2/14/12

Kerouac's Been Reading Hemingway

It's Valentine's Day. Or "Pal"entine's Day as we like to say in these here parts. But I already took care of those things in their proper venues and mediums.

What I aim to tell you today, dear blog, is that my summer plans are coming together. I'm (not)working on our department's version of the master's thesis, the capstone essay, as we speak, and will have it done and defended by April. But that doesn't mean I'm graduating just yet. Hold the robes, cancel those hotel rooms, 'cause I'm pushing back my graduation date 'till summer so I can work in the reading-writing center for six more weeks, earn a paycheck, enroll in 6 credit hours to get funding, take out one last round of student loans, buy a 45-day Amtrak rail pass and take off across America from late June to early August. For some of those credit hours I'll work one-on-one with Dr. Ned Stuckey-French, essay scholar and contemporary nonfictionist, to come up with a regionally specific reading list and erect a blogsite to record my travels and bring them to you, dear reader. It'll be called Haney on the Trainey: Paul's Gone to Look for America.

"I just hope I don't come back flat broke," I said to Dr. Ned.

"So what if you do?" He said. "Who cares? You're broke now, aren't ya'?"

He makes a good point. In the meantime, while I'm laboring toward the finish line for this M.A., I've been reading Jack Kerouac's On the Road each night before I go to bed as a kind of guiding text for my journey. Last time I read OtR was back in middle school, when Alec lent me his father's copy. We played a lot of Ouija back then, too, and one time Alec tried to make me think I was Dean Moriarty, or Neal Cassady's character in OtR, in a past life. However, I'll never be able to explain the shaky movement of the cursor in Joe's bedroom with Lucas and that cold breath of wind that made the candle flicker. We ran out screaming, then had to gather ourselves to go back in, put all our hands on the cursor, and move it over "Goodbye."

I read a lot of Kerouac's fellow beat Ginsberg (the Carlo Marx character in OtR) for a class last summer, and wrote a paper attempting to define "Beat" through "Howl" and some secondary texts. So when I revisited Kerouac, I expected a lot of those propulsive, ejaculatory breath lines. What I found was simpler, more rudimentary. The novel begins, "I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won't bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead." Kerouac eases you in, uses plainspeak to set your feat on the ground, hands on the rails, before taking you on a road trip in which you sometimes find your head in the stratosphere; but after each of those elevating moments, he falls back on his straightforward prose to ease the landing.

Conversely, Ginsberg's anthem to the anti-conformist begins (as all you TMBG fans will know), "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness starving hysterical naked / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix." All those modifiers. All that propulsion. From saw to destroyed to dragging to looking, verbs like rapids, adjectives unraveling--best, hysterical, angry--coloring the lines, quickening the pace, darkening the mood, propelling you forward at breathless speed.

Meanwhile Kerouac plods forward, one step, then another, at a pace where you can take in the sites but not exhaust yourself too quickly. You don't sprint at the start of a marathon (as if I'd know), nor does Kerouac blast from the gates in his semi-autobiographical travel novel (how's that for a literary genre?). But there was something else in Kerouac's style, something rugged, blunt. "He's been reading Hemingway," I said to myself, and I thought back to the Hemingway chapter I always think back to, the last one in A Farewell to Arms, where our first-person narrator-protagonist Henry, who has just escaped from his certain death in WWI with his nurse-lover Catherine by rowing a boat into Switzerland, reports the birth of their baby and subsequent death of Catherine. He does with with the brutal, unfiltered honesty and unadorned prose we revere Hemingway for: "It seems she had one hemorrhage after another. They couldn't stop it. I went into the room and stayed with Catherine until she died. She was unconscious all the time, and it did not take her very long to die."

That's his love, his newborn child, the atrocities and contradictions of war hefting upon themselves and culminating in Catherine's death. The tone the narrator uses--"it did not take her very long to die"--belies the pain, but also buries it deep beneath each word. Each character in that sentence pregnant with its own duality of love and war.

But then, once Kerouac's got you firmly grounded in OtR, he heightens his prose and hits you with pyrotechnics, beat blasts of elocution. By page 8, in that most famous passage, he writes, "But then [Carlo and Dean] danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yarn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!'"

The energy, the phantasm, the narrative exertion and expenditure leaping after those burning beats. The percussive outpourings rival those in "Howl"-- "boxcars boxcars boxcars."

who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing
              through snow toward lonesome farms in grand- 
              father night,
 
So I'm reading along, noticing how Kerouac navigates this Hemingway-Ginsberg continuum for rhetorical effect, from the ground to the clouds and back to the ground again, and I come across this passage on page 53: "...Come on, Sam,' [Roland Major] said to his invisible pal. 'Take the wine out of the water and let's see if it got cold enough while we fished.' Straight out of Hemingway, it was." Ah-ha! I knew it! Kerouac's been reading Hemingway (duh! you might say, skeptical reader. Who hasn't been?)! Allen Ginsberg is a character in OtR--Carlo Marx--and Kerouac himself--Sal Paradise--has been reading Hemingway.

Okay, so I've proven my point. I've done lots else this morning, but somehow I haven't touched that capstone essay. Dear blog, how will I motivate myself to do good work when I haven't this time-consuming, mandatory project hanging over me?
 

2 comments:

  1. Great book. Great blog. I just got done reading Dharma Bums, he wrote it while he was living in College Park. I actually live right next door to the Kerouac House on Shady Lane. They have monthly readings..you should swing by one free afternoon, take care bud.

    Kunal Nayee

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Kunal. Nice to hear from you. I checked out the Kerouac house website and found myself applying for a residency. It's a long long shot, but maybe we'll be neighbors. Be well!

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