Friday, July 29, 2011

The Road Trip Story: Kerouac is Not a Beginner

On the Road is a road trip story.

(Any objections?)

I'm sure the influence of this experimental novel, with its meandering structure, has been the bane of many a writing teacher's existance. I'm basing this assumption on the fact that my writing teacher, David Keplinger, took the time during a class to discuss road trip stories and the dangers of them.

It boils down to this: very rarely do road trip stories have a point.

Keplinger talked about how the story often followed similar lines.
A.) troubled boy/girl begins adventure by leaving college/family/social structure behind
B.) troubled boy/girl has adventures with random people (promiscuous sex, drugs, car breaking down, some scene where people are stuck in the rain)
C.) troubled boy/girl has some epiphany that leads them to realize they've left their true love/future/hopes somewhere 
D.) troubled boy/girl manages to get to the home of true love/future/hopes and goes to knock at the door
E.) dramatic moment: troubled boy/girl knocks on door...and rest is left up to reader's imagination

Keplinger's argument was that the story started with the knock on the door. That's where the conflict comes in. Sure, the story had some events and some really trying moments...but episodes and conflicts are not the same thing.

On the Road definitely is episodic. But Keplinger's argument is intended for beginning writers who have all the subtlety of jackhammers. Beginning writers don't understand what conflict is, don't understand how to resolve it, and don't know how to tell something in a scene.

Kerouac, when he wrote On the Road, was not a beginner. It's clear in his prose alone and it becomes clearer when you see how he handles the novel as a whole. Episodic? Yes. But that is part of his point. The episodes, if you look at them, become the conflict itself.

Sal goes off on his own for trip. Sal and Dean go off on another trip. Sal and Dean go off on more trips. Trip, trip, trip. Episode, episode, episode. Readers get irritated; they go What Is The Point Of All This?

The point is just that: this is an exhausting lifestyle. This is an exhausting pace. Cars run out of gas. Wives get fed up. Eventually, Dean will go off on his own, leaving the lout, Sal, behind...which was Sal's greatest fear in the opening of the book. In the scroll version of On the Road, Kerouac says that had he not been married, he would have gone with Dean again -- but instead goes to a theatre show he doesn't want to go to, with his wife. That shows a shift in Kerouac/Sal's attitude...even if all he wants is to go with Neal/Dean and live that exhausting lifestyle.

Kerouac didn't need a knock on the door to end the story. The road keeps going, but the story is done.

Stories like that are not for the faint of heart and they are not for beginners, like I was (and still am...) when Keplinger talked about what not to do.

Well, I say, if you want to write a road trip story -- try it and see what happens. Just be aware that for a road trip story to work, the conflict, the real conflict has to be worked out on the road.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Lightning, the Lightning Bug, and the Price of Some of Kerouac's Revisions

**Be forewarned, adult language/content**

Mark Twain once said something like (I don't have the direct quote in front of me): "the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug."

Agree or disagree, Twain has a point. To illustrate, I give you two passages from On the Road -- the 1957 version and the Original Scroll version.

In the following section of the book, Kerouac has just offered to stay overnight on an old boat. (Character names are different in each passage. For clarity purposes just realize that Remi=Henri and Lee Ann = Diane.) Note that the character of Lee Ann/Diane is naked and sunning herself on the boat deck. Kerouac's character is looking at her from above, on the poop deck.

Here is the first one, from the 1957 version of On the Road:

     "Remi was astounded; his admiration for me doubled. 'Sal, I'll pay you five dollars if you have the nerve to do that. Don't you realize this thing may be haunted by the ghosts of old sea captains? I'll not only pay you five, I'll row you out and pack you a lunch and lend you blankets and a candle.'
      'Agreed!' I said. Remi ran to tell Lee Ann. I wanted to jump down from a mast and land right in her, but I kept my promise to Remi. I averted my eyes from her."

Now, same passage in the Scroll version:

"Henri was astounded; his admiration for me doubled. 'Jack I'll pay you five dollars if you have the nerve to do that. Don't you realize this thing may be haunted by the ghosts of old seacaptains. I'll not only pay you five I'll row you out and pack you a lungh and lend you blankets and candle.' 'Agreed!' I said. Henri ran to tell Diane. He was amazed at my courage. I wanted to jump down from a mast and land right in her cunt, but I was true to Henri's promise. I averted my eyes."

You'll note some obvious differences: There are no paragraph breaks in the Scroll version. There are fewer commas in the Scroll version. Kerouac fixed the "I was true to Henri's promise" -- where it sounds like Henri made a promise instead of Jack, in the 1957 version. He also cut the scroll line about Henri being impressed by his courage in the 1957 version. (Probably so he didn't sound quite so egotistical to the reader.)

Now I'm going to do something I never thought I would do, and defend the word "cunt." (You have no idea how much I hate this word.)

'Kay. So in the edited, 1957 version, Kerouac utilizes the phrase "in her" to illustrate the sexual desire he felt for the naked woman on the deck. Fine. It's straightforward, still pretty offensive, and gets across the point that he is horny. Agreed? So, all in all, he has managed to convey what the original scroll conveys.

However, that's also a phrase utilized in romance novels when the couples make love. In today's terminology, it can have romantic undertones.

Cunt has no such ties. When Kerouac uses the word cunt, there is no romantic undertone, there is no respect, it is all about sex. And not just sex. Fucking. Yep, another strong word. Again, which cuts out the emotional attachment that some readers might want to put in. Now the reader understands that there are no romantic undertones, an underlying element of disrespect and objectifying the woman -- so we understand something else basic about this dude's character -- as well as all the things that 'in her' accomplished: offensive and horny.

So...the nasty word in this case is more clear, more in tune with the character's wants and desires, and is definitely, definitely more striking to the reader. Why not just slap the reader with a dead, wet fish to wake them up? It is effective.

Another thing changes with that one word: the tone. The 1957 excerpt almost feels Peter Pan-esque. The focus seems to stay on sea captains and ghosts and boys playing around. Even the 'in her' seems more like flying playfulness. Not so much in the scroll version. We are reminded that these are grown men who perform grown-up acts and can cause grown-up pain. It raises the stakes.

All of those things were edited out, and it still remains a classic. Yet, again citing my unscientific Goodreads reviewer survey -- more readers gave more stars to the Scroll version. Could it be because the 1957 version had the ugly words, or ugly thoughts, which are very effective when used correctly, edited out of it? I think it's a good indication.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Tuesday Post of Accountability!: Critique Week!

