool if I'd read On The Road, the book that defined cool. I found a copy and read it. So cool driving a Hudson across the desert, everybody nude, the chick playing bongos on the dashboard. The characters not long out of high school drink, smoke reefer, abandon chicks and drag bottom. I don't dare try to read it now. It's nice having a film version of the book, a review without reading it again, like dreaming it.
It has been 54 years since I read it, meaning I remember next to nothing of it except riding a Hudson across America and smoking reefer. The movie showed me I remembered it very well. That's about all there was to it. I had forgotten, if I ever knew, that it was a memoir of a friend who bottomed out, Dean Moriarity. The story is told by a young guy, Sal Paradise, aka Jack Kerouac, who wanted to be a writer, ached to be a writer, tried to write, nothing worked. He's in New York hanging with other young writer wannabes exploring the new world since WW2 with jazz in Harlem, abstract expressionism in painting, turning on to reefer in jazz clubs. In my fantasy memory, the characters had a golden glow about them, ultra cool white people hanging with black people, remembering I was in high school after a lifetime in fundamentalist church, sex crazed since puberty, wanting to get on any road out of where I was and freewheel throwing empty Thunderbird wine bottles out the window. Jump into late teen heedlessness all the way to no turning back. Kerouac and Moriarity were young writers in NY getting nowhere. They decided to cross the country by car. Kerouac kept notes along the way. They were gaining experience, getting down and dirty, working at hard labor jobs for very little, committing themselves to being down and out like it was romantic and cool, young writers paying their dues.
Moriarity is the kind of guy who never catches on to the necessity to become responsible at a certain point in his life. He doesn't get it. He can't be taught it. And he can't figure out how to live without having a sense of responsibility even to himself. Set out on his own without parental support, he goes through whoever will take care of him until he alienates them to throwing him out saying, I don't ever want to see you again! Actress Kirsten Dunst appeared as the last woman who took him in until the day she said, Do you realize what I've given up for you? In a cast of some dreary characters, she was a refreshing play within a play. In Lars von Trier's MELANCHOLIA, Kirsten Dunst had a charisma that makes me light up when she shows up in a film. Her role in On The Road was short and carried a whole story in her brief moment. Now that it's been a few hours since it ended, her role turns out to be the strongest memory of the film and the first to come forward. When I called the other characters dreary, it was their depression, their aimless Nowheresville gaping about. It tells where these young writer wannabes were at in their own heads. They wanted to write, but had no experience, nothing to write about. Kerouac took off from New York with this guy whose only direction was downward. He watched his friend over a period of a few years fall through a crack in the bottom.
I appreciate that the young Kerouac wrote a memoir of his friend who was simply unable to live in this world. A lot of people are like that. More than we'd imagine. I feel like Kerouac's contribution to American writing is his memoir of somebody who couldn't make it in this world. It's a loving story of a friend he truly valued as a human being, seeing him drag across the bottom until it snagged and held him. It's an American story, even a profound American story. Often I saw Kerouac writing his own version of Henry Miller's, Air Conditioned Nightmare. Miller's journey starts in New York, goes down through the South to New Orleans, then on the northern California. I even felt like Kerouac learned to write from reading Henry Miller. I'd guess Kerouac had access to the Paris edition of Miller's Tropics novels by way of being smuggled into the country until the sensational Supreme Court ruling that they were not pornography in the late Fifties. Miller was the bohemian writer of the moment in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Kerouac was the bohemian writer of his own moment, the 1960s. After On The Road, I had to read The Dharma Bums, another one of freewheeling people unable to make a go of it for themselves in this world; some joined the domestic syndrome, some drifted down into nothingness.
On The Road celebrated the party time of life, between the ages of 18 and 23. That's when we're out of high school, unchained from parental control, setting out on our own with a job, a car, expenses, an apartment, insurance, speeding tickets, looking for babes, drinking and doing every drug there is. Kerouac's story is a handful of young guys starting out from nowhere, ambitious to get somewhere with no idea how to start. He started writing it in 1942, the year Air Conditioned Nightmare was published, and finished On The Road in 1951. It wasn't published until 1957 with much editing for legal purposes that were different then from how they are now. He wrote it throughout his twenties, it's conception in the time of his wild child time of life. I cannot read Kerouac's prose in this time of my life. He's down there even below Kurt Vonnegut in my own personal Olympus of American writers. Kerouac was great for a high school outsider kid to discover, a kid whose life as self had not yet begun. I was too inhibited to cut loose and run wild to such an extreme. Jack Kerouac did it for the frustrated kids of my generation, gave us a fairy tale unto instruction manual on being cool in America. Right away after it was published, Kerouac became the ultra-hipster of the New York "beat" writers. I wondered while watching the film version what meaning it would have for someone not aware of its historical moment. It seemed to me a period piece, a vision of living in America in its time. I like access to the story without having to wade through Kerouac's prose. The film, by director Walter Salles, was beautifully made. Another beautiful losers story.