Here I seek to show why Kerouac is great, in spite of yawning faults. This was written during the 70s, and I have left the colloquial tone and the topical references in place.
Everybody knows how Jack Kerouac shambled down hell road and recently it seems as though most of the world has chosen the same route. Not only is his poison popular; his books are, too. People still read him who read little else; at the same time, he's become inevitable in lit. courses, and the de Young and downtown museum are treading on each other’s heels to display his blown-up snapshots. Soon they'll erect his statue in Golden Gate Park, and a good thing that would be, too. But he's too important to hand over to Alioto and the Arts Commission, or to export to Russia as this generation's Jack London, not to mention the danger of his falling hostage to academics dreaming of tenure and an invincible army of footnotes. Too important despite the fact that he's a writer who tends to embarass his readers with his perpetual adolescence, his silliness about sex, and his outright fifties corn. Surprising qualities in an inventor of hipness? Or is it a tight yinyang situation? It's significant to note his earliest writing doesn't reveal those qualities (though he himself may well have, see Ann Charters' good and friendly biography). The Town and the City has those great drifting paragraph language dirigibles but oh so detached. For him at any rate. Like the writing of a literature sophomore who's got his shit together. Very much like the only people who read it. But On the Road, Dharma Bums, the books people lend around, the ones that you recognize on every living room bookshelf, these books grew from a different self-image and a different ambition: "spontaneous get-with-it" he said once, no revisions, total honesty. In spite of the fact that this spontaneous composition was largely a myth, he did let the cat out of the omniscient author bag and paraded his weakness, his vulnerability, in fact he made that weakness the principle theme of his novels. He renewed the confession but brought a certain amount of baggage: I think of Augustine's fog of piety and Rousseau's baroque elaboration of paranoia. But those defenses couldn't support him — he caved in, and for that reason the very qualities that make Kerouac's books poignant and strong also invite contempt. It's clear he found his inevitable style. Just look at the old pictures of him, hair flopping down and rumply undershirt. Compare with, say, Snyder, poised and posed in tidy robes with trim hair and ordered notebooks of Chinese vocables. But we think of Kerouac as so typically American for the simple reason that he painted his own portrait so authentically that the reader's reminded of his own adolescent awkwardness: horror at the body, horror at the abyss. His Buddhism like his plots dwelled insistently on mortality and all that it implies and the tune rang out devotional and elegiac as any Catholic saint's cult. Jack the earnest bumbler, the tragic real life Dagwood, the Buddha known as the quitter (and his coach at Columbia would have put it the same way and been as right), Jack so sentimental even over the flag, he ended up defending the war and calling that patriotism, this novelist maudit was the only writer of his time (to encounter little opposition since) to understand the fascism of the new critics and to hammer his own voice into a solution. He blew that personal confessional riff of stricken humanity with a rarely genuine humility but also at times with the confidence that grows from knowing the reader must recognize his or her own country, own maya, own image . He talked about himself as the quitter Buddha when it would take a brash guru on the tour today to speak with grace on the strange divine perfection that resides in the ability to digest weakness. Especially with Jack's example like a death's-head on the door. Chinese Buddhism has embraced a thousand drunks but the American variety like the Baptists prefer to conceal and twist their own. Kerouac’s bop prosody could have only one theme, but he worked it so thoroughly it shadows forth everything else. Painful as an old letter or notations in the margins of books. Vulnerability. Coming to terms with one's worst moments, the secrets each person carries about, beads of guilt sweat. So whenever Jack writes about women and ends up sounding like high school, you know his callowness is itself the theme. To emphasize the point he gives himself normative companions: Gary Snyder or Neal Cassady (whose letters he claimed taught him to write!) and then yearns to be like them. The final ethereal projection of the same desire is his dead brother Gerard. Gerard's sainthood like that of the canonical saints exists to underline the worshipper's inadequacies. Definitively, like a miniature Fall of Man. And Jack's version is an alternative to the Fall for people who can't seem to identify with Adam or Eve but who know they want to get back to the garden. The Fall is a tricky point for metaphysicians of any system to explain (even Alan Watts used to be forced to do some fancy dancing) but its obsessive ubiquity is proof of the depth of its meaning. The gap between the angel within and the husks from Levi-Strauss without, or the hair-shirt, if you prefer, has always been obvious in experience. So that's what Jack tried to work out: self-consciousness, dissatisfaction, the wrenching of desire that overleaps reality. You can set out to snare enlightenment with a Dharma-sword to split doubt but remember that the first truth of the Buddha is that life is suffering. It was this wall of fact against which Kerouac struggled and beat his head and spiraled his agony. And in the end his suffering turned out so intense and burning it can purge the rest of us.
In the twenty-first century, I visit a relative of my wife’s, an entertainment CEO, in a gated suburb of Los Angeles. His teen-age son avoids conversation, listens to Kurt Cobain with his door closed, mumbles when addressed, once begging off going out for dinner with the excuse, “I have to write a paper for English.” “Do you?” I respond, “On what?” “Just some dumb book my teacher made us read.” “And what was the book,” I ask, seeking to make contact. “Oh, just a stupid novel, it’s called On the Road.” I try to tell him that that book would never have been allowed in my high school, but he has already lurched off. As Pound says, “’Thus things proceed in their circle’;/ And thus the empire is maintained.”