It's Tuesday again! And every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

Stuff I have accomplished this past week:


1. Critiqued my writing group's work in an experimental way.


There I was, reading one of my buddies submissions while peddling away on the stationary bike. (It's hard to make marks that way.) -- And no, that wasn't the experiment. But it's where I came up with the experiment. When I was done sweating away literally and figuratively, I go to my husband and say, "Spouse, how about we take one submission every night this week and take turns reading alternating pages aloud? Then we get to experience the stories in aural and oral fashion." (Not as kinky as it sounds.)


Spouse says, "Sure. Why not." Because he's so agreeable.


And that's what we did. As you can imagine, many interesting things came up.


First: Reading aloud does help in a couple ways. The most obvious is that typos and awkward sentences JUMP out and PUMMEL you. Especially if you're silently going right along and your partner, who is reading aloud, stumbles. You didn't stumble because your eye just glided right over the pothole in the road. Not so much when you hear it.


Second: It's not all good, this experimental style. Since you are reading with a partner, the old law of observing changing the observed comes into play. I didn't have as much of an opportunity to let the story sink in. I had a harder time with the overall critique, though I think the line critique got stronger. I don't know if I have as many structural notes (don't get me wrong, I still have the bigger notes) but I don't know how detailed they are.


Third: Even though you don't get to sink into the story, you are forced early on to articulate yourself. As you stare at a section while your critique partner waits, you have to explain why you're making them wait. At first it comes out as "Wait a sec, something's not right here." Then you have to ponder. Then your partner ponders.

Then you say: "I have a problem with such and such motivation."
Partner says: "Like, there is none?"
And you say: "No, not like that. But would the squirrel really run across the street like that? After watching his whole family go the same way?"
Partner says: "Have you never observed squirrel behavior?"

Then the conversation disintegrates from there--you use every piece of zoological information that you retain from 10th grade ecology classes, your partner counters with every time he's ever driven a car...and you have to think further on your position. It can be rough going.


2. Not much else, really. I finished another bothersome chapter, but am pretty darn certain that I rushed it in a desperate need to get it done. In the Hero's Journey, I believe that this chapter would be what is known as the Call to Action. Who knew calling would be such a pain in the tush? I think it has enough information to allow me to charge through to the next chapters easily enough...then I can go back and shift stuff around. MUST HAVE MORE MATERIAL my brain yells! Words, words, words!


3. Oh, I did do something else. I finished my first ever notebook from page one to page 160, a la Virginia Woolf! Didn't feel like dating stuff. Didn't feel like begging for forgiveness if I missed a day or sixteen. I wrote in it when I needed it. And I'm on to my second one. Being the same size and whatnot, I figure that I'll be done with that one around December. Whoo-hoo!


All right guys, let's hear your triumphs!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Kerouac, The Lotus Eaters, and Star Trek

Many academic articles have been written on Kerouac and the sense of place and time evoked in On the Road. I’m sure a great part of that reason is that place and time are very integral to the format of the book – so it makes a lot of sense. Even I noticed that place and time were super-important to how the story worked.


On that note, the note of place and time, there were two things that kept going through my head as I read the book: the myth of the lotus eaters and the most recent Star Trek movie.

Time like The Lotus Eaters

For those of you who don’t know the myth of the lotus eaters, I’ll give you the Percy Jackson-ish (also seen recently on the True Blood: Season 3 premiere, I might add) version: The lotus eaters seduced/encouraged/forced people to eat this flower. The victims ate and lost all sense of time. They descended into hedonism. Years went by in a matter of hours.

There are no fairy creatures forcing Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty to eat and be hedonistic – they do that all on their own – but, instead, the reader is the victim in this revelry. You pick up the book and are bombarded by the characters’ actions, which take years to go through, but the book reads like they’re moving from one day/one adventure to the other. According to Kerouac, he was on the road seven years. Almost an entire decade. And the book reads like just a few weeks…even though there are obvious passages demonstrating time has passed. Once you hit the road, you have devoured the lotus and all that exists is the road.

Place like Star Trek

There’s a line in the new Star Trek movie where Spock shows Scottie his own formula for warp teleportation. Scottie says that teleporting someone onto a space ship traveling at warp was like trying to hit a bullet with a smaller bullet blindfolded (or something along those lines). Spock shows the formula. Scottie says something like “Huh, it never occurred to me to think of space as the thing that was moving.”

That is what reading On the Road feels like.

Imagine a pencil. Imagine the pencil tip resting gently on an American map, at the dot representing New York. Now, try to trace a line from New York to San Francisco without moving the pencil. How do you do that? You move the map, right? The pencil stays in the same place, doing the same thing.

The pencil is the characters in On the Road. They don’t change. They party from one coast to the other.

The map is the road, moving along underneath them. They see the scenery change, they appreciate the shift, but they are still the pencil.

*

Now, this brings up a difficulty to me – both of these elements emphasize that the characters don’t change. This is problematic because, as we all learned in school, characters need to change to have a good story, right? If you go into Goodreads and look at the criticisms of this book, you’ll notice that there are a lot of one/two/three star reviews. The basic arguments are related to being bored, the characters behaving like jerks, etc. Basically, the criticism relates to the two elements noted above: place and time. The story doesn’t work like a normal story.

Well, I think the thing to take away is that Kerouac isn’t telling an everyday kind of story. It is more of a memoir and we never really know where we change in life until we come at it from experience. Kerouac wrote this book in the throes of living it, so the lack of perspective, or the change, isn’t really there.

However, I don’t think this is necessarily a flaw. It’s just a different way of writing. And not one that’s easy to pull off. In fact, I can’t think of another writer that I’ve read who writes like Kerouac, or who sees the way that he sees. I love my friends, but I don’t think I could present them in the loving way that Kerouac presents his friends, while still being honest about their flaws. I love America, but I don’t think that I could be as worshipful of the landscape without making some kind of cutting, Sarah Vowell-esque remark about the history of the places.

So, you see, I’m kind of torn. I recognize Kerouac as a skilled writer. I acknowledge the beauty of the language. I appreciate the biographical elements of his writing. But I struggle with defining On the Road as good story.
But then I wonder if the point of the story isn’t just: it is what it is.

Still thinking….

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Last night, I read my little girl three books. The night before that, her father read her two. Every night my son reads whatever Star Wars/Jacob Wonderbar/space book he can get a hold of - and just Friday he was reading to us about mosquitoes. I can't imagine what their lives would be like without books...

or their parents. 

