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 liked me and I liked Slim, we were both strong men, and gay, independent and free-minded…,” “There was this kid from New Orleans called Claude de Maubris who was…blond, eighteen, of fantastic male beauty like a blond Tyrone Power with slanted green eyes and the same look, voice, words and build, I mean by words he expressed his words with the same forcefulness, a little more like Alan Ladd actually….”
BUT ALL THIS we’ve had before, and, indeed, depending on one’s mood, the awkward exuberance could even be fun and of some interest. But there is something else going on in Vanity of Duluoz, which may well have been present in Kerouac’s earlier books, though hidden beneath the Love, scene-digging, and beautiful people: a bitterness and a petulance that change the top-heavy prose from an almost pleasant semi literate excess into an ominous insistence that attention be paid to the man suffering and writing these lines. Perhaps it is because Kerouac is getting middle-aged and beginning to worry about the younger generation that this cantankerous attitude peeps through more often than it did in the past. Perhaps he now suspects that a preference for the weird and subrational does not necessarily make one an artist. Perhaps, he means now really to tell it to us like it is. Whatever the reason, I could not get over the notion that, with every metaphor and incident in this autobiography, the author was desperately insisting that things will be as he intends them—even though his genius is not up to proving it.
Seeing the Kerouac style as frantic propaganda makes it easier to understand the sour conclusions this work comes to, for in the end the author speaks of the sin of birth, the madness of nature, and the ineptness of social argument, either scientific or philosophical. Yes, a deep thought, and within this old Augustinian notion of the fixed order of things one can lay to rest all sorts of responsibility. What better place to leave such a book as the Vanity of Duluoz.
Now The Answer, as one may have gathered by what was hinted before, centers about an LSD trip, and since I have never been on one, I will assume Jeremy Larner knows whereof he speaks. However, he should also know that visions are notoriously uncommunicable and that even the greatest mystics get a cool reception when they come back from their flights with the same old stories of radiant light, floating through space, “the something else,” and explosions of color. But Larner takes right off into his chemical wonderland, and for seventy pages or so reports come back to produce in the reader the imagistic excitement he might feel on solving a jigsaw puzzle for the hundredth time. For those who wish a sampling, the following:
The visual scene slid before me like divided pictures when the film is jammed. Inside, the same thing. I could go from the world of clouds, the higher drifting and pulling back, which I was saving for later—to the place back here where I was myself and taking it all in—to what was supposedly around me, the environment and myself inside it. But there was a potentiality to shoot out from the top. When I opened my eyes I was waiting, checking, delaying with relish my ultimate departure. The levels—I understand that—and the detachment, the something else. Words bound to be inadequate.
Words bound to be inadequate! After such knowledge, what forgiveness for the inadequate pages that follow. At least Kerouac supposes that something specific will come out of all the overflow; Larner, the wiser second generation, knows better, but he treats us to a seventy-page barrage anyway. The need to write fine things apparently knows no laws of contradiction.
As the title implies, Larner’s novel is about a young man with questions, named Alex, who is no longer in rhythm with his college studies, is at odds with his father, is uncertain about love, is cool but nettled about sex, is…but the rest can be filled in by deduction. Thus, with his questions as baggage, he sets off to a manor called Heavenly House and joins a hippie band presided over by a Leary-like guru called Tyrtan. There he has a bagful of psychedelic experiences and tries to draw from his companions the secrets of this new world. Now I have nothing against these votaries of love and Nirvana, but it is a fact that they are notoriously non-verbal, and since Larner’s hero is caught in the form of the novel, he is at a serious disadvantage. Here is a sample of what discourse is like at Heavenly House (I am using the enticements excerpted by the publishers for their book jacket).
“Beauty for me is just a parttime thing. Otherwise how would we know it?”
“All matter is illusion. Only the Void is real…. This little part deep down in your brain is straining with hope. You know what it’s straining for? Ecstasy!”
Needing a little heavier fare than this, the young man goes for the big answer and swallows the pill. After all his ups and downs, lights and darknesses, giggles and tears, he comes out of his vision less than enchanted by it. Something is wrong with the all-is-illusion theory; something is wrong with Tyrtan (he does have some mild faggot tendencies); something is wrong with this chemical derangement of the senses. So back to the old world, where he finds a friend has hanged himself while under the influence of the Drug, and then, back further into moral retribution, he assaults his generation’s deceiver, Tyrtan. He is safe. Larner has brought him back a wiser man, ready to begin facing up to things. In a postscript we see that he’s getting on through life about the same as everyone else: troubled, still trying to find an honest connection with others—but, well, getting on.
