On the Road
Jack Kerouac was turned on by the cinema and he fancied himself as Jean Gabin in The Lower Depths. The Renoir film, adapted from the play by Maxim Gorky, was showing one evening in 1940 at the Apollo Theatre in Times Square and the young Columbia footballer sat in the balcony and felt moved by the image of the sainted figure who emerges out of despair. In time to come, Kerouac the writer would appear as a pioneer fixated on the journey west, but it was another direction, the journey down, that really captured him.
If we accept Yeats’s notion that the imagination attracts its affinities, then we can see how the compass was set for Kerouac in 1940. His reading lists no less than his circle of friends were set: they all played into the magic of self-invention behind his life and work. And the reason it all seems so deathlessly teenage is because Jack Kerouac crystalized a great surge of personal yearning at the very moment of its social inception. He couldn’t see what he’d done, and the social movements that grew out of the Beat Generation never suited his politics and overspent on his resources. “It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s,” said Bob Dylan of On the Road.
Kerouac was susceptible to film—a sucker for its promise of riches as well as its flickering poetry—and he imagined an iconic adaptation of On the Road. Not long after the book’s publication, in September 1957, he wrote to Marlon Brando asking him to buy the book and get it made:
Dear Marlon, I’m praying that you’ll buy ON THE ROAD and make a movie of it. Don’t worry about structure, I know how to compress and re-arrange the plot a bit to give perfectly acceptable movie-type structure: making it into one all-inclusive trip instead of the several voyages coast-to-coast in the book.
The letter imagines Brando playing Dean Moriarty and Kerouac himself playing Sal Paradise, offering to introduce Brando to Dean “in real life.” The person he was talking about, Neal Cassady, was, for Kerouac, the perfect postwar all-action hero and man of the moment. He was Byron in blue jeans and a crook out of Jean Genet. For Kerouac he was also the brother who died and the father they never found. “Fact, we can go visit him in Frisco,” wrote Kerouac to Brando, “still a real frantic cat but nowadays settled down with his final wife saying the Lord’s Prayer with his kiddies at night.”
Carolyn Cassady, that “final wife,” saw a lot of the frantic cat and very little of the family man, but that story would wait the better part of fifty years to be told. In the meantime, Brando passed on the film and the Beats themselves became the material. There are a few vital moments when modern creators have come to seem more interesting than what they create: in American literature, we could argue such a condition for Hemingway, for Dorothy Parker, and for Scott and Zelda. They all crossed the line between the making of fiction and the business of constituting a fiction oneself. Movies have been made about each of these writers, yet Kerouac and the Beats, more than any school or group or tradition in American letters, have spawned a miasma of retellings in every genre.
On the Road, as a movie, might have worked brilliantly in 1957 if Brando had accepted the challenge. It might have tapped into the same energy the book did—the same sources that fueled Brando’s The Wild One (1953), the James Dean vehicle Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and The Blackboard Jungle (1955), with Sidney Poitier. These were films that married uncertainty about the old, pre-war order to new feelings about sex; they braided fresh notions of freedom with antisocial frolics, wrapping them inside the brand-new vapors of rock ’n’ roll and the teenager. Just imagine On the Road as directed by, say, Elia Kazan, adapted by William Inge, starring Marlon Brando and a suddenly disheveled Elvis Presley. It might then, if done well, have been part of the now slightly camp-seeming social and sexual uplift that came in time to awaken the 1960s.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, it was the lives of those involved in the Beat Generation that had cultural reality. The movies found that the best subject wasn’t really the books at all but the people who wrote them. That might seem normal nowadays: the personalization of everything is now total. But the Beats, oddly, were probably part of the process by which fictionality became entwined with everyday selfhood. I mean, at least the world got to see Gary Cooper in A Farewell to Arms (1932) before we came to the horrid bio-fiction of Hemingway and Gellhorn (2012). But with the Beats it was always about their lives.
