While I’ve never lost an early-established passion for the writings of Jack Kerouac, it has gone, from time to time—like most passions—into periods of abeyance. The most recent of them lasted the longest, a couple of years. Then, a few weeks ago, for no good reason at all, I took from the shelf an old paperback copy of The Dharma Bums (Signet Books, 1959) that, according to the scrawled signature inside the front cover, I bought on October 20, 1971. I began to re-read it—after forty years—in a desultory sort of way, and, quickly remembering, page after page, why I had bought the book in the first place, finished it in two marathon sessions of hectic, readerly joy. “Energy,” as poet William Blake once wrote, “is eternal delight.”
The Dharma Bums (1958) comes right after On the Road (1957) and is a softer, quieter book than its full-tilt predecessor, both because Kerouac’s publishers pleaded with him to pull back a bit on the usual Dionysian whooping of his spontaneous bop prosody (“…composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better….”), and because it’s about mountain climbing in the Sierras with poet and zen naturalist, Gary Snyder—a calmer, more deliberate guy than ol’ Jack.
The book is full of beauties. I don’t know any other writer who has his way so robustly and yet so deftly with nature (“…a great quiet starlit grove with frost on the ground and dead silence except for occasional little ticks of sound in the thickets where maybe a rabbit stood petrified hearing us….”). It’s the “little ticks of sound” (p.39) that is pure, irreplaceable Kerouac. And there‘s nobody better at food-writing. Here’s what he calls the best soup he’d eaten since he was a lionized young author in New York: it was “nothing but a couple of envelopes of dried pea soup thrown into a pot of water with fried bacon, fat and all, and stirred till boiling. It was rich, real pea taste, with that smoky bacon and bacon fat, just the thing to drink in the cold gathering darkness by a sparkling fire” (p.163).
This second flowering, for me, of my enjoyment of The Dharma Bums then led me back through lots more Kerouac: I reread Maggie Cassidy, Dr. Sax (the best novel ever about childhood, or at least about boy childhood) and the sad, exhilarating Big Sur, all of which, in turn, guided me inexorably back to my very favourite Kerouac book of all, Lonesome Traveler.
Lonesome Traveler isn’t even a novel. It was published in 1960, after the first public wave of Kerouac rapture had passed, and is a collection of short pieces, many of which are, nevertheless, examples of his very best writing: “Piers of the Homeless Night,” “Alone on a Mountaintop” (“Sometimes I’d yell questions at the rocks and trees, and across gorges, or yodel—‘What is the meaning of the void?’ The answer was perfect silence, so I knew….”), “New York Scenes” (“even from bars, like a Third Avenue bar—4pm. the men are all roaring in clink bonk glass brass-foot barrail “where ya goin” excitement—October’s in the air, in the Indian Summer sun of door…”), “Slobs of the Kitchen Sea” (“…And there it goes [the ship Jack is working in] in broad daylight, dismal sad hulk faintly throbbing, incomprehensibly jingling and jingling in the engine room, chuffing, gently churning at the rear the buried giant waterscrew onward working out to sea….”), and the majestic “Railroad Earth.”
“Railroad Earth,” some of the best language sounds ever heard in America, is like new jazz you don’t know yet but have to be a part of: “It was the fantastic drowse and drum hum of lum mum afternoon nuthin’ to do, ole Frisco with end of land sadness….”
“Ole Frisco with end of land sadness….” End of land sadness. Sure, it’s poetry, music, but it’s also insight, truth, profundity. You have to look hard into Kerouac. He’s in a rush, but the reader can’t afford to be. Hurtle through Kerouac—as if you’re riding with him and Neal Cassidy in that big old Hudson, hellbent for anywhere—and you’ll miss three-quarters of what he’s got for you.
Lonesome Traveler was published, as I say, in 1960 and I found this copy of it in a used bookstore in Hamilton, Ontario in 1962 for $1.50 (and now it’s worth…oh, let’s see…about three hundred bucks?). It’s a handsome piece of bookmaking, and, as a bonus, it offers a suite of nice scruffy, scrubbed and half-erased pencil drawings by Larry Rivers (like the Kerouac portrait on the cover). Rivers’ art meant more to me then than it does now, still, the speedy and yet strangely tentative arcs of his pencil still provide an exciting equivalent to Kerouac’s staccato jabs with the typewriter. It’s as if Rivers had taken fully to heart what Kerouac so passionately believed: “Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in your mind.”