Vanity of Duluoz
In the Heart of the Heart of the Country
If Jack Kerouac’s Vanity of Duluoz and Jeremy Larner’s The Answer were put together between one cover they would make a saga on the regenerative powers of each generation to consider itself unique and to write about this with an ineptness and banality indistinguishable from its predecessor. Kerouac, in his forties, Larner, in his twenties, both take up the search for identity, and grimly turn it into exercises so similar that one wonders whether America is not producing a literary Snopes family which we are doomed to see advertising itself with steamy prose every twenty years or so. It is uncanny how these two books, one an autobiography, the other written in the first-person singular, blend together to chronicle an inbred sensibility whose only purpose seems to be to publish vague musings about itself.
There are, of course, superficial differences between the two Kerouac takes off along the more tested routes of disaffection: booze, sea journeys, road travels, undigested literary revelations, and a dislike for football coaches. Larner’s hero makes his trip toward discovery using the latest drugs and a somewhat more traditionally punctuated sentence than Kerouac’s. But these distinctions are accidents of time and fashion. Underneath they have the same ebullient certainty that the chunks of experience they throw down form some coherent vision. Both hurl themselves toward ultimate statements without first earning the right to them. Many great writers have brought works to a simplistic philosophical conclusion, but, through the detail and understanding of their art, they so inform these conclusions that we accept them. But the Larner-Kerouac family gives no detail, only descriptive writing; it offers no understanding, only loose judgments. Finally, and worst of all, after the agitation of the prose and the shrill, frank, egocentric secrets, one feels that no greater demand has been made on the reader than that he have a little pity.
Let us begin with Kerouac. Given his past habits as a writer, one knows what to expect from him. Although some have seen Vanity of Duluoz as a more disciplined work—Kerouac now uses commas because, as he says in the opening pages, no one liked his factotum dash—it is really the same old heap of prose. Beginning with his days as a high-school football player, it takes him through Columbia, a few odd jobs, travels, the Merchant Marine, a brief stay in the Navy, and finally back to a marginal life at Columbia where he is involved, peripherally, in a murder. Through all this we get much lamentation on how tedious and unfair the world was to young Kerouac, how “vital” he was—could one ship out to sea, play football, and love Thomas Wolfe without being vital?—and how he came to reach those insights about life and death which he treats us to in the book’s final pages. Along the way we meet the Gargantuan characters Kerouac specializes in: “He was 6 foot 6 and 300 pounds of Negro glory,” “Slim …