In his famous 1958 essay on the Beats called “The Know-Nothing Bohemians,” Norman Podhoretz assumed no distinction between the frantic cats who wrote these books hopped up on Benzedrine and their spontaneous paw-prints on the page. For him, it was all part of the same primitive discourse. It was a generation of spoiled lives and sick thinking, but quite photogenic, quite zealous for crucifixion on film and television. During the decades when On the Road was failing to hit the screen, and after a more or less silent decade after Kerouac’s death, there has been a spew of movies about the loves, the lore, the fears, and the loathings of the Kerouac tribe, making, it must be said, more than ample use of the word “Beat.” We’ve had Heart Beat (1980) starring Nick Nolte and Sissy Spacek; and what about Beat (2000), with Kiefer Sutherland and Courtney Love? The Beat Hotel came in 2012. The Last Time I Committed Suicide (1997), starring Keanu Reeves, was Neal’s story made from a letter written by Cassady himself. The even more direct Neal Cassady (2007) starred Tate Donovan and Amy Ryan.1
It’s odd now to think of Podhoretz and the Beats as coming from different moral universes. Podhoretz over-played his hand, as if he needed, for reasons of increased self-worth, to believe in the murderous, sexual deviancy of the new Bohemians. In actual fact the Beats now seem pretty innocent: far from being a threatening group of “morally gruesome” primitives, they were a bunch of college kids with a few new things to offer. Kerouac and Podhoretz were both from the universe of book-reading intellectuals faced with the middlebrow trend for refrigerators and mass entertainment.
Sure, they had different views about holding down a job and maintaining a family, opposing views of human vitality, you might say, but they agreed, more fundamentally, that Shakespeare and Thoreau were elements to conjure with if you wanted to live a fuller life. The Beats had plenty of battles on their hands—over censorship, over gay freedom, over drugs, over authority—but they are nonetheless fixed in American culture at the soft end of change. I love him, but Kerouac was, among other things, a right-wing zealot and a sentimental Catholic who supported the war in Vietnam.
He was also, like Cassady, a moronic father whose wonderful notions of fellowship under the American night never extended to paying child support. They were children themselves, in other words, with ruthless souls, allowing Kerouac’s book to tumble and glow with a sense of childlike wonder and capacity. On the Road is a great book because its rebellion is not only hot-wired to a moment of social change but also hastens that change. Its style embodies both the tender effulgence of youth and the solid reality of a passing landscape. But the lives, especially those of Kerouac and Cassady, those poor, bright, sad lives that ended too early and too much in anger, may, in fact, have been impossible. Not only impossible to live but bad to dream. Getting high and feeling great and having friends along the way: What could be better for a summer illusion? What could be nicer?
But it’s not a cultural program, and horribly, without it being their fault, it turns out the Beats may have sold too many Levis and too many plaid shirts for too many vile corporations, while carrying in themselves too few ideas about how a person can resist the complete manufacturing of self. Kerouac never managed that. And neither did his book. Ironically, the “poisonous glorification of the adolescent in American popular culture” that so obsessed Norman Podhoretz in his essay didn’t lead to murder, as he feared and seemingly half-hoped, but to commerce. And in that sense both he and the Beats are losers.
Like the relics of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, the original manucript of On the Road appears to be permanently on tour, and I caught up with it at the British Library. One long roll of text made of telegraph paper stuck together, it is contained in a special glass case, which, at this stop-off, ran down the length of a hall on the ground floor. So much of modern art now has the potency of a relic: you bend to look at it and you don’t think, “Mmm, aren’t the formal questions here brilliantly addressed.” Instead, you think: “Jack touched this.” (The students around me called him Jack. Their main fascination is with the rumor that he wrote it in three weeks.) Is that a wisp of Jack’s cigarette ash smudging the corner? Is that a coffee stain? Is that water damage over there or is it tears? None of the questions we have are to do with the formal story. Not even about the characters. They are about the real people who inspired them.
