Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Aimless Reading: The K's, Part 6 (Jack Kerouac)


On The Road
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Kerouac, Jack
On The Road


Purchased at the Niagara Falls Outlet Mall Discount Book Store. I think I bought this copy for Lori. It is not the copy I read. Mine had a cover designed in the late seventies or early eighties depicting a burning sun in the center of a horizonless sky.

I read it the summer after college. The university let me stay in my RA apartment in Little Italy in the Bronx for part of the summer while I looked for my own first place. The other book I read during the same period was Gravity's Rainbow. I put the latter down, my head spinning, about 300 pages into it and read On the Road instead, returning to GR after I'd finished.

I am having a weird memory of the first time I heard Jack Kerouac's name. It was in 9th or 10th grade. I had gotten into the habit of reading the comics in the Washington Post every morning over a cup of coffee with cream and three heaping tea spoons of sugar, into which I dunked between four and eight slices of wheat toast slathered in butter. Ah, the good old days.

My favorite comic strip was 'Bloom County," which I read religiously each morning. One strip I remember fairly vividly depicted Milo Bloom as a Dylanesque folkie singing on stage at a club. The strip's entire content consisted of the lyrics to Milo's song, which was a lament over the conservative turn in the your culture of the 1980's. I only remember a few lines:

Take us back, Jack Kerouac
To when a cool cat
Would never mean
Garfield locked in an ice machine


I knew who Garfield was -- his strip usually followed or preceded 'Bloom County' somewhere on the same page -- but I had no idea who Jack Kerouac was, which is probably why the lyric stuck in my head. It took another ten years for me to get around to reading On the Road. Not so surprising, given that 'Bloom County' was more or less the extent of my reading in high school.

I never really got the Kerouac bug, I have to say. By the time I read the book my expectations of its transformative powers had been raised so high by things I'd heard and read that it couldn't have been other than disappointing. Mostly I found the book to be a kind of tedious lament with flashes of absolute brilliance popping up every so often. I was never sure the payoff of those flashes was worth the slog through the rest of the book.

I read it one other time just to make sure I didn't miss something, but whatever seemed to have happened to other readers never happened to me. Which isn't to say Kerouac hasn't been important to me in other ways. When I was younger he embodied for me the romantic image of the writer -- devoted to his art to the point of risking madness and personal dissolution. I used to keep a postcard on my bookshelf in New York of a photo of Kerouac on a fire escape overlooking the city.

I liked to imagine he was standing on my fire escape.

from On the Road

I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won't bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the pat of my life you could call my life on the road. Before that I'd often dreamed of going west to see the country, always vaguely planning and never taking off.

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