The cover attracted me, the man resting against the car, opening a can, the long straight road, dipping then rising again and disappearing into the distance. I read the back. Alcohol, cars, drugs, travel, women… I bought the book. On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Never heard of him. I was sixteen.
It was summer. I worked bringing in hay from the fields. Then that was done and I waited for my life to begin, reading a story of restlessness and intense friendships between people ‘mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles…’ Somebody was explaining to me how I might live. Sal Paradise hitched across America and I followed. I found the Platte river and each of the towns he named, real places where I myself might go one day.
When I was twenty-one I came across a photograph of Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg at Kerouac’s grave. Lowell, Massachussetts, said the caption. I was sitting in an apartment in Boston. The next day I took the train up to Lowell. I found the graveyard and spent the afternoon sitting on Kerouac’s grave, reading his Mexican City Blues until the graveyard closed and I had to leave.
Kerouac said he wanted to create something midway between ‘the precious and the trashy… the esoteric and the popular’. ‘That’s not writing, it’s typing’ was Truman Capote’s famous judgement. I was nearly thirty before I read On the Road again, not expecting much of a book that had moved me as an adolescent. By that time I’d lived in ten cities and a number of countries, including the United States. And I found the book moved me in a new way. It was nothing less than a passionate description of a search for redemption in a world that does not believe in this quest. It was not only about innocence and energy and ecstasy, but about the losing fight to sustain this state.
I noticed passages that had not spoken to me before, because I had not lived them. There’s the description of waking up in a strange bed and not only not knowing where you were, but not knowing who you were: ‘I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room… hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost…’
Then there is the photograph of Jack taken in the years before his death at the age of 48. He is sitting slightly behind his mother, a fat placid woman with a cat in her lap. Jack’s swollen alcoholic face is half in shadow and he leans his face on his knuckles, his eyes cast down. He has said all he has to say and been everywhere he will ever go. His spirit has not endured the life of the body.
Sometimes I look at that picture. My hero, when I was sixteen and the hay was cut and baled and stacked in a barn and I had nothing to do but pace about, waiting for my life to begin.