In the original, Dean Moriarty is just plain old Neal Cassady. Sal Paradise, at this stage, is our friend Jack. And Ginsberg is Ginsberg and everybody else is everybody else. I once asked Robert Giroux, who had been a previous editor of Kerouac, what happened when the novelist arrived at his office with the manuscript of On the Road. (I was recalling his words while looking at the same script under glass.) “He came in with this thing under his arm,” said Giroux, “like a paper towel or something. He held one end of it and threw it across the floor of the office. He was very excited. I think he was high. Anyway, I bent down to look at the thing. And, after a few moments, I looked up and said, ‘Well, Jack. This is going to have to be cut up into pages and edited and so on.’”
“And what happened?” I asked.
“Jack just looked at me and his face darkened,” said Giroux. “And he said, ‘There’ll be no editing. This book was dictated by the Holy Ghost.’ The book then went to Viking and Malcolm Cowley took care of it.”2
Walter Salles’s film of On the Road comes to us more than fifty years after the book’s publication. If the novel was a strange hybrid of the truth and its correction—sold to the world as “spontaneous bop prosody”—then the film takes us even deeper into the mysterious waters of veracity. This is a film of a novel that takes the form of a biography of an icon. It wouldn’t have been made this way in 1957, and, indeed, the story it tells is really the story of our own need, the need of modern audiences, to find reality much more interesting than fiction. The film cannot control its lust for the tang of actuality, forgetting what it takes to dream a prose narrative into being. Yes, Kerouac’s novel was very close to his life, but On the Road is really its prose. One might say the prose is the main character. How quickly it was written and under what conditions, who knows, any more than one can say what was really behind the tone of Charlie Parker when the sound came flowing out of his horn?
The film never finds a way to embody the sound. It just can’t hear it and so we watch a kind of beat soap opera, a play in which the visionary travails of the men can only be set against the domestic woes of the women. The rolling Whitmanesque parade and the singsong bebop amping on chords and words and phrases that makes the book what it is, none of this enters the film at the level of its pictures. We have a voiceover that gutters with a sense of low-watt destiny: the poets and their conversation just seem silly, the locations dreary, the women either sluts or drudges, women either bursting with enthusiasm to give out blow jobs in cars at high speed, or women standing with crying babies balanced on their hip.
Neither Garrett Hedlund (as Dean) nor Sam Riley (as Sal) can convey the type of intelligence the film wishes so much to celebrate: they look like people off a poster and that was always the danger once the book was famous. At no point does the film narrative rise above the car and above the houses, as the book does, to see the stars and the promise they make. That kind of work must be left to the poets, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, aged ninety-four, has just produced a rather bountiful evocation of the Beat spirit, and of Kerouac himself, in his latest volume, Time of Useful Consciousness.3 The film can’t see how much the work of these writers owes to a group sensibility, but Ferlinghetti captures it very openheartedly:
Old friends or lovers once so close
now stick figures in the distance
over the horizon
Great American prose is notoriously hard to film: we will shortly see whether Baz Luhrman can break a long run of failed attempts to capture the magic of The Great Gatsby.
1 There are subgenres. William Burroughs, for example. There are also countless documentaries. And there are other categories altogether, such as pop songs written about the Beats. ↩
2 The extent to which the book was edited, and revised by Kerouac, was made clear by Cowley himself. His words are quoted in a new edition of Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee (Penguin, 2012). “Jack did something that he would never admit to later,” says Cowley. “He did a good deal of revision, and it was very good revision.” ↩
3 New Directions, 2012. ↩
There are subgenres. William Burroughs, for example. There are also countless documentaries. And there are other categories altogether, such as pop songs written about the Beats. ↩
The extent to which the book was edited, and revised by Kerouac, was made clear by Cowley himself. His words are quoted in a new edition of Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee (Penguin, 2012). “Jack did something that he would never admit to later,” says Cowley. “He did a good deal of revision, and it was very good revision.” ↩
New Directions, 2012. ↩