Over at Tracy Edward Wymer's blog, he has posted a story that captures my worst nightmare. A car crash taking the lives of two parents. Their six-year-old son, Trenton, was with his grandparents. I don't know about you, but my husband and I have date nights. Our kids are left with grandparents. And it is conceivable that we might never come back from those date nights. Drunk drivers. Lousy weather. All kinds of day-to-day risks that can shatter a family.

To help ease that pain (which can never be erased) Tracy, who went to school with Trenton's mother, has put out the word on OneBook for Trenton. Basically, pick out your favorite new or gently used books and send them to Trenton - and show that he is loved. I'm sending one (probably more) this next week.

Get the details on Tracy's blog. And go hug your kids.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Adding Gravitas: Kerouac’s Word Choices

“Gravitas” is one of my husband’s million dollar words when he’s offering a critique. It’s a tricky word to digest when it’s thrown at you like: “This needs more gravitas.” He’s much more eloquent but, I mean, what can you do with that?


Generally I take it to mean that the stakes aren’t sufficiently high for my characters – but I’ve come to realize that this is not necessarily the case. Sometimes gravitas (gravity/weight/an anchor) isn’t in the story itself but in the way the story is told.

On the Road is a story with zero anchor, if you look at it. The characters flit from place to place in fast cars. There’s literally and figuratively no home-base. The characters ping around from place to place, leaving wives and children and parents. You can’t latch onto these characters. As Sal Paradise tells the reader when he gets to Old Bull Lee’s house: “Poor Bull came home in his Texas Chevy and found his house invaded by maniacs.” They are madmen. Druggies, cheaters, partiers, crazies. Trying to connect to these characters is very much like trying to nail down one of those bouncy balls you get out of the quarter machine. Ping ping ping! There goes the lamp.

So, with place and people unavailable for adding sufficient weight to a story, a writer has one refuge: language.

That’s how Kerouac centers his miscreants. He adds depth (a great deal of bullshit depth, truth be told) to their madness: “A tremendous thing happened when Dean met Carlo Marx. Two keen minds that they are, they took to each other at the drop of a hat…From that moment on, I saw very little of Dean and I was a little sorry too. Their energies met head-on. I was a lout compared, I couldn’t keep up with them. The whole mad swirl of everything that was to come began then; it would mix up all my friends and all I had left of my family in a big dust cloud over the American Night.”

This description of his two friends, who basically got together and talked ‘philosophy’ while drunk or high get some mythic heft from the way Kerouac describes them: ‘tremendous’ ‘keen’ ‘energetic’ ‘mad swirls’, he’s a ‘lout’ compared to them. Reading this, you feel like there are consequences to getting left behind – and a weird sense of admiration for those with greater faculties or abilities.

Plus, you’ve got that American Night. Capitalized. There’s not beating the sense of pride and participation in that kind of presentation. And there’s no sense of escape from the dust cloud that’ll cover them all. Reminiscent of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, shadows that still cover the whole country.

And all in a couple sentences describing two friends meeting. (Though, as an interesting side-note – Carlo Marx, a.k.a. Allen Ginsberg – had very little to do with the road trips.)

So, next time someone says that there’s not enough weight, or your characters seem flat, or there’s no meaning – instead of assuming it’s a plot point or a characterization (it still might be) see if it isn’t the way the words are working. Playing with the wording might just fix the issue.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Thursday Reviews! On the Road by Jack Kerouac (A Mentor Review!)

On the RoadOn the Road by Jack Kerouac


My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Having been on many, many, many road trips with my military family -- I have to say that some of this story can be tedious. After all, spend enough time on the road, and you get dizzy with the monotony of the landscape. While there are those sections in this book, it is obvious that Kerouac's reaction to the monotony of the road is the sheer joy of being on the road.

Kerouac's observations are gorgeous, I really was swept away during the first part as he described eating apple pie in diners with almost no money in his pocket. I felt the wind as he sat in the back of truck stuffed with other men looking for work, trying to get home, or, like Kerouac, just enjoying the trip -- with a few nips of some alcohol or another to keep warm. His real talent as a writer is putting the mythic beside the profane...elevating and degrading both elements at the same time, like with this passage on the first time he saw the Mississippi River: "And here for the first time in my life I saw my beloved Mississippi River, dry in the summer haze, low water, with its big rank smell that smells like the raw body of America itself because it washes it up." (pg. 12)

Yeah, but while the descriptions of the road are lovely, nothing good happens whenever these boys stay still. Wives and children are left. Drugs are done. High-flown philosophizing that allows them to bow out of life occurs. Whenever the road ends -- on one coast or the other -- it's not good. Friends and family get tired of draining freeloaders real fast. And part of the frustration of the 'still moments' (as I call them) is that Sal and Dean (representations of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady respectively) are oblivious to the emotional damage they inflict. Even when confronted by fed up wives/girlfriends/mothers directly, they don't see what they're doing.

It was a relief to me, as a reader, whenever they started moving again.

If you enjoy any of the following: fast cars, loose women, music, travel (and all the side roads that go along with it), America, your crazy uncle's stories, alcohol, and if you like it all set to beautiful language...well, you'll find something to like in this book.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Charactouac? or Kerouacter?

New Criticism locates meaning in the internal qualities of literary works, specifically the unity of their multiple verbal structures. as much as it values unity and convergence, New Criticism eschews authorial intent and historical context as bases for interpretation, although it allows that they might supplement understanding.” ~Joshua Kupetz, “The Straight Line Will Take You Only to Death” – an intro to On the Road: The Original Scroll by Jack Kerouac

In his intro to the original On the Road scroll, Kupetz, editor of the scroll and an English professor, says he has been confronted by the idea that Kerouac “mattered first as a personality.” He proceeds to defend the scroll as an example that Kerouac knew what he was doing structurally, verbally, and creatively when he wrote the scroll – and is therefore to be acknowledged first as a strong writer. Which I totally agree with.

The problem is, Kerouac creates himself as a character. He inserts his personality into the story – more directly than other writers. So, try as a critic might to separate the two, the structure of the story is embedded with the biographical information that a critic would work so hard to separate out.

The 1957 version – the version published originally – is easier to separate from Kerouac-the-Author because he edited the thing. (Which, I might add, calls into question the idea that the fast, unedited way is the Beat Way to Write, as does the fact that Kerouac doesn’t seem to have any more scrolls in his closet….) There are chapters and paragraph breaks. And, most tellingly, the characters have character names.

