Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of on the Road (They're Not What You Think) by John Leland
Reviewed by Gerry Donaghy
Jack Kerouac's On the Road was (and is) a book that spoke to the souls of boys, almost always boys, who were not yet men. It articulated the struggle of forming an identity against competing influences and value systems. It was a book that dared to imagine that there was an America beyond the backyard or hometown of its reader, which was never going to be featured on television or on film, in an era before the construction of interstate highways or a single Holiday Inn. But most of all, the book provided a blueprint for counterculture that has been emulated, degraded, and misunderstood for nearly fifty years. What began as a vision of hunger for experience devolved almost immediately into a market demographic, selling everything from the nightly news to Levi's. Once the book was published and the meme of the Beat Generation seeped its way into the public consciousness, it ceased being mere fiction and became a cipher for rebellion, or worse, an accessory for the affluently disaffected. It was used as a shield to deflect criticism of those who rationalize the self-indulgence of discovery without risk or compassion for the truly Beat: those for whom drifting and lack of permanence weren't a lifestyle choice, but rather a socio-economic necessity.
Sadly, nobody saw this more clearly than Kerouac, who spent the rest of his brief life alternately fanning the flames of his own reputation and trying to live it down. While it was his name on the cover, readers were mistaking his thinly veiled autobiography to be the story of Dean Moriarty, the fictional analogue for Neal Cassidy, a self-educated son of a hobo who fascinated Kerouac and his New York coterie. While Cassidy had a lust for life, it was reckless and debauched, ending with him passing out in a rail yard, dying from exposure four days shy of his forty-second birthday. Kerouac, on the other hand, was a young man who was seeking experience and vision, but didn't expect the world at large to foot the bill. And, as their respective Weltanschauungen began to diverge, Kerouac's Prince Hal attempted to mature beyond Cassidy's developmentally arrested Falstaff. Cassidy continued riding his own legend to inspire a new breed of counterculture (led by Ken Kesey), and Kerouac continued to write and publish, albeit to diminishing returns. Ever conflicted, Kerouac was never able to truly settle into the domestic tranquility he craved until near the end of his life. Kerouac died a year after his spiritual mentor, in a death that, like Cassidy's, was accelerated by chronic alcohol abuse.
In his book Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of "On the Road" (They're Not What You Think), New York Times scribe John Leland argues that Kerouac's purpose with On the Road is misunderstood and misappropriated. It was not just the story of wild times and reckless kicks; it was an exploration of how the narrator matured past jazzy libertinism and into, maybe not necessarily the man in the gray flannel suit, but, a man who could stand toe-to-toe with him and know that his experience, his existence was at least more authentic and honest. Leland successfully separates Jack Kerouac the author (and his literary alter ego Sal Paradise) from the cult of Dean Moriarty. While Paradise is endlessly following Moriarty and his pursuit of kicks, he often acknowledges that he isn't built the same way and certainly doesn't share his companion's living-for-the-moment brand of joie de vie. In fact, in a later interview, Kerouac stated of On the Road: "I wrote that for my new wife, to tell her what I'd been through" (although to be fair, Kerouac was not immune from revisionism when it suited him). Rather than being a roadmap to debauchery and rebelliousness, On the Road was a post-war Bildungsroman meant to illustrate one man's path to maturity.
Throughout much of the book, Leland offers a close reading of On the Road, providing enough trenchant analysis to make the book an excellent primer not only on Kerouac's novel, but the Beat movement in general. Some of the parables and metaphors in the text that may have gone over the head of the average first-time reader are nicely addressed, and reveal that Kerouac was a writer capable of greater gravitas than he is often given credit for, even if it is expressed in the rather rough-hewn language of the autodidact. Rather than being part of a manufactured movement, Leland enshrines Kerouac in the same legion of American letters as Melville and Whitman.
As Leland disentangles Kerouac from the maelstrom of myth, he doesn't shy away from Kerouac's lesser points. In the downbeat coda "Sal Paradise and the Lessons Unlearned," the author bravely takes a critical step back to examine his flawed subject. In real life, Kerouac spent the twelve years between the publication of On the Road and his death not only trying to live down his reputation of the hip outsider, but striving to achieve the contentedness of domestic stability that his fictional self begins to find at the end of the novel by abandoning Dean Moriarty. He succeeds at neither; not only fueling the media's expectations of "the voice of a generation" but also proving to be incapable of living up to the ideals that he sets forth in Sal Paradise's narrative. And it is to his credit that Leland addresses some of Kerouac's less enlightened passages, such as the famous "Lilac Nights" chapter (where Sal Paradise expresses a desire to have been born African American), and the passage where he describes Negro day laborers picking cotton with "the same God-blessed patience their grandfathers had practiced in ante-bellum Alabama," contextualizing them for the modern reader.
What derails the book from being a truly essential contribution to the canon of Beat criticism are Leland's infrequent retreats into using cultural shorthand as a substitute for genuine analysis. There are sections titled "What Would Jack Do?" or "Sal's Guide to Work and Money" (a kind of "7 Habits of Highly Effective Beats"), which read like self-help parodies. If this book had been written in the late 1980s, would there have been a chapter called "Where's the Beat?"? And a sidebar on the influence of On the Road on the development of goatees is just tragic, especially if you look at Leland's jacket photo.
Nonetheless, Why Kerouac Matters is a valuable text. As I write this, we are less than two weeks away from the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road and Leland's book is, despite its flaws, an insightful and accessible reevaluation of both Kerouac and his legendary novel.