To my mind, Kerouac Country is the strangest stretch of the imagination any American has taken since Al Capp produced Dogpatch and Slobbovia. With the appearance of On the Road almost a decade ago, and the subsequent follow-up “novels,” Kerouac Country became holy ground for a multitude of epigoni or publicists, and, of course, fair game for others. As anyone knows who has been there, the territory sprawls like a metaphysical comic strip, winding its way in and out of Buddha’s navel, “passing through” the neon-lit ant hills of Manhattan, the sun-lit highways of the Southwest, the summit happy camaraderie of Frisco, then back like a homing bird to New England, to Lowell, Massachusetts, to one’s birthplace, one’s roots.
Rightly enough, Kerouac can be considered the first, and certainly the best, of our visionary L’il Abners. The first to set down the sound of a particular generation, and the first to “put down” the institutional values of the Fifties, the fringe benefits and the swimming pool in the backyard. Muscular, moody, simpatico, and not a little nuts, Kerouac accomplished the long jump past the exasperated intellect at just that moment when most intellectuals were in bed with Henry James. Sometimes he did it in the name of Zen, sometimes in the name of Old Glory, or of Sex and Art (“No pause to think of proper word but the infantile pileup of scatalogical buildup words till satisfaction is gained…”). In any case, he did it, and forged a new temper, a new cry: Give me personal, vagabondage autonomy, or give me mass media hypnosis. A choice has got to be made! In Kerouac Country, that cry recurs like a commercial.
Oddly, though Kerouac seems not to hear: he never makes the choice, any choice. His mission is always to “dig” everyone, everything, highbrow or cornpone, friend and foe. “We’re all friends and enemies, now stop it, stop fighting, wake up, it’s all a dream, look around, you dream, it’s not really the golden earth that hurts us when you think it’s the golden earth that hurts us, it’s only the golden eternity of blissful safety—Bless the little fly…” So a certain monotony, a certain sadness or despair ensues. From book to book, the same people and scenes appear, disappear, reappear. The same apostrophes lunge forward like pinballs, only to go limp like raindrops. “Mad” and “sad,” Kerouac’s favorite copulating adjectives, after a while refuse to reproduce. The Whitmanesque and Wolfean effects go blank, and the “Am Alone” Zen and “Blakean groaning” take over.
Naturally, in Kerouac Country nothing ever happens, because everything is happening, all at once. Everybody “rolls,” usually down the meat grinder: the rucksack buddies, the chicks with the pony tails or the ghoulish sighs, the bearded saints, alternately exultant and blue, always getting busted, the sack-artists at the bottlecrashing parties (“Kiss my thighs in darkness the pit of fire”),…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.