1. Jail is always a possibility.
If you believe Jack Kerouac, he never meant to hurt a fly. Or, more specifically, a mouse. It was a lesson he learned from older brother Gerard, who died at the age of nine and was revered while living by all who knew him, including the nuns from nearby St. Louis parish, as a saint-in-the-making. You can read all about it in Visions of Gerard (1963), published six years after On the Road (1957). For the mouse story, see Desolation Angels (1965), as thick and straightforward a volume as Visions of Gerard is slender and oddly phrased. See also the essay “Alone on a Mountaintop,” available in Lonesome Traveler (1960). I say “also” because you need to read both, one stark, the other sentimental, if you expect to keep your Beat Cred in order. The bongos in the closet ain’t going to cut it.
Nor is that copy of On the Road if that’s all you’re reading. I’ll say it as clearly as I can right here if you’re pressed for time. On the Road, an American classic, may have been a dangerous book for a few teenagers here and a weekend beatnik there, but it was definitely a dangerous book for Kerouac. The guy drank, and he drank badly. The overnight success of a book that took ten years to go through multiple versions before it saw print and the best-seller list got him invited to a lot of parties, where, according to Joyce Johnson, his then girlfriend, men wanted to fight him, women wanted to fuck him, and everyone wanted to drink with him. Though Kerouac benefited financially and professionally from the sales of On the Road, as does the Kerouac Estate today, that one book cast a very long shadow over everything he did and wrote. And it wasn’t even the version he preferred. That was Visions of Cody (1973), arguably his masterpiece, which wasn’t published until four years after his death. Read it? I didn’t think so.
One of the problems is that many confused Kerouac not with Sal Paradise, the narrator, but with Dean Moriarty, who was modeled after Neal Cassady, and expected similar behavior from him. If you don’t know who Neal Cassady was, you might just want to go back to sleep in your Model A or blow the dust off that paperback copy of Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Cassady’s the speed freak flipping that sledge hammer with one hand over and over until he climbs into Furthur, the Merry Prankster bus, and drives Kesey and Crew all the way cross country, where they sit down at a party with, yes, Kerouac. As if to record the handing of the mantel of hipness from Kerouac to Kesey, the Pranksters set up their recording equipment and passed around a joint or two or three. Smoking a little weed with the new kids on the block was one thing. Kerouac even allowed them to place a red, white, and blue scarf on him with the film rolling.
But when they tried to get Kerouac to sit next to Cassady on a couch draped with an American flag, to put his butt right there in the middle of the Stars and Stripes, the party was over. What the new gang, including Cassady, saw as play or protest in August of 1964, Kerouac saw as disrespect of a hallowed object or symbol. The sad fact is that he and Cassady didn’t talk at the party and never saw each other again. Another sad fact is that On the Road put Cassady on the San Francisco Narcotics Unit’s radar. As a result, he did a couple years in San Quentin. Talk about a book being dangerous.
Cassady’s also Cody in that great book you haven’t read.
2. Novels don’t do what writers tell them to.
When it comes to novels, danger resides not in the tidy success of authorial intent, which is to say not in the ability of an author to amass significant crowds on the National Mall to alter the path of government or to convince teenagers coast to coast to smoke pot or not to smoke pot or, in Kerouac’s case, to persuade everyone to respond openly and enthusiastically to the Promise of America, to confess everything and become yea-sayers in the road-going pursuit of Joy and Possibility. Yes, Kerouac books became more cynical in the 1960s. Read Big Sur (1962) and Satori in Paris (1966) to see Jack Duluoz, Kerouac’s alter ego, bottom out in pools of alcohol. Compare the way the endings of Tristessa (1960) and Vanity of Duluoz (1968), despite evidence to the contrary, close on the same optimistic note as Big Sur’s. Tomorrow will bring a fresh chance. Renewal is a given. Everything will be Golden. Against the darker visions of Burroughs and Ginsberg, Kerouac maintained the basic tenet of optimism he presented in the 1944 apartment they shared with Joan Vollmer Adams (soon-to-be Burroughs) and Edie Parker (soon-to-be Kerouac). Read The Town and the City (1950), Kerouac’s first novel, to see this split played out in two Martin brothers, Francis (brooding intellectual European cynicism) and Joe (happy American optimism). Or look to brother Peter for an attempt at a balance of the two.
No, books aren’t dangerous in the way bricks and bazookas are. The danger in books lies in the messiness of effect. A twenty-something reads Catcher in the Rye and decides to kill a peace-loving rock ’n’ roll icon. (You might think it’s the gun and not the book that’s dangerous, but the National Rifle Association will beg to differ. A gun never kills anyone. The shooter does.) A teenager reads the same book and decides it’s high time she hold all adults and most of her peers to a standard of honesty that renders everyone dishonest and her disaffected and nearly unlikable. Or maybe she decides to become a book reviewer. Exactly what or who’s dangerous here?
Say the book is On the Road. How many young women and men has it destroyed or, if we’re not getting all hysterical about things, damaged in some key way? What percentage, in response to that one book, dropped out of college or the rat race so they might pursue IT, whatever that is, out there somewhere, which means, well, on the road, which means not in one place for long, which means unstable work force and not the marrying kind? How many decided to chase Truth, the kind not sanctioned by Family, Church, or State and did so for more than the length of a television season? Even worse for some of us working the Secular House of Letters or trying to hold our coffeehouse seat not ten feet from an open mic, how many young writers of talent have been reduced to imitators of Kerouac? And how many appraisals of not just On the Road but all of his books are negatively impacted by his readers’ demographic? If his readers in the late 1950s were young and enthusiastic, surely the quality of his writing was automatically as suspect as that of Salinger and, in the next decade, Vonnegut.
