from READING JACK KEROUAC
excerpted and revised from READING JACK KEROUAC: An Unprofessional Study
My family must have crossed paths a few thousand times with the Kerouacs.
I don't need to read Kerouac’s books to know what he is saying.
This is not a criticism of Kerouac. This is an appreciation. It is an emotional document. The reading of mostly all of this writer’s oeuvre has been so interwoven with my life that I hold him partially responsible for how I determined my life’s path.
I remember at 19 I was on Navy leave. I was reading a paperback copy of Kerouac's first novel, The Town and the City (1950) on my mother's couch where I slept. I looked out the summer window and saw beyond the hill-crest, the facade of a grand Victorian falling to ruins, spilling crumbling concrete stairs into the depths of a weedy dandelion lawn where a rusty Model-T sat on blocks. Somewhere within that crumbling facade, beyond its peeling-paint exterior, lurked the lives of a thousand days, born in wedlock and deathlock, of children long having expired, shaped and hurled headlong into the nightmare jungle of living. Those former occupants were alive in Kerouac's day. He must have passed that house and heard the glee-shouts of children under their mother's watchful eyes. Kerouac's teenaged hitchhiking trips into neighboring Dracut must have been his training camp for hitchhiking across America.
That's what I remember thinking before returning to Galloway, Massachusetts where I was immersed in his care-free universe of daily grind and toil cut from the cloth of Lowell textile town. By its closing paragraph, where it signaled a clarion call, it had determined my next direction, of where I should take my life (though I was still bound by the Navy for a few more years):
"When the railroad trains moaned, and river-winds blew, bringing echoes through the vale, it was as if a wild hum of voices, the dear voices of everybody he had known, were crying: "Peter, Peter! Where are you going, Peter?" And a big soft gust of rain came down. He put up the collar of his jacket, and bowed his head, and hurried along."
I felt On the Road didn't live up to the promise of The Town and the City. I had already read On the Road, and was cautioned by someone I have since forgotten, that in that book was an intensity that I could not ever prepare for; but that was not the case. The "road" book was castrated, defanged of its original power; its neck was slit. Whatever Kerouac wrote did not capture the poetic pudding of The Town and the City nor the evocations of Visions of Cody. Perhaps that was because Kerouac had so eloquently caught Lowell's essence in a bottle and poured it over his pages like Vermont maple syrup. It was the novel, perhaps the only, that he labored over by making every word count, instilling into it the very crux of existence, of humanity's folly, and the overwhelming loneliness of impassioned existence.
The allure of Kerouac's prose stuck; not a week after reading The Town and the City that summer of 1983 in Dracut, Massachusetts, I turned to 1972's Visions of Cody while stationed in San Diego, and whilst reading it, I traveled to a border town of Mexico. It was day-time, as military personnel weren't allowed to enter Mexico after dark. Inside of the Star Bar, where I was reading, the environs struck me as distinctly Kerouacian in its ambience. Little tables were spread over with starched-white tablecloths. A burning candle, meek and holy, was placed at the center of each. There was a permeating stench of rank stale beer and urine. Burning spiced meats. Men standing at a pool table, opened shirts baring hard brown chests. One held a pool stick over his shoulder waiting his turn, resembling the Christ of the Passion from parochial boyhood. Dark-skinned mamacitas flashed white smiles and swooning cleavage. They strutted to each customer. Long, swaying black hair. They sold dethorned stems of pink and red roses. The exotic Indian-blood of the fe!aheen was here and now; living proof that the earth was an Indian thing.
The aromas of cooking meats and chili spices drifted in from a mustachioed street vendor standing just outside the door. Green lizards skittered along the ceiling. The air was dank and oppressive. A sharp blade of sunlight stabbed through the doorframe whenever someone entered. Blueish shadows were stippled neon-American signs advertising cigarettes and beer. I tried to read Visions of Cody back in Lowell, but it didn't make sense. Here, it did, clicking together like magnetic puzzle pieces.
Over several beers I felt every word of it. I was drunk with its power, holding sway over me with some kind of mystical reverence. It was like nothing I ever read before; a purely American language at once foreign to me and ever-familiar. This strange tongue versed a new lexicon with Lowell/Centralvillian roots. The prose was poetry. The poetry was prose. It wasn't simply written for effect; instead, each sequence was a confes-sional spontaneous burst usurping any Shakespearean or Melvillean monologue spoken by ghost-haunted Hamlet or monomaniacal Ahab. Cody's gospel spiel did not hinge solely on life or death, but on truth-or-consequences. It told me that at the long dark journey to the end of the night, it was okay to be alone. There is poetry in brick walls and auto fenders. Weedy lots and automobile fenders. Heightened observation is fodder for ecstatic poetic experience. It was then when I bought a blank notebook once I returned to the ship in San Diego to write for myself. In this case, it was a brand-new deck log acquired from the ship yeoman.