The scroll, on the other hand, is an outright invitation to critics and readers to put Kerouac-the-Author in with Kerouac-the-Character – a charactouac or a kerouacter, whichever you prefer. The main character is not "Sal Paradise" in the scroll. It’s Jack. No "Dean Moriarty" here – only the real-life Neal Cassady. The scroll reads more like today’s literary memoirs, more like Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes or Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club.

So that’s a problem. If the scroll is presented as the definitive edition, how are we supposed to pull Kerouac out of it without unraveling the whole thing? It’d be like trying to pull Maya Angelou out of her oeuvre. Good luck with that!

Honestly, I don’t think that we can if the scroll is considered definitive. But we can separate the two using the 1957 edition – and I have to say that, regardless of how Kerouac may have felt about editing it…he did edit it. Ultimately, he compromised. It’s really okay that he did that. He chose that the public should have the book in some form. And it was a sensation. It allowed him the freedom to create other books.

Speaking purely as a writer, I would hope to heaven that my first drafts are not considered my definitive editions. I personally think that the perfect edition is really somewhere in the middle, somewhere between the scroll and the published book.

As it is, I think that it's easy to respect both for what they are. The 1957 version for it's classic structures - however far away from Kerouac's 'vision' (because we're not supposed to consider his intent, right? That can only happen with the 1957 version). The scroll, however, allows us to see Kerouac and accept or reject him as a character within his own context. There aren't many pieces out there that do that....

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tuesday Post of Accountability: Some Hands-on Kerouac Learning

It's Tuesday again! And every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

Stuff I have accomplished this past week:

1. Finished rewriting the chapter that was giving me such pains last week. Will still have to rework it...but I don't have to rewrite it at this point. Live long Chapter Eight! Ye pain in the @$$ chapter. (I'm sure that won't be the only chapter to give me frustrations along the way, but it has created the greatest pains so far -- think that could be because when you hit that quarter-in mark things get more complicated so the writing has to do more? I think so.)

2. Did The Great Scroll Experiment! My goal was to write a short story really fast on the typewriter -- which is not my normal means of writing. And, since Kerouac did the whole scroll thing so he wouldn't have to stop and start with all the paper loading, I created a scroll as well. However, I don't think that Kerouac's feat can be recreated comfortably by any writer who writes on a computer....

Let me tell you about that. (This will be entertaining both for those of you who wrote research papers and books and whatnot on typewriters and have forgotten the foibles that go along with typewriters and those of you who have never written on a typewriter.)

Okay, so computer writers don't have to reload paper -- so the continuity issue is already fixed for us. We can just type and type to our little heart's content and not have to worry about the stop-start-stop-start that would hinder Kerouac, who had no word processor. When I switched to the typewriter, I thought I could just go and go and go...but there's still a stop-start element that I, as a computer writer, did not anticipate.

Automatic returns. Typewriters do not do that. Typewriters beep at you when you reach your margin and you have to hit return to get to the next line. This changes how you work a line. I found myself composing line by line instead of sentence by sentence. I would probably write better poetry on a typewriter than a computer.

Because, let me tell you, my short story did not do so well. Where a scroll and a typewriter for Kerouac made it easier -- because it actually sped up the process for him -- it slowed me waaaaayyy down. I had to think about what I was doing too much. Plus the typos distracted me. I'm horrible, even with a computer correcting me. (Ask my first readers: Hi Ali! Hi Deb!)

But, there are things to learn from this! For example, I alter the tenses of my sentences often. On a computer, that's no biggie because you can move the cursor back and delete/adjust accordingly. You don't get to correct on a typewriter -- in fact you can correct less on a typewriter than when you handwrite. I found myself constantly wanting to go back and change something because the second half of my sentence would make no sense...but I couldn't. The language had to be clear and set in my head before I could write a solid sentence. (Which is also why I'm going to keep going on the typewriter too...it forces me to think clearly and apparently I need practice with that.)
3. I also did critiques for my writer's group in an experimental fashion. More on that next week, when I see how the results work out!

All right, so that was my educational week. How'd you guys do?

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Great Scroll Experiment!

In honor of Kerouac, and in attempting to learn what I can about writing from him, I spent the better part of yesterday afternoon trying to create my own scroll-of-fiction.

First, I gathered my paper (10 sheets...my thought process being that ten sheets of single-spaced typewritten paper made a more-than-decent length short story):


Then I glued all of that together into one long piece:



Fed it through my typewriter:


And began writing:


I'll tell you how the writing itself it went tomorrow in my accountability post. Now -- have you guys ever tried to copy a Great Writer's method? Wrote with quills? Fountain pens? Standing up like Hemingway is reported to have done? How did that work for ya?

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Scroll and The Legend

Once upon a time there was dude who wrote a novel on a long scroll - one hundred feet long - no punctuation - no paragraph breaks - no rules - hopped up on bennies, he did it in three weeks after spending seven years on the roads across America, and occasionally down to Mexico - the result was a cult-icon book, the birth of a movement, and the Trophy of All the Literary World (excepting First Folios, as my buddy Tracy Edward Wymer points out): Jack Kerouac's On the Road Scroll.

But, if you really, really want to get a sense of the thing, take a peek at the unrolling of the scroll itself...and you may as well enjoy it on the screen while you can. Heaven knows how long the thing will last as it makes world tour after world tour.

(Sorry, that last was a bitter side-note because it is in the hands of private collectors - bought for the pretty sum of 2.4 million dollars - and not with the scholars/museum archives.)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Thursday Reviews!: And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks by William S Burroughs and Jack Kerouac (A Mentor Review!)

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their TanksAnd the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks by William S. Burroughs

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was written in the couple years following the murder of David Kammerer -- the real-life case which Burroughs and Kerouac were so close to, and on which this story is based. Facts and names have been changed to protect the innocent...but, like most Beat books, the source material is not as well hidden by code-names as the participants would probably like and the book wasn't published until 2008. Fifty years later.

As if the subject matter wasn't interesting enough, it's also written by two iconic figures of the Beat generation: Burroughs and Kerouac. The story is told in alternating chapters, first Burroughs and then Kerouac taking turns at writing the chapters. This does result in a certain choppiness--which you would expect. After all, even icons were fledgling writers at some point and it's hard to control consistency-of-tone with one writer, let alone two. But it's not as rough as a reader would expect. According to the Afterword by James Grauerholz, Kerouac did type the manuscript "just as it is preserved, with no missing pages; he was a good speller and handy with punctuation." So, there you have it: good writers can do good jobs.