On the Vonnegut note, who can forget Mary O’Hare and the test she put before Vonnegut or his paper counterpart, the narrator, in Slaughterhouse-Five’s opening chapter? Rather than make him feel comfortable by ushering him into his old war buddy’s den for bourbon, cigars, and reminiscences around a bear rug and a fireplace, Mary O’Hare sits him down at a cheap kitchen table and makes a lot of noise with ice as he tries to talk to his pal from Dresden prison camp days. What she says when confronted about her obvious disapproval goes like this: you can’t write a novel about war that doesn’t endanger the lives of kids who will find in it something romantic enough to draw them into the next available war. You can’t write a novel, she says, that won’t have parts for sexy actors who will, under dire circumstances, make a bond that’s stronger than marriage because it’s tested under real fire. You’ll collaborate with Hollywood to kill children. Vonnegut’s narrator’s response is to take her dare and do the impossible: write an anti-war novel. And become a danger to the political ambitions and pocketbooks of those who need kids to line up to die. Which is to say what we already know. There are different kinds of danger.
3. You can’t have it both ways.
On May 23, 1949, more than eight years before On the Road would be published to immediate, life-changing acclaim, Kerouac admits in one of his journals to misgivings: “I sometimes wonder if On the Road will be any good, although very likely it will be popular.” (That’s Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-1954 if you’re aiming for high scores on the Kerouac final.) Never mind which version of the novel-to-be that he’s talking about. It will be two more years before he produces the famous teletype-roll manuscript version. What’s important here is that he fears, even before his first novel, The Town and the City (1950), is published, that popularity might be a problem. He wants to be widely read and fantasizes about many forms of success, including polar opposite lives: Madison Avenue penthouse artist-in-ascot with blonde wife stirring (not shaking) pre-party martinis and hobo or railroad-working writer living alone or with wife and a baby deep in the woods a la Holden Caulfield’s California dream late in Catcher in the Rye.
It is being popular for the wrong reasons that worries Kerouac throughout his career. And rightly so. Especially when he’s the author of a book like On the Road, a novel that gets branded the Beat Bible and makes him a cultural phenomenon for the same reasons he and On the Road are read in other circles as a counter-cultural nightmare. On the Road becomes for many a how-to book, an instruction manual for squeezing joy and honest assessment out of Cold War America, while for others it becomes a manifesto for barbarians, a license to eschew adulthood, shirk responsibility, and run amok in the streets. In both cases, the Book, the One You Must Read, gets in the way of his others. And it really is an impressive body of work, stylistically varied but of one mind changing over time, in many ways what Kerouac set out to put up on that shelf as his legacy, what he called the Duluoz Legend and described in the preface to Big Sur as “one vast book like Proust’s except . . . written on the run.” It would be, he wrote, “one enormous comedy, seen through the eyes of poor Ti Jean (me), otherwise known as Jack Duluoz, the world of raging action and folly and also of gentle sweetness seen through the keyhole of his eye.”
If all you’re going to read is On the Road and maybe The Dharma Bums (1958), the Beat potboiler Malcolm Cowley asked for and Kerouac delivered in easy-to-read prose so as to capitalize on On the Road’s success, fine. Drive to Lowell, Massachusetts, and pour another bottle of wine on his grave, that place they put his alcohol-soaked corpse after he hemorrhaged blood in his bathroom, vomiting it all up, was rushed by ambulance to the hospital, and did the Drunkard’s Last Dance while twenty-six blood transfusions failed to do him any good. And while you’re at it, prop the empty up against the book that finally killed him. Okay, I’m getting hysterical again, but you know what I mean.
If you want to be really dangerous around your Kerouac-sniffing friends in their torn lumberjack shirts, spend the time instead reading the entire Legend, taking breaks only to dip into the Viking two-volume set of Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1940-1956 and 1957-1969. There you’ll find gems like this November 22, 1960 letter from Kerouac to Granville H. Jones, a young academic whose M.A. thesis addressed Kerouac’s writing: “Your thesis was given to me by Jas. Benenson. It is such a neat volume, I mean the typing, the exhaustive bibliographies, the whole works. It is the only thing too that has made me happy in three years, since the publication of On the Road and the subsequent sickeningness of ‘being famous’ (being used by everybody and his uncle) and of course the nausea of phoney criticisms and even worse the nausea of false enthusiasms based on the wrong reasons (as for instance those who ‘admire’ me for being so ‘wild & irresponsible’ etc.).” Kerouac goes on in that letter, but I don’t want to ruin it for you.
Now is not the time to go heal your wounds in the warm, fuzzy, familiar pages of The Dharma Bums (1958). Now is the time to do what you should have done years ago. Read The Subterraneans (1958) and Desolation Angels (1965). If you’ll do only that, I’ll loan you my copy of Maggie Cassidy (1959) and buy you a drink.
(This post is a reprint of an essay that was solicited for and published in the Dangerous Books Focus of American Book Review 29.1 .)