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Russell Banks on Jack Kerouac

I'm rereading Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, the only Kerouac I read as a young man, and because it did not make much of an impression, I didn't return to him to try On the Road until twenty years later. The return was mainly because I'd begun teaching a course called "contemporary literature" and felt obliged to have some familiarity with Kerouac and The Beats.

In my current couple weeks of accidental single-parenting, I'm finding The Dharma Bums to be surprisingly enjoyable and a welcome escape, this reading about younger writers with the time and energy to run screaming down mountains, in this case, Matterhorn. It's good escapism from parenting, and also from my first (and only!) serial-killer novel which I put down fifty pages from the end (something I rarely do, and because I like the author, I will go back and finish).

Old Jack will always be a victim of his fame, and the fact he managed to be popular and hip while somehow getting his name into the mix when folks talk Melville, Faulkner, and the "great American writers." So maybe, like Paul Auster or Raymond Carver, he's not up there at the highest peaks of literature, but there still seems to be something fresh and original in his voice.

I like the way Kerouac can offer the reader vicarious freedom even as he parodies such. For example, after climbing only almost to the top of Matterhorn, he decides upon desert adventures for his "rucksack revolution." So after he purchases and then fills up his rucksack to become a "huge hunchbacked monk," he notes, "I was all outfitted for the Apocalypse indeed, no joke about that; if an atom bomb should have hit San Francisco that night all I'd have to do is hike on out of there, if possible, and with my dried foods all packed tight and my bedroom and kitchen on my head, no trouble in the world" (81). Okay, so he says "no joke," but I'll stick with my hunch that he is enjoying some irony and self-mockery here.

Anyway, via a tweet, I just chanced upon this Russell Banks interview response from The Paris Review (Summer, 1998):

You began to write in the 1960s. How did that decade influence you? Did you meet any notable figures?

Yes, I met Kerouac. It must have been 1967, a year or two at the most before he died. I got a call from a pal in a bar in town, The Tempo Room, a local hangout—Jack Kerouac is in town with a couple of other guys and he wants to have a party. I said, Yeah, sure, right. He said, No, really. I was the only guy in this crowd with a regular house. So Jack Kerouac showed up with a troupe of about forty people he had gathered as he went along and three guys who he insisted—and I think they indeed were—Micmac Indians from Quebec. Kerouac, like a lot of writers of the open road, didn’t have a driver’s license. He needed a Neal Cassady just to get around; this time he had these crazy Indians who were driving him to Florida to be with his mother. They all ended up crashing for the weekend. He had just received his advance for what turned out to be his last book and was spending it like a sailor on leave. He brought with him a disruptiveness and wild disorder, and moments of brilliance too. I could see how attractive he must have been when he was young, both physically and intellectually. He was an incredibly beautiful man, but at that age (he was about forty-five) the alcohol had wreaked such destruction that it left him beautiful only from the neck up. Also, you could see why they called him Memory Babe—he would switch into long, beautiful twenty-minute recitations of Blake or the Upanishads or Hoagy Carmichael song lyrics. Then he would phase out and turn into an anti-Semitic, angry, fucked-up, tormented old drunk—a real know-nothing. It was comical, but sad. There were a lot of arguments back and forth, then we would realize that no, he’s just a sad, old drunk; I can’t take this stuff seriously. Eventually he would realize it himself and he would back off and turn himself into a senior literary figure and say, I can’t take that stuff seriously either. Every time he came forward, he would switch personas, and you would go bouncing back off him. It was a very strange and strenuous weekend. And very moving. It was the first time I had seen one of my literary heroes seem fragile and vulnerable.

(Back to L.U.S.K.)

What else? There's always the fine literary father angle, and The Paris Review introduces us to Banks as a fellow working on his fourth marriage with four daughters behind him. I just searched online that Kerouac had at least one, and I think only one, marriage and daughter. Separate entanglements, so to speak.

Okay, that's enough to get me excited about more Daddy-daughter time after her daycare ends today.


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