The story is very much a slice-of-life kind of piece, not a sensationalistic recounting of a bloody murder. If you want to know the ins and outs of the Merchant Marines at the end of WWII, bars, how to get money outta your friends, and morphine use, then this is your book. (Okay, maybe not quite that extreme.) The murder isn't a centerpiece the way that contemporary true-crime novels. The presentations of motive (and even that is not overt) and the story of the relationships behind the murder are central.

The overall voice reads very noir. The language is straightforward, which is why I think that the tone doesn't shift as much as it could otherwise. Take for example: "Then we boarded the subway and went back downtown to Washington Square." (Kerouac's chapter) and "We took the Independent down to Washington Square and said good night at the entrance because we were going in opposite directions." (Burroughs's chapter). Subject matter and descriptions are pretty similar.

Dennison and Ryko are the narrators, and they do a good a job. The characters are observant, full of questionable advice, and their reactions to a potentially explosive situation are very cavalier...which adds to the tension of the story. As a reader, I felt that the two leads were just as likely to kill or be killed at any given moment. Or die stupidly. To put it another way, it's like reading The Outsiders, only without Ponyboy's conscience.

The title alone is worth a star by itself.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Hippos and the Beat of the Beats

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks is about a crime – a terrible crime – the worst kind of crime one person can commit against another. Yet, when reading the book, and even after acknowledging that the characters and details have been altered, I was struck that neither Burroughs or Kerouac took a position that favored one side (Kammerer as victim) or the other (Carr as perpetrator).

When Kammerer and Carr came to New York, Burroughs followed them. He was a friend of the murdered man – a guy who nowadays would be arrested for his attention toward: a.) a student and b.) a much younger boy. (An adult by this time.) But when Burroughs presents Al, Kammerer’s fictional representation, in all his obsessiveness, he does it with an air of acceptance for his friend’s flaws. Conversations like the following had my mouth dropping open:

     ‘Al sat there looking sad and ordered one beer and cold lobster. Finally he said, “I think I’ll go down there tonight and climb into his room.”
     I spat out a lobster claw and looked at him. “Well,” I said, “that’s taking the bull by the horns.”
     But Al was serious. He said, “No I’m just going to go into his room while he’s asleep and watch him for a while.”
     “And suppose he should wake up? He’ll think it’s some vampire hovering over him.”
     “Oh no,” said Al in resigned tones, “he’ll just tell me to get out. This has happened before.”’ ~from Chapter Five of Hippos, Burroughs’s chapter

(This kind of behavior bothered me in Twilight too, and I find it hilarious that Burroughs hit that nail dead-center decades before the vampire phenomenon.)

Burroughs takes his friend’s stalking tendencies in stride. And he’s not the only one aware of this situation. Phillip (the Carr character) asks Ryko (the Kerouac character) to help him get outta town, away from Al’s attentions. Ryko agrees, and tries to get Phillip onto a merchant marine ship as a crewman…but he also tells Al what Phillip is up to. It's not a big deal to these guys at all.

It’s easy to blame the attitude difference on time difference. Kerouac and Burroughs weren’t bombarded with the daily talk shows on stalking, child molestation, and the consequences of a set-up like this. I could maybe let their laissez faire point of view go if I used the “It was a different time” argument…but it’s still hard not to yell at the characters for being blind morons. Their attitude definitely is different, and I think it has more to do with the beat of the Beats than it does with whatever time may have elapsed between then and now.

Their philosophy of life has to be understood if a reader is really going to understand what they wrote about and, in turn, how they wrote about it.

According to Kerouac’s essay “Lamb, No Lion” in Good Blonde and Others, “Beat doesn’t mean tired, or bused, so much as it means beato, the Italian for beatific: to be in a state of beatitude, like St. Francis, trying to love all life, trying to be utterly sincere with everyone, practicing endurance, kindness, cultivating joy of the heart.

In other words, it’s about the search for joy in everything – including junkies, bums, murderers, etc. In the search for peace, there is no hating on people. So, after the character of Phillip hatchets the character of Al to death, Burroughs encourages him to confess, but doesn’t pass judgment. It’s because of the Beat belief. It pops again and again in Kerouac’s work…even here in the earliest work.

Just one more example to help clarify the Beat philosophy/attitude/way of being, here’s Kerouac, in his essay “The Origins of the Beat Generation”: “Recently Ben Hecht said to me on TV ‘Why are you afraid to speak out your mind, what’s wrong with this country, what is everybody afraid of?’ Was he talking to me? And all he wanted me to do was speak out my mind against people, he sneeringly brought up Dulles, Eisenhower, the Pop, all kinds of people like that habitually he would sneer at with Drew Pearson, against the world he wanted, this is his idea of freedom, he calls it freedom. Who knows, my God, but that the universe is not one vast sea of compassion actually, the veritable holy honey, beneath all this show of personality and cruelty.”

Aside from the fact that he’s not really accepting Hecht for himself…Kerouac says that haters are gonna hate and he’s not a hater. (I do wonder what he would think of the current political smackdowns that go on….)

Anyway, to hear Kerouac present and/or defend himself in his own words, here’s a clip from the Ben Hecht interview:

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tuesday Post of Accountability!: Rewriting Chapters

It's Tuesday again! And every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

Stuff I've accomplished this week:

1. Had to rewrite not one, but two chapters this week--and only partially succeeded. One chapter was because I realized I'd originally written in the wrong POV. Frustrating to realize that. I did manage to finish that chapter.

The second chapter I had to re-do was because I realized I didn't have the real-life know-how to pull off the way that I'd set up...and I could tell the scene better if I changed it. (The POV character was originally saving the life of another important character via surgery...but I can't get the information that I need into the story from an unconscious character...so POV character will work on a different, conscious character and therefore will still show life-saving capabilities and get info into the story.) Still haven't finished this sequence because I can't balance writing fast and getting in the level of detail that I want. Will probably have more to report on this scene next week.

2. I'm almost done filling in my very first notebook from start to finish. Yay! This is the notebook where I write down random thoughts, bitch about how the writing process is going, examine what may or may not be impeding my progress, and write quotes/thoughts about reading. I have done this in various notebooks but this is the first time I've used up one whole notebook.

