There isn't an artist, living or dead, who ever frustrated, confused and inspired me as much as Jack Kerouac did. Yes, I crossed paths with him precisely when I needed to, as a disaffected youth obsessed with consuming words and creating meaning. Yes, the passage of time has tempered my feelings for him, and given me a more realistic perspective. But, still, that fascination and affection - it lingers. It always will.
Jack has a bad reputation. His writing is often dismissed nowadays as juvenile, and it probably should be. I can't devour it like I did when I was younger, and even then I'm not sure what exactly I got out of it. I would hesitate to recommend it to anyone my age now who has never read it. But, for all that, I don't think he's to be dismissed. It's just that the way to understand and appreciate him doesn't lie in the pop culture khaki advertisement cliche, or in the academic exsanguination of interpretation and analysis. It's a far lonelier and inexplicable path, and it may not be the kind of thing to which you can lead someone else.
I think if you come to him in the right way, you'll get it. However, I don't know what "it" is or how to convince those who have never seen it that it's really there. Maybe it isn't. But there's something in the search for it that, if you take it on, will change you, whether or not you end up finding it.
"The bottoms of my shoes are clean from walking in the rain." - American Haiku
Today, when I do dip back into my Kerouac collection, I'm often bored. I can read along, only mildly engaged, for pages. But then I'll stumble across a passage that expresses a feeling, idea or vision so precisely and perfectly that it takes my breath away with its crystalline reality. Jack was not much for plot development or maintaining order throughout the course of a novel. But he could capture moments with the accuracy and artistry of a genius photographer - except he found what was going on inside, the stuff you couldn't see. But you recognized it. And you wondered how he managed to see that, understand that. How did he know?
The truth is he knew because he felt he had to know. He had an insane sort of desperate courage to fling himself out in the world, casting himself in the role of traveling adventurer in a land that was already built and mapped. He used to be a high school football star from a good, Catholic, working-class family. He turned himself into an explorer of whatever frontiers he could find - the malaise of the post-war generation, the new confusion of the youth and the wild spaces that still existed in increasingly-industrialized America.
"Write in recollection and amazement for yourself." - Heaven and Other Poems
For a period of time, whatever desk I had currently designated as my writing desk had taped above it a scrap of paper on which I had copied, "Write in recollection and amazement for yourself." The bulk of the lessons I took then from Jack, and which I still carry, were less from his writing and more from the act of his writing. This doesn't mean I wrote high on benzedrine (although that might work, I couldn't say), or even that I wrote in a similar style or about similar themes as he did. I did, and do, not. But I liked to learn from him how to think about writing, about how to be a writer in the world. He treated it as a holy act, a divine calling, and he practiced it with deadly sincerity. He demanded that it demand your mind and soul and body. If you weren't writing from your gut, if you weren't trying to find truth, what was even the point? Why were you even calling yourself a writer?
Whatever sophistication or coherence Kerouac's work lacks to our wise, modern eyes, that raw energy and passion is undeniable, and that's what makes up for its flaws. That's what binds a young, searching soul to him for life. The essential thing was a curiosity for how much trouble you could get into, and what stories could you get out of it. I didn't have much common ground with Jack as a person - you shouldn't want to, unless you have a masochistic streak a mile wide - but in this dual-purposed philosophy I had an ally. Someone to convince me I wasn't alone in the search, and that I was right in the conviction that the search was made meaningful by writing about it.
"Pretty girls make graves." - The Dharma Bums
Women's relationships with Jack were always especially complicated, maybe even more so today than they were in his own lifetime. Beyond the string of exes writing their memoirs, claiming their bit of fame as adjunct to the Beats and Kerouac's imploding star, there's the ever-present and often-true meme that women don't "get" On the Road or Kerouac in general. The other Beats, particularly Ginsberg, are slightly more female-friendly, but Jack - he's difficult. Casually misogynist, with the added burden of that Catholic mother's apron strings that never did fully detach, large swathes of Jack's personal history and how it seeps into his work aren't very attractive. However, this leads to the complications, because he was also extremely handsome, charismatic and romantic. Even decades after his death, those qualities come through in every photograph, every clip of sound, every written verse. The portrait of the druggie, poet, traveler. Openly lost - which a certain type of woman will always take as an invitation to guide, even if she knows well beforehand it will be a failure for him and a mistake for her. If she doesn't know that beforehand, she will shortly after. Even if it's only through a book.
If I ever thought Jack taught me anything as a woman, it's don't rely on a man for your adventures. Have them yourself, because, chances are, he'll be on his way somewhere else and he's not waiting for you to catch up.
"It is not my fault that certain so-called bohemian elements have found in my writings something to hang their peculiar beatnik theories on." The New York Journal-American (December 8, 1960)
"...and nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old..." - On the Road
He ended in reactionary surliness and reclusiveness, drinking himself to death in his mother's house. It's doubtful he ever found anything close to what he was looking for. But he did look. I love Jack because he was lost, and searching, and not only did he not pretend otherwise or cover up his confusion for appearance's sake, he turned the possibly fruitless search for meaning into something holy. He chased after an end he always acknowledged might not be there at all, and, in doing so, he elevated the entire long, frustrating, heartbreaking process of trying to make one's life mean something into a work of doomed, sympathetic beauty. He's worthwhile in the end not because he found something, but because he was sincere enough about living to try, and fail. Indeed, his failure seems to make his life that much more sincere. He was gloriously imperfect and astonishingly broken. But his value isn't rooted any sort of twisted victimhood - it's in the way his spirit transmuted the brokenness into its own natural and exquisite virtue.
He is an inspiration to those who felt lost from the start, who got dealt a bad hand or never got out from under a bad stroke of luck, to those who don't belong or can't sit still or get a handle on moving from day to day without an answer. Winners and the privileged don't understand Kerouac. He wouldn't want them to. He wanted the hearts of those with the haunted eyes, the crummy lives and the hungry souls.
Beat meant beat-down. It also referred to beatific - holy or saint-like. He distanced, rightfully so, himself from the parody that became the beatnik, but Jack was Beat in the most profound sense of the word he himself coined. Beautiful, broken and transcendent. And his influence will continue to transcend - transcend years, literary criticism, and even his readers growing up.