“Sixty three sunsets I saw revolve on that perpendicular hill – mad, raging sunsets pouring in sea foams of cloud through unimaginable crags like the crags you gayly drew in pencil as a child, with every rose-tint of hope beyond, making you feel just like them, brilliant and bleak beyond words.”
Lonesome Traveler is Kerouac’s “other” travel memoir – the one that isn’t On the Road. I was only dimly aware of its existence until I saw it sticking out rather prominently, on sale, in a second-hand bookshop in Canterbury. Kerouac’s writing has always intrigued me; and I have long been fascinated by the entire “Beatnik” generation of the 50s and 60s, with their connections to the civil rights movement, to the (so-called) sexual revolution, and ultimately to 1969. Lonesome Traveler address these themes, albeit incidentally; more than anything else, though, it is an astonishingly wide-ranging travelogue, from a high mountaintop in the Great Northwest to a railroad track, from Tangiers to Provence. Kerouac is a wanderer with no destination – but not, indeed, the equivalent of a Parisian flaneur, languidly observing the cityscape before him, always a spectator, slightly detached, mildly contemptuous and never entirely involved with the drama that is being played out before him – no, Kerouac’s wandering takes place at a fervid, feverish, burning pace, and everywhere he goes, he is immersed – lost, even – in the world in which he has arrived.
The style used to express this is “spontaneous prose”. It is characterised by fragmented sentence-parts, bound together in sequence with scant punctuation. The idea, as I understand it, is to set down the flow of thoughts as they come to one, without artificially constraining them within pre-determined sentence-structures. Two samples:
“The Nightclubs of Greenwich Village known as the Half Note, the Village Vanguard, the Cafe Bohemia, the Village Gate also feature jazz (Lee Konitz, J.J. Johnson, Miles Davis), but you’ve got to have mucho money and it’s not so much that you’ve got to have mucho money but the sad commercial atmosphere is killing jazz and jazz is killing itself there, because jazz belongs to open joyful ten-cent beer joints, as in the beginning.”
“… how I saw that Frisco California white and gray of rain fogs and the back alleys of bottles, breens, derbies, mustachios of beer, oysters, flying seals, crossing hills, bleak bay windows, eye diddles for old churches with handouts for sea dogs barkling and snurling in avenues of lost opportunity time, ah – loved it all, and the first night the finest night, the blood, ‘railroading gets in yr blood’ the old hoghead is yelling at me as he bounces up and down in his seat and the wind blows his striped visor cap and the engine like a huge beast is lurching side to side 70 miles per hour breaking all rulebook rules, zomm, zomm, were crashing down the night and out there…”
It is striking. It needs intense concentration to follow the thread of thought as it spins its way into all kinds of random contortions. And it takes some getting used to. But I think it works. It works in the same way that the fragmented style of first-wave modernist poetry worked. Think of Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The point of the broken, scattered verse is precisely to capture the broken, scattered nature of Prufrock’s thoughts, his hundred indecisions, visions and revisions, his hesitation, his “I dare not” waiting upon his “I would” – and through that, both to rebel against the romanticist conception of the unity of the soul, as well as to capture something of the essence of life in the rapidly-changing twentieth century, with its sense of displacement, drift and uncertainty. To my mind, Eliot succeeds so spectacularly not only because his fragmented form fits his chosen themes, but because after you’ve read Prufrock, you realise that the form is the only vehicle with which to express that particular set of thoughts. Prufrock would fail utterly if it was written in alexandrines, or consisted of couplets in iambic pentameter, or in the form of a villanelle, or a traditional sonnet (in fact, while the first two stanzas follow something like a sonnet format, they depart so much from it that the model is perhaps simply to establish that it is a love poem, although of a very different kind) – because all those forms suggest a structure and symmetry that is entirely alien to Prufrock.
Something similar, I feel, is at play with Lonesome Traveler. Sentence structure and punctuation imposes a kind of order that would be at odds with the life that Kerouac is describing. It would be at odds with the crazy life on the railroad, the smoking of opium joints in a village on a hitch-hike through Mexico, the fourth-class voyage on the packet from Tangiers to France, or for that matter, with the drug-and-poetry infused nightlife of the beatniks in New York. Of course, that is not to say that you can write any old thing – just think of some (but by no means all) of the poems of Ezra Pound, or Auden’s imitations of Eliot, where the broken verse simply dissolves into senselessness – and you realise that merely working with fragmented form is no guarantee of form – it must also make sense! And Kerouac, well, I don’t think he always makes sense – but he often does, and when he does – like in the two paragraphs I quoted – the effect is very Prufrock-esque – the form and the theme and the content all mesh together perfectly, so that any other way of expression becomes unthinkable.
Another – slightly different way – of looking at it. Here is a Monet painting of a snowbound landscape. Now one of the points about the impressionist movement – as I understand it – with their hurried brush-strokes and use of lines – was to depict things as they appear to us, not just visually, but to all the senses and the mind as well. The affect that the shimmering of water has, for instance (see another Monet) – or, in the example above, the haze of the snow. So, what may be otherwise perceived as a lack of finish, or a coarseness, is actually a tool to portray reality as we feel and sense it, and not just as it might look. And similarly, Kerouac’s prose depicts life as it is lived, not merely described.
(to be contd.)