3. Tried to accomplish lots of reading as well. According to Goodreads's barometer, I'm 20ish books behind on my goal to read 100 books this year. Plus, in order to talk about Kerouac I have to read him. Go figure. Did manage to finish reading 2 books.

4. Sent early completed chapters of TL off to first readers. I'll bitch about examine what they to say in a later post. (I love youse guys!)

Let me know I wasn't alone! Whatdja do this week?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Kerouac, Burroughs, and Direct Collaboration

Direct collaboration, as opposed to indirect collaboration, is where a writer works directly with one or more people on a specific piece. Writers working with agents or editors to shape-up a piece for publication is an example of direct collaboration. In 1944 Jack Kerouac and his friend William Burroughs took turns writing alternating chapters of And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a novel about the sensationalized murder of one of their circle, David Kammerer, by another member of their circle, Lucien Carr.


First, a super-quick background on the case:

Kammerer was a teacher out in Missouri, and Carr was a student. When they met, Kammerer was 25 years old, and Carr was eleven. Kammerer basically took Carr under his wing (otherwise known as: followed the kid around) and, as James Grauerholz sums up in his Afterword to Hippos: “Eight years, five states, four prep schools, and two colleges later, that connection was grown too intense.” Carr tried to join the merchant marines, hoping to get on a ship and head out of country and leave Kammerer behind. That plan didn’t work out. On August 14, 1944, Carr stabbed Kammerer and threw his body into the Hudson River. Carr surrendered a day later, after first confessing to Burroughs and then to Kerouac – who may or may not have helped conceal evidence (I can’t find a definitive answer, so if anyone knows, please let me know). Carr and Kerouac were both arrested. Carr ultimately served two years. Kerouac only got bailed out because he agreed to marry his first wife, Edie Parker, and her family paid for his release.

Seeing as how writers are such an understanding lot…Carr’s friends jumped to write about the whole situation. Ginsberg worked a few chapters for his own book, and according to Grauerholz, his version “is the most detailed, and possibly the most realistic, of all the dramatizations of Kammerer’s final hours.”

And Kerouac and Burroughs decided to write their version together.

I’m not surprised that writers involved in a collaborative circle would choose to write together. And I’m certainly not surprised Kerouac and Burroughs chose to write about an event that affected their lives, and the lives of other members of their circle, so completely. I am happy that the publication was saved until after all of the major parties have died. (Not for lack of trying, apparently, but Carr requested that they back off – which they did.)
Anyway, Kerouac and Burroughs did write the book together, choosing one of the most obvious forms of collaborative writing: the alternating chapter method.

That’s just like it sounds. Burroughs took a chapter, then handed it off to Kerouac, who wrote the second chapter, and so on. I can’t speak for Kerouac and Burroughs, or how easy/difficult it is to do with two people, but I have used this method.

With about ten other people.

There are pros and cons.

Pros:
• Word count adds up quick. It’s satisfying to watch the story grow and feel the ownership of it…and do only a portion of the work. If you’ve never finished a big thing like a novel, sharing the work with someone else can give you the impetus to finish your own work. From what I can tell, Hippos was the first big work completed by either Kerouac or Burroughs…even though it wasn’t published until decades later.
• It increases communication, which forces you, as a writer, to articulate what you’re trying to do. That helps with your solo work as well. This is part of the overall effectiveness of indirect collaborative groups that we talked about on Friday. You have to define your terms.
• You back up your work more. Hit SAVE!
• Keeps you on your toes – harder to predict what another writer will do with the material. Makes you think creatively within a piece and see various possibilities. (A lot like working improve for actors.) One of the rules for the round story projects that my writing group works on is that you can’t negate something one of the other writers introduced. So you can’t blow everyone up and start over in a new setting with characters you ‘like better.’ Hippos has a uniformity to the story that Kerouac and Burroughs had to have worked out in a similar fashion.
• It’s a great way to learn the structure of stories, because without thinking about that, the whole thing gets wonky fast. As it is, Hippos has an episodic build: first the characters go here, and then there, and then here again. There are some neatly interwoven threads, but there are a lot of diversions as well.
• It’s just fun. It keeps it playful, even if you’re dead serious.

Cons:
• You don’t have full control of the story. You MUST compromise. (If you don’t, it equals arguments with people who you generally respect and admire – why else would you choose to write with them?)
• Can result in a choppy story, no matter how hard you try. Hippos suffers from this, sorry to say.
• Schedules are a pain to work out. – Luckily, Kerouac and Burroughs were pretty much living together with some other buddies while they worked on Hippos.
• Without individual control, you hit the middle bar more often than the top bar. Kerouac and Burroughs were both smashing writers…but I have to say that Hippos doesn’t equal Kerouac’s solo work – at least from what I’ve read. (And I’ve never read Burroughs’s solo work, so I can’t compare on his side of the equation.) Part of the quality-question is definitely that this was their first big finished project for both of them…so it’s a book by beginners overall.

I highly recommend at least one attempt at direct collaboration like Kerouac and Burroughs. After a while of doing this writing gig, we’ll all have an opportunity to respond to agents and editors sounding off on the work, requesting that we adjust our stories. But it’s not as often that you’ll have an opportunity to meet up with a buddy and articulate what you’re trying to do while creating.

You just have to go into it with the knowledge that, if you fail miserably, you can at least blame it on the other guy.

***Side note on Lucien Carr: He is the father of novelist Caleb Carr -- the author of two of my own favorite books: The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness.***

Friday, July 8, 2011

Kerouac’s Collaborative Circle: Indirect Collaboration

You may think that all you need to write good books is will-power, a stellar idea, and a cave. You may think that hiding in a cubby hole with a full-battery-power laptop is all there is to turning out a tale worth telling. Perhaps you’re a poet who thinks that a lonely hill, some loose leaf paper, and a pen with free-flowing ink is the way to go. Isolation. A room of your own. Space to create.

Eh. That’s only partly true.

Sure, you do need quiet time. I’m as big a fan of Peace and his buddy Quiet as the next writer who needs to escape cloying children, spouses who need attention, and houses that are collapsing around their ears because the laundry has grown legs and is threatening world domination. (“First this House. Then this Neighborhood. Finally the World!”) There is no way to complete a masterpiece, or even a passably passable story, without the time and space with which to create it.

But. The truly great writers all had at least one buddy to bounce off of. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were also known as the Inklings. H.G Wells, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Ford Madox Ford create a dizzying circle of genius. Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury. And guess what? Shakespeare was in the theatre, the ultimate for collaboration.

