What does Jack Kerouac, hipster saint, have in common with preacher Rick Purpose Driven Life Warren?
To find out, read John Leland’s new book, Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of ‘On the Road’.
Why Kerouac Matters: the Lessons of ‘On the Road’: Viking, 205 pages, $22.95 (approx. Rs940)
Leland, a reporter for The New York Times, has also worked for Spin and Details, and is the author of Hip: A History. Why Kerouac Matters, which will hit Indian bookstores by the end of September, is a slim book, neither an author biography nor an in-depth critical dissection of On the Road.
Instead, and appropriately, given Kerouac’s fondness for formal experimentation, Leland’s book is a free-flowing meditation on the complex subject of the book, its author, his legend and the interaction among all three and the larger American culture.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road, and it still sells briskly. Young readers many generations removed from Kerouac—a child of the Depression who published his first novel in 1950—are still dazzled by the male camaraderie, freewheeling sex, prodigious drinking and velocity of the novel’s cross-country journeys.
Many readers never get beyond that party-hearty surface and the book’s confessional stream-of-consciousness style. Leland draws a much more complex portrait. Despite the myth that the writing of On the Road was the next thing to speaking in tongues, a laying down of ecstatic inspiration by a Beat young savage, Kerouac was in fact a meticulous, driven writer, a man who “worked hard on his spontaneity".
Leland looks at Kerouac’s influence on later writers, but he also turns to who influenced him: Twain, Proust, Thomas Wolfe, all chroniclers of nostalgia for vanished innocence. The mad journeys of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, the alter egos of Kerouac and his friend and muse Neal Cassady, are not pointless road trips but quests: for lost fathers, for new families, for the meaning of life.
Leland also points out how deeply he was influenced by his family’s Catholicism; Kerouac described himself as a “strange solitary Catholic mystic". His version of mystical Catholicism was expansive enough to accommodate polymorphous sexual adventuring and intoxicant-fuelled visions of god.
Leland makes a convincing case that On the Road is influenced by religious allegories. That’s one of the fresh ways of thinking about On the Road that Leland explores. That’s the book’s greatest strength: It tickles our curiosity about a writer we thought we knew, enticing us to take another look, go down another road.
Colette Bancroft is the book editor of The New York Times