Saturday, September 15, 2007

Qualities I Hadn't Seen

For some reason I cannot name, I never cared for the Beats when I was a young man. My pals and acquaintances would suggest the obvious books to me and I’d take a look at them, quickly grow rather bored with the prose, and put them aside. People kept telling me what a great writer Kerouac was, or what an amazing experience one had in reading William Burroughs, or how gifted a poet was William Ginsberg. It was all dead air to me.

And then, one day, at the age of 44, I picked up my copy of ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac. Why? I’m not sure, but I’d have to assume that it was because I’d exhausted all of the unread books in my house (no mean feat, that), and I just really, really needed something to read. So for the sixth or seventh time in my life (but for the first time since I was in my early 30s), I gave Jack Kerouac one more chance.

And it grabbed me. I mean, that book sank its hooks into me way past the barbs and I was landed. I don’t recall looking up from those printed pages for several hours. I couldn’t get enough of that novel and I could not force myself to stop reading the vast road trips of the fictionalized versions of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. I read the book that day and reread it over the course of the next few days.

After that, it was a mad dash to snag as many of Kerouac’s novels as I could find in the bookstores. I’m pretty sure I’ve now read them all, finding some of them brilliant and a few of them tiresome. THE DHARMA BUMS remains my favorite of the lot, and I keep a copy near at hand most of the time and it’s not unusual for me to take the book with me on my backpacking trips into the wilderness areas I like to explore.

In the years since Kerouac’s work “clicked” with me, I went through explorations of the other Beat writers. Burroughs’ QUEER and JUNKY are two very powerful books, although I just don’t dig his cut-out stuff. I can’t dismiss it out of hand as I would have done in my youth, but for now I can’t find anything in it that makes me want to read past the first bits. I may change my mind at some date…find myself bored and with nothing to read. At such a time I may pick up NAKED LUNCH and find that I quite like it. But for now I find that I much prefer Burroughs’ fictionalized novels and essays to those more experimental works for which he’s so well known.

And, by the time I made my way through collections of Ginsberg’s poetry, I realized that I was as fascinated with these fellows as personalities as I was by the talent they exhibited in their fiction and their essays and in their poems. They lived strange lives to my way of thinking. Bizarre and unusual lifestyles that were not hidden at all in a time and place when such behavior could very well have landed any of them in seriously hot water. These guys had guts.

I think that’s what has always impressed me about Kerouac and his pals. It wasn’t necessarily what they did, but the fact that they did these things and lived their lives in the face of such complete resistance. That took a kind of courage I never had, because I’d never been in a position to test myself that way. It’s not easy to stand counter to the society in which one exists. In fact, I can think of nothing more difficult and nothing more frightening.

I adore much of their work, but I think that I admire the courage of the doing as much as the art exhibited in the telling.

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