Now, when I say collaboration, there are two different types: direct and indirect. Direct collaboration is where a writer works, ahem, directly with one or more people on a specific piece. Writers working with agents or editors to shape-up a piece for publication is an example of direct collaboration. When Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs wrote And the Hippos were Boiled in Their Tanks together, that is also direct collaboration.

Indirect collaboration involves the idea of influence. It involves writers talking to one another, perhaps critiquing, and basically sounding off on writing in general. In Collaborative Circles and Creative Work, author Michael P. Ferrell defines a collaborative circle as “a primary group consisting of peers who share similar occupational goals and who, through long periods of dialogue and collaboration, negotiate a common vision that guides their work. The vision consists of a shared set of assumptions about their discipline, including what constitutes good work, how to work, what subjects are worth taking on, and how to think about them."

I propose that without Ginsberg, Burroughs, et al., Kerouac would not have written as well as he did – and since most of his characters were based on his real-life associates, his storylines would be totally gone. The Beats are a textbook example of the creative collaborative circle:

• They were “peers with similar occupational goals and interests”: Kerouac = novelist/poet. Ginsberg = poet. Burroughs = novelist. Lucien Carr = writer. Neal Cassady = criminal/philosopher (which all groups need, I guess)
• “Through long periods of dialogue and collaboration…”: the Beats left tons of dialogic evidence behind in letters, journals, printed interviews, etc.
• “…negotiate a common vision that guides their work.”: the Beats called their vision The New Vision (I know, you’d’ve thought it’d be more original…) Basically, art was mankind’s highest state of being – and, yes, it figures artists would think that – creativity was to be nurtured however possible. Dreams. Drugs. Whatever. “The new vision assumed the death of square morality and replaced that meaning with belief in creativity. I think we were quite moralistic in a way.” ~Allen Ginsberg, qtd in The Beats by Mike Evans.

And as a group they agreed on
• “what constitutes good work”: apparently not Fitzgerald, but Yeats and Kafka were all right
• “how to work”: fast, no real revisions, Benzedrine and other drugs as stimulants
• “subjects worth taking on”: political subjects, the ‘lower’ classes of man to show reality or truth
• “and how to think about them”: everything open to creative expression, including bums, druggies, etc.

If you read any of Kerouac’s work, you will be confronted with his version of the New Vision.

And if you read any of Ginsberg, Burroughs, et al., you will see a different-yet-similar interpretation of that vision filtered through a different-yet-similar mind. It’s kinda trippy.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Kerouac-Ginsberg Letters: You Have to Write More than You Think

Jack Kerouac attended Columbia University for a while. It was there he met and started hanging around with some other names you may know – most notable fellow novelist William S. Burroughs and the poet Allen Ginsberg. Because we can’t talk Kerouac without talking about his crew, we get a two-for-one mentorship deal!

Starting in earnest in 1944 – when Kerouac was held as a material witness to the murder of David Kammerer – Ginsberg and Kerouac began writing a ton of letters to each other. If one or the other of them was outta town, in jail, or in a mental hospital, they wrote. Recently this avalanche of correspondence was collected and edited by Bill Morgan (for the Ginsberg estate) and David Stanford (for the Kerouac estate) in a great volume called Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg: The Letters. In the introduction, the editors talk about the quantity and quality of the letters: “Some of their letters are stunningly extensive single-spaced epics, longer than published stories or articles. There are aerogrammes from afar, words jammed to the edges, filling every inch, and handwritten letters on lined pages, tiny notebook sheets, old letterhead. Add-ons are scrawled on envelopes, and sometimes-lengthy postscripts tucked in.”

stunningly extensive single-spaced epics” they say. And how.

The breadth and scope and word count of these letters left me a little breathless – partly in awe, partly in surprise, and partly in bafflement at the sheer volume of insights, information, and bullshit they (Kerouac and Ginsberg, not the editors) threw around. They talked books, women, men, religion, publishing, poetry, psychology, sex, not-having-sex, having-sex, and, of course, writing. It’s easy to get overwhelmed looking through so much material.

I was easily distracted by such tidbits as:

But I do not wish to escape to myself, I wish to escape from myself.” ~ Ginsberg to Kerouac, letter ca. late July 1945

However I hate you. Because years ago you and Burrows [Burroughs] used to laugh at me because I saw people as godlike.” Kerouac to Ginsberg, letter ca. December 16, 1948

I filled a 150 page notebook in the last four days with a detailed recreation of the events of the last month.” Ginsberg to Kerouac ca. early May 1949

The thirteen year old girl wrote a story on my typewriter about the Giant in the garden and the little children who were afraid to go in because they thought the garden door was locked, but it wasn’t at all and the door opened, and they went in, and the Giant cried with joy. This proves to me that children really know more than adults. Children are preoccupied with the same things Shakespeare knew.” Kerouac to Ginsberg, letter July 5-11, 1949

(I could go on, but will stop there. Like I said, easily distracted…)

Reading through the letters gave me an insight more basic than whatever subject matter Kerouac and Ginsberg discussed. As I read the letters (yes, sometimes wondering if they would ever end) I kept hearing the voice of my buddy John quoting the ‘rule’ that a writer must write a million words of crap before you get to anything good. And here, right in front of me, was what the first million words looks like…not that they were writing crap, but that they were writing a lot.

Here’s what a million words looks like:

• unpublished novels and poems – Kerouac and Ginsberg both had piles of stuff hanging around. Kerouac’s first published novel was 300,000 words before it was edited, a staggering count

• journals and notebooks that are never intended to see the light of day – note Ginsberg filled a 150 page notebook in four days…time to turn off the T.V. people!

• letters – there were 300 letters between Kerouac and Ginsberg that the editors of Letters worked through to create the almost-500 page collection (the editors didn’t include the letters post-1963)

It is an ungodly amount of material. A lot of writers think that finishing the first draft of a first novel is BIG (and it is – just in a different way than they think). Think about it: if your first novel is 100,000 words – a respectable sum – you still have to do that 10 more times. Tired yet?

Hope not. Because not all words are created equal. If you’re just throwing down words without learning what goes along with them (grammar, meaning, story-process) then those words don’t count as much as the words you put down with intent and concentration. In other words: you must practice with those million words.

Yep. You’ve got to write more than you think you do.