I wish that Larner had left Alex a happy disciple of the Drug, for his novel might then come to a conclusion that would provide some excuse for reading it. As it is we have nothing but the usual emotionally fastidious young man who has a fling at controlled lunacy and then decides to come home. Had he pretended to be a piece of roast-beef for a weekend, the literary result would be the same, for Larner, in his anxiousness to present the “scene,” has forgotten to put anyone in it. There must be hundreds of characters like Alex floating about the creative writing classrooms today—all of them with the same questions and the same grumbles when the answers prove difficult. And so they take their trips, and what happens? No real intelligence has been assaulted, no real life has been set against itself. The fact that the contraction of a few cerebral blood vessels does not produce endless ecstasy and fresh knowledge may indeed make an interesting novel, but only if the writer is wise enough to realize that the interest lies not in the phantasmagoria of the hippie world but in the distinctness of the human beings in it. The old composite of the alienated youth, impossibly apperceptive and self-concerned, cannot be trotted out, put in a new setting and expected to be taken seriously. This, along with that incredibly punishing description of the mind afloat, is really all Jeremy Larner has done.
How pleasant to turn now to a writer like William Gass. In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, a collection of stories, makes clear the rewards of an imagination which clings to the concrete world like a lover and makes of it, through near-perfect language, a renewed mystery. Gass knows as well as any writer I’ve read the secret of freezing a character in an attitude of mortality that is forever memorable; he knows, too, how to make objects and nature cluster about his people until they are all active on the page; and he knows how to wear new forms easily so that any other arrangement of incident would seem stiff and out-of-place.
The title piece of the collection is laid out somewhat like a company investigator’s notes to the home office on the prospects of setting up a branch in a new territory. Since the subject of the piece is a small, Midwestern town of Rotarian gestalt, this prospectus-like method works well at laying out the town’s vitals and, through the intensity of the writing beneath each heading, mocking itself:
Aunt Pet’s still able to drive her car—a high square Ford—even though she walks with difficulty and a stout stick. She has a watery gaze, a smooth plump face despite her age, and jet black hair in a bun. She has the slowest smile of anyone I ever saw, but she hates dogs, and not very long ago cracked the back of one she cornered in her garden. To prove her vigor she will tell you this, her smile breaking gently while she raises the knob of her stick to the level of your eyes.
Thus, with such precise and quick sketches, Gass builds his town and its citizens. He writes about political attitudes, behavior at a basketball game, business methods, and xenophobic passions—all in a manner which seems both detached and furibund, a subtle prose that slowly draws the terror out of what first looks unthreateningly dull. When he is done, we have a part of our country unerringly on display, as complete as any novel has made it. By the use of categories, Gass has made his story fit right into the sensibility of the locale he describes.
But there is another heart besides that of the Midwest’s in this story. It is that of the narrator, a poet, alone in a house with memories of a departed lover. His passions work in counterpoint to the town’s, their very human, sensual base opposed to the mass angers and suspicions of the Midwest. This juxtaposition, helping to etch his subject more clearly, also creates the sort of tension that one finds, oddly enough, in a spy novel; for, after a while, one begins to feel that the narrator is indeed a secret agent in alien territory, and should the inhabitants discover what lay in his heart, they might rip it out between halves of the high-school basketball game.
“The Pedersen Kid,” the longest piece in the volume, is a more conventional tale about a young boy whose world brutalizes him into madness. The entire action takes place in a Northwestern blizzard, a fierce, menacing winter holocaust that threads itself about two men and a boy as they move toward a farm where a murderer might be hiding. The men are as vicious in nature as the storm, and the boy, who narrates, thinks often of giving himself up to the warm, sleepy death of the blizzard rather than go on with his father and hired man. Word by word, Gass creates a world where everything is dumb, unreasonable, and capriciously cruel, and the boy, like some civilized mind challenged by a threatening logic it can’t quite grasp, moves through the violence and terror until he creates an imaginary sanctuary for himself, safe from the blizzard and the people it creates. “The Pedersen Kid,” like Faulkner’s The Bear, is a ritual of manhood, and the two deserve to be read side by side.
The other stories of William Gass are equally interesting, but even happy judgments become tedious if insisted upon. It is enough if I finish by saying that his book is a perfect antidote to, and refutation of, the sort of writing about which I began this review.