My Navy experience exposed me to that sort of male camaraderie that Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg inherited from Walt Whitman. It was present to me in the lean good looks of good ole' boys from Kentucky and Texas with wide toothy grins; or, what I heard in goofy chuckles from mid-west teens; the tense muscling of lean dark Southern blacks. These were all foreign to me. Being from Lowell, the predominant race was white. There was a monotonous sameness, a pervasive whiteness that locked me out of the experience of the world- at-large.
Lowell was afflicted with a xenophobic rage that was implanted from each preceding generation, and each generation went back like the link of an anchor chain swaying bright, silent, and true in the surface depths, before disappearing in the ocean's murk where light cannot enter. We knew not the genetic code that insisted our likeness, but that we were indelibly imprinted with that code of sameness from childhood into adulthood.
Kerouac felt it too, and so his only choice was to leave Lowell at last.
Reading Kerouac, I saw in living flesh all of the Cody Pomerays, Dean Moriartys, Sal Paradises and Alvah Goldbooks that comprised each and every sailor on board my ship cocooned together by shared experience. My navy experience was no different than Kerouac’s. The Universal Brotherhood he believed in was ever-present under the threat of war. It imbued a sense of dread and mortal shaming in me, humbling my heart, insisting that we were all brothers at our deepest roots. Had Kerouac's The Sea Is My Brother been published back in the days of the Gulf War when I sailed the Persian Gulf, that may very well have been my sea bible.
"A quickened pulse in shadow, be they tygers or doves, the husk has at last been pierced birthing seeds sown into the harrowing meat of the world."
Peering over the side of the ship, the dusky shadow of a sea crea- ture moves through the deep, beyond where sun light spokes its darts through the murky keep. I feel Kerouac, my brother, aside me, peering into the sea, wondering how so the sea would be his brother. The brother he had lost. The brother he sought. I felt him beside me and I knew that everything would be okay .
Mill stacks stand taller than the church steeples in Lowell, symbolically revealing the true god of that dying town.
The bones of a thousand Irishmen and Canucks carrying humble lunch pails are no more. They spat over the railing, into the canal's green oil-sheen murk. They cursed the high school clock and eyed a bevy of Irish girls giggling in their school notebooks. Blood blushes their cheeks. It surges their loins,. The cycle of birth and death carries the city generation after generation. Lockstep with death, one big consciousness surging through the tired driven streets.
How many capered past Leo Kerouac ’s old inky print shop?
How many courted beaus in the balcony of the Royal Theatre?
How many grieved in the echoing recesses of the ghetto cathedral, mesmerized by the priest swinging his golden incense lamp over the silent-as-dust coffin pews?
How much more can the town by the river suffer its poor and dying?
In the St. Louis de France recess yards where I was an elementary student in the late-1960s, we hung off of a wrought-iron fence surrounding the rectory garden. We pretended to be crucified as we were taught by the Sisters of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary .
All of the boys were separated from the girls who jump-roped in plaid skirts at the base of the red-brick school building. Once, a massive sweep of ice and snow was swept off as if from the arm of God, crashing to the recess yard, narrowly missing the girls.
The delicious scents of baking salmon pies, baked beans, and creamed corn drifted from the cafeteria where we ate our school lunches. It was a stone's throw from the Beaulieu Street home where Jack Kerouac walked in his brother's shadow until the brother was no more, Gerard himself was waked in the gloomy Beaulieu Street parlor. Outside, brown finches chirped excitedly when they were flushed by a stalking cat from the April shrubs, each birthing virgin sprigs of leaf.
I knew not of this as a boy, but later, reading Visions of Gerard, it struck me as a cosmic revolution of the heart. Again, I had crossed paths with the spirit of Kerouac without knowing that I had done so, and had done so one hundred different ways, each occasion finding their way back to me in the descriptive cadences of his prose. Every book was a strange black river traversing the continent of my being until it ultimately finds the one true sea at last.
It has now been 50 years gone since Kerouac's death date. At the time of his dying, I was six-years-old, barely a single month into my St. Louis de France school experience, and only a mile away from his funeral mass I was sitting in the very same class room that he sat in, staring at the crucifix on the wall with its Palm Sunday stems criss crossed over the top of it.
During that noon, I was likely staring out of the school window at the whirlwind caught in the vestry below, tossing October leaves like bright confetti, rattling their frayed edges upon the wrinkly tar. I sat at my school desk just under the wooden crucifix on the plaster wall where once Ti Jean himself stared at it in hypnotic reverie in this very same room.
I wondered what the nuns did in there. Were they naked without shame? Did they whisper to the curtains where tiny Satans leered to their temptations? Everything, a mystery. Everything a world of sin waiting to be exorcised into grace.
I was cosmically tied in a way that cannot adequately be put into writing. In the ensuing 50 years, only 13 years after Kerouac's death, I picked up his books as he would have hoped, and began the process of taming my own life. These chapters concern those books that made the most indelible impact on me, as well some experiences I remember having occurred around them. Reading the books back then, I wondered what roads I would be led to and where, and how I would one day get to where I had to. The books, any book I have read, not just Kerouac’s, would help me make sense of this rambling world, so that I would become courageous enough to follow the path of my spirit. I did, to my benefit or peril.
I am all the more wiser.