Cup of mint tea at my left hand and waiting for my diphenhydramine hydrochloride to kick in. Just finished Louis Menand's look back at Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." His piece ends with this lovely little Kerouackian riff:
It's fairly high above sea level there, in the lower ranges of the Berkshires, and I would stand at the pump in the dark looking at the stars in the cold clear sky as the semis roared past and with the wind in my hair, and I liked to imagine that I was a character in Kerouac's novel, lost to everyone I knew and to everyone who knew me, somewhere in America, on the road.
Then I would get in the car, and, bent over the wheel, while the trucks beat on past me, and the radio crackled, the sound going in and out, with oldies from the seventies, I began the long drop down to the lights of Boston, late in the night, late in my life, alone.
Nice, isn't it? Reminds me of when writing was easier, less an exercise of form and structure and grammar than of sustaining an impulse and going back to fix up the egregious errors later.
According to Menand, the book isn't about hipsters looking for kicks, or about subversives and nonconformists—rebels without a cause who point the way for the radicals of the nineteen-sixties. And it's not an anti-intellectual celebration of spontaneity. It's a sad and self-consciously lyrical story about loneliness, insecurity, and failure, which I think he captures lovelily in the last line.
It's also, as he says, a story about guys who want to be with other guys. I didn't get the homosexual bent (no pun) of "On the Road" at first, and I remember being shocked when I heard the theory propounded by a kind middleaged American backpacker woman, on a ferry chugging toward Gili Trawangan, in Indonesia. I was 22, reading the book at the time, and momentarily embarrassed for being enthusiastic about it.
Props also to Menand for working one of my favorite albums—Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely—into his lede. Anyone know where I can download it? I lost my cassette years ago.
(Click Jack's photo to see him reading from "On the Road" and here for a silent film of he and Ginsberg loafing around NYC, circa 1959.)
Originally published Oct. 1, 2007