In the Rearview: The Road Back to Jack

Editor’s Note: The following review contains a quote from Jack Kerouac that may be offensive to some. However, it is used by the reviewer to capture a certain point of view from a certain place and time, not for shock value.

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” ― Jack KerouacOn the Road

JACK KEROUAC published his most famous book in 1957. He had been working on it off and on for a few years, when he sat down and typed it all out in 3 weeks in 1951 on a 120-foot-long scroll. It would take him over 6 years to find a publisher. When he did find a publisher, they cut it, changed it, and cleaned it up for the Puritanical society of 1950’s America. On September 5, 1957, The New York Times published a glowing review and Kerouac became famous overnight.  Jack was a shy man and serious writer, and couldn’t handle the pressures of fame and drank himself to death in 12 years.

In 2007, this uncut version was published as it looked when Jack typed it out. No paragraphs or spaces between lines. I started reading this when it came out, but the print threw me off and I only made it through about 30 pages. How can a person who worships Kerouac as the greatest American Writer since Wolfe wait almost a decade to read this?  So now, with GLASSES and a will to move…FAST THIS TIME (the words Jack used to describe how he was going to tell his new novel.), I read this as fast as possible to get the feel of how Jack spewed it out onto paper.

I first read ON THE ROAD in my late 20’s around the same age as Jack was when he wrote it. It became my bible. So, I re-read it several times and through the years every year or two to get different perspectives as I age. Most people that I know who read it, have no desire to read it again. It is considered, much like Thomas Wolfe’s books (Jack’s favorite writer) to be a book for the youth. It is a book of youthful promise and WILD adventure that is sometimes criminal. But the way Jack tells it, it all seems to make sense. So, I’m almost 55, what am I doing reading this book now?

VISIONS AND GIRLS…and more?

“Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.”

When my Great Aunt read OTR about 10 years ago, in her late 70’s, she gave me the one-line review, “it’s nothing but a lot of cross-country drinking, drugging, and screwing.”  On the surface yes. Isn’t that want most guys in their early twenties are seeking? But, Jack’s ramblings have a deeper aim. He knows he is a writer and for him that is a religious duty.

The Scroll version has vulgar language and uses the names of the actual persons instead of a pseudonym. Some of the Characters would go on to become very famous, such as Allen Ginsberg, Williams S. Burroughs, and Alfred Kinsey. Also, this version has a lot about homosexuals that 1950’s America was not ready for, even though Kinsey’s report in 1948 told us that over 1/3 of males had had at least one sexual experience with another male. That stuff, along with anything sexual, was supposed to stay in the closet or at least behind closed doors. Jack and his gang blow those doors off of their hinges.

But The Scroll is a purer text than the cleaned up version. It is what you tell your friend directly, but not the whole world. But because Jack had felt that God wanted him to “Go moan for man,” he is tell us all. The most controversial section of OTR wasn’t in the Scroll at all:

“At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night. I stopped at a little shack where a man sold hot red chili in paper containers; I bought some and ate it, strolling in the dark mysterious streets. I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a “white man” disillusioned. All my life I’d had white ambitions.”

And this sums up what Jack is. He is looking for something on the road. Neal’s father? Religious Enlightenment? Girls? It is all there. And being a young, White, healthy male in 1950’s America it was his pearl to find.

But those fun kicks come with a weary price. And in this book you will find Joy and Sadness are but one taste.

MODERN LIBRARY rated On the Road as #55 in its 100 Best Novels. I would rate the Scroll even higher and as great as anything written at that time. It is a book (even more so than OTR) that preaches and practices NON-CONFORMITY, and as I age the more I get outside of society. It is also a book that preaches poverty for art’s sake or adventure’s sake. For better or for worse, this book in both versions, has had the most influence upon my life. I am not disillusioned and have no white ambitions at all.

Reviewed by Tom, Main Library

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