Nowadays we don’t really write letters, and diaries and journals have been replaced by blogs and Facebook. But just because our methods are electronic shouldn’t change the amount of work we put into our words. Blasting off an email can be just as artistic as writing out a letter. When you tell your friend about your day or your thoughts in an email, make those words count. Be descriptive. Use details. Tell your buddy how a thirteen year old girl is like Shakespeare.

Blogs are also not a space to be sloppy. Sure, we all flub and typo, and it may feel more casual than other types of writing, but it’s still a place to practice and get thoughts down articulately. (Plus, if you choose, a blog has a certain permanency on the web…Miss Snark’s blog may be dark, but her words live on in the ether-sphere.)

Hm, from the length of this entry, seems like I’m trying to beef up my own word count….

Okay, that’s enough from me. Whatcha waitin’ for? You’ve got words to write. Get crackin’!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Tuesday Post of Accountability!: Submissions and an Injured Finger

Every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

Okay, here's my progress report:

1. Wrote rough draft of a three page short story I'm calling "The Last Typewriter in the World"...inspired by the fact that my mother just got me a typewriter for a Kerouac-like experiment that I shall be conducting shortly.

2. Submitted to four magazines. These are really my first submissions of the year. Working on novel-length pieces doesn't leave you a whole lot of submittable material, but I spruced up a couple flash pieces and we'll see how they do.

3. Thought about editing another short story and just wound up looking at it for a little while.

4. Worked on typing in handwritten chapters for TL, realized I was going to have to rewrite a chapter from another point of view and haven't worked on it since out of frustration. (Plus my right index finger still hurt from all the handwriting...I really think I strained something and will try to take it easier on my hand by mixing the handwriting/computer entry a little faster.)

5. Finished blog posts for the week...and they're lengthy so I think that counts as writing work.  =)


All writey guys?

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Great American Novel and Jack Kerouac

On the Fourth of July it only seems appropriate to talk about The Great American Novel. Books as varied as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and, more recently, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom have all been considered for the title of Great American Novel. (Personally, I can see strong arguments made for Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, and My Antonia by Willa Cather.) It doesn’t seem like the title ever gets handed out though.

The obvious reason is that the American experience is so wide, so varied, that the books listed above can’t hit on every American’s experience. Since there is no quintessential AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, no book can be said to contain it. Especially as times change. Once upon a time Uncle Tom’s Cabin could’ve had a good argument going for it…but today the language is dated and the storytelling so melodramatic that the landscape narrows too much.

Kerouac’s novel On the Road has been mentioned with the books listed above as a contender for The Great American Novel, and while I haven’t made it all the way through the book yet, I see that argument clearly. In fact, having read and loved several of the books mentioned as the Great American Novel, On the Road is quickly becoming my personal favorite for that title.

Why? It has all of the flaws of the previously listed books. It can’t possibly encapsulate the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. The narrator is a 1950s White Boy, after all.

My reasoning:

1. On the Road avoids being about a single region of the United States like Gone with the Wind, The Jungle, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Age of Innocence, My Antonia, etc. (New York and the South seem to have placed some big claims on being All-American, huh?) The reader of On the Road, being a road trip, is flung from New York to Denver via Chicago, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming in just the first five chapters. It literally and figuratively moves all over the map. The traveling element (which dominates Huckleberry Finn and Grapes of Wrath, by the way) is a HUGE part of the American experience. I can name less than a handful of people – Americans – in my own experience who have not crossed multiple state lines. Roads dominate our landscape…more so now than when Kerouac was writing.

2. Kerouac’s main character, Sal, runs the gamut of class standing. Class is one of those topics that pops up again and again in American Literature. (Examples already listed: Age of Innocence, Grapes of Wrath, Beloved, Invisible Man, Freedom, Great Gatsby, The Jungle.)At least in the opening, Sal seems to navigate class distinctions fairly well. He’s just as comfortable hitching a ride with two university students as two railroad tramps. When he arrives in Denver, his buddies set him up in a decked-out apartment, but he doesn’t mind drinking or partying in the questionable side of town.

3. Probably the biggest argument for On the Road being the Great American Novel is that it doesn’t flinch from talking about things that we still don’t always discuss openly – but are there nevertheless. Kerouac brings out a whole slew of topics that are woven through the American tapestry: drugs, music (specifically jazz and bop), sex (pick a gender, any gender), fast cars, open spaces, political affiliations (yep, Carlo Marx is a character), and even apple pie with ice cream. It is all in there, and it’s all in just the first five chapters or so.

The biggest issue that hasn’t come up yet is race. Since White Boy is the narrator, I don’t know what attitude will come up: good/bad/indifferent. But Huckleberry Finn, Beloved, Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird and Invisible Man all come at this topic from dramatically different perspective and I can’t imagine that a guy – a white guy who navigates different classes – would travel across the U.S. and not present/talk about/creatively expound upon the topic of race. It remains to be seen.

So, The Great American title is still basically up for grabs. But I do think Kerouac’s novel should be slotted towards the top of the list.

Happy Fourth of July everyone! Have a safe and happy holiday. Don’t eat too much apple pie.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Beat the Drums! We Got A New Mentor: Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac is best known for his iconic, voice-of-a-generation novel On the Road. Having never read anything (and I mean not a word) of Kerouac before, I decided it was time. Voila! He is the mentor for July-August.

For those who may not know much about Kerouac (like me until recently), I'm gonna give you a quick list of the highlight, or important lights -- since there are some lowlights too -- of his life and career, two things which may not be inseparable.
  • Kerouac born in 1922
  • Kerouac = sport star in high school which earns him:
  • Football scholarship to Columbia University in New York where
  • he meets other future icons of the Beat Generation (William Burroughs: Naked Lunch, Junkie; Allen Ginsberg: Howl)
  • 1944: Kerouac arrested/held as a material witness to David Kammerer murder
  • 1944: marries Edie Parker
  • Starts hitchhiking and traveling around USA (1947-1950 = Neal Cassady as travel partner, roots of On the Road), works on first book
  • 1950: First book The Town and the City published
  • 1950: marries Joan Haverty
  • Seven years later On the Road is published
  • Wild literary popularity--more books published, more traveling, more of everything
  • Kerouac introduced to and continues to explore Buddhism 1953-_____
  • 1966: marries Stella Sampas
  • Dies October 1969 of a hemorrhage caused by cirrhosis of the liver
Okay, so that's a really simplified introduction/timeline to a really complex dude. But it's good to know at least this much because it'll help with the conversation. 

Whatchoo guys know about Kerouac? What do you guys want to know? Tune in next week!