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Song of the road

CALL it a leftover fantasy of youth, or perhaps the last burst of middle-aged angst, but I still want to do a Kerouac. Just pick up the old tan leather bag that I bought on Janpath a quarter of a century ago, throw in a couple of plaid shirts and a pair of jeans, pull on woollen socks and the walking shoes that have served so well for two decades, pick up all the spiral notebooks that are gathering dust and step out into the night.

Walk in whichever direction the stars order, stick out my thumb at passing lorries, drive along unknown highways past wheat fields luminous under a moody moon, talk all night with complete strangers, watch the wondrous miracle that is every dawn and meet life as it comes. Then survive to write about it, turning mounds of scribbled notes, snippets of conversations, random descriptions into book after book of poetic prose, the outpourings of some footloose prophet of the road. It may never happen I know. But such dreams are dear and must be kept, carefully folded away, never quite forgotten.

Written in a rush

Like my copy of On the Road, an old one-franc copy held together with tape, bought, one long ago autumn morning, from the bin outside Shakespeare and Company, the bookshop to beat all bookshops on the left bank of the Seine. I read it again last three nights, in a rush, much like it has been written.

Literary legend that has coalesced around Kerouac has it that the first version of the book was written in a rush of benzedrine and coffee in three weeks on a single role of unbroken paper. Kerouac had not paused to plan or fictionalise or edit. He had decided to write about his mad journeys across the American vastness, following the blue haze that only inveterate travellers know, just as they had happened.

The journeys and his friends, those who were to become the other iconic figures of the beat generation — the crazy, frenetic, street cowboy — "a western kinsman of the sun" — called Neal Cassady, the poets Allen Ginsburg and Gary Snyder, the novelist William S. Burroughs... . Kerouac went after them because they were his kind of people... "because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, 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 exploding like spiders across the stars... "

With Cassady, Kerouac criss-crossed America several times — hitch-hiking, driving, riding freight trains — convinced that " somewhere along the line... there'd be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me." There certainly was everything, as On the Road describes in plainly spoken detail page after page — many girls, many drunken nights, stolen cars, fights, poetry, beautiful epiphanies, sadness, lonely moments, night after night of crossing endless deserts, happy fields, lost one-horse towns, ghostly wide rivers, all under stars "as lonely as the Prince of the Dharma who's lost his ancestral grove and journeys across the spaces between points in the handle of the Big Dipper trying to find it again."

Strongly influenced by Thomas Wolfe (Look Homeward, Angel), jazz and his dabbling in Buddhism, Kerouac had written an early formal novel The Town and the City, which met with modest success. But it was with On The Road that his influences came into full play and he discovered his talent for spontaneous prose. This was "sound of the mind" in which the first thought is the best thought.

Literary success

It was not that his style found a ready market. For seven years On the Road had remained only a manuscript in a rucksack. It was only when the other Beats — Ginsberg and Snyder — who had already achieved some literary fame, kept pointing to Kerouac as the best writer amongst them that the publishers took notice. The book instantly became a huge literary success.

Kerouac was the undoubted King of the Beat generation — an epithet for the group that had been given by Kerouac himself. Beat originally meant weary — little wonder, given the pace they lived life — but soon became a concept much like hip, cool, square and so on. Teenage adherents were called beatniks — remember those were the days of the sputnik.

Kerouac found it difficult to handle celebrity status. He seemed to need to live up to the images of On the Road and began to drink heavily— his favourite poison being jugfuls of rather sweet wine. He continued to write, following the same confessional outpouring style, even though his excesses had sapped his creativity.

Among the better works were The Dharma Bums (which made Zen Buddhism the accepted bohemian philosophy across America), Big Sur (written during a desperate retreat into nature), and The Subterraneans (written in three nights). But his spiritual and moral degeneration was a one-way street. And in 1969, at the age of 47, he died of abdominal haemorrhages, caused by chronic alcoholism.

Consolation of memories

I may never live the Kerouac I dream of but there is some consolation in memories of a long time ago, of my first real journey away from home, scribbled in yellowing notebooks. Of travelling on the top bunk of trains across snowy vastness, of exhilarating conversations with strangers in old-fashioned dining cars, of eternal friendships promised over midnight wine in dark bars, of smiles that appeared like rainbows...

And when scarred and weary, but richer in the soul, I came back home, one of the books in my bag was this one-franc copy of On the Road, in which Kerouac had written: "The bus roared on. I was going home in October. Everybody goes home in October."

I looked at my ticket. It was dated October 1, 1983.


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