Friday, August 1, 2014

"On the Road" -- by Jack Kerouac (The Original Scroll...)

Kerouac's Own Design for the book's cover, c. 1952
The Scroll Version is a lot more fun than I thought the original Signet paperback was when I read it sometime in the early-mid 1960s. It's looser and more open, more visceral -- though that's hard to imagine -- more lyrical, and strangely, without paragraphs, it's easier to read. It flows naturally, weaving a story in and out, and I think you could literally open it anywhere, start reading, go back, circle around, and even read the same passages several times without losing anything. It's that kind of novel. "Whitmanesque" it's been called. There is a linear plot and storyline, but that linearity is only part of the quality of the near-novel. Take it apart and there's just as much there, maybe more. It's brilliant, it's fun, it's sex, drink, drugs and be-bop. Too early, you see, for rock and roll.

I'm old enough to remember be-bop. Way older than Jack-John-Ti-Jean ever got to be, way older than Neal Cassady, the motor of the crazy-car/truck trip that Kerouac took across the country back when I was barely a gleam in my parents' eyes.

Neal Cassady's Bad Boy Smug mug shot 7-11-1944, Denver, CO

Kerouac in 1942, having joined the Naval Reserves. (I always thought he was taller than that).

It was a simpler and more innocent time? No it was not. It was a different time, and unlike "Dharma Bums," which seems very contemporary or timeless to me, "On the Road" is rooted in its time, it is very late '40s-early '50s, gritty and rough as things were back then. I can remember bits and pieces of my own life from the era (though I've lost many memories in the interims of age) and it wasn't a paradise, far from it. "Gritty and rough" is being charitable. It was a world that had been through the most appalling of wars, the most crippling of economic depressions, the most apocalyptic natural disasters. It was a world that had come apart at the seams and was by no means put back together again. But it seemed to them that the survivors had survived the worst that the world had to offer.

It was the Post-War era when so many things seemed possible. And it is the possibility of the era that animates the story and the road trip, the adventure, the re-discovery almost reconceiving of America. It could only have happened because of the hobos who pioneered the paths criss-crossing the country during the Depression when Jack-John-Ti-Jean was just a boy. He must have been moved by the stories, for the travel themes would stay with him throughout the remainder of his life.

"On the Road" weaves multiple travel threads together and clues the reader to how that traveling formed the consciousness of some of the writers and mavens and personalities of the era. They cannot be separated from their perambulations, but I'm not entirely sure how someone like Allen Ginsberg got from New York to Denver to San Francisco. Did he take the train? Surely he didn't hitch-hike or take the bus like Kerouac did. Or maybe he did. He might have. We'll let that question sit for a bit.

I've only just begun re-reading (for me, this is the first time with the Scroll version). So far, it's fascinating and notably clearer than when I read the Signet version...

"Today's wild youth..." you bet

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