Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Today, Jack Kerouac goes on the road

Sixty years ago today -- July 17, 1947 -- a historic literary journey began. It would be more adventurous than "Travels with Charlie" or "The Voyage of the Snark," and would change the rhythms of storytelling in a way that reverberates even today.

On this day, a 25-year-old kid named Jack Kerouac boarded the el-train in Ozone Park, Queens, and set out on the journey that would become his masterwork, "On The Road."

Kerouac's thinly disguised autobiographical road-book explores his own search for the edge of life. Hurtling through a 3,000-mile malestrom of sex, drugs and jazz, it characters seek the backdoor out of a stratified existence, hoping to find life ... or better yet, to truly live ... on the road. Kerouac's stream-of-consciousness prose only reflected the momentum of the headlong plunge through America.

"On The Road" was published 10 years later and became a sensation, and continues to sell briskly today. Kerouac died from complications of a prodigious drinking life in 1969.

About 20 years ago, when I was just a young newspaperman in Santa Fe, N.M., I interviewed Kerouac's daughter Jan (at right), who'd become a writer herself, although she never truly knew her estranged father as intimately as she would have liked. He saw her only twice and was reluctant to even admit his fatherhood. She had just published her own autobiographical road-book, "Baby Driver." Just as her father had captured the lightning of the Beat Generation in a bottle, Jan told a story of the next generation, which careened through the 1960s and '70s with some of the same spirit. Jan's road led through Haight-Ashbury, LSD, a pregnancy at 15, some time in a mental asylum, lovers galore and the same rootlessness that had loosed "On The Road" to the world.

Jan and I became friends. I had not yet started on my own writing road, so I was as fascinated by her storytelling as I was her parentage. I'd sometimes visit her in the spartan adobe hovel she rented, and we'd sit on the bare wood floors talking about writing and Jack and the road and her life and the wine and anything that seemed worth knowing. Sometimes we gnoshed on her specialty: Dharma buns.

Jan was a petite brunette and spritely and beautiful. Her stories were seductive. I wanted to be seduced. I loved so many things about her. But I was married with a baby girl of my own, and I wasn't yet sure I could ever become a writer of books ... all things that kept my relationship with Jan platonic and simple. But her company was good. We simply shared time.

One morning, as I was leaving, Jan asked me to wait while she scampered into her kitchen and returned with a Mason jar full of crumpled paper scraps. She shook it and dumped it on the plank floor.

"Pick one," she said.

I did and uncrumpled it. It bore a penciled number 7.

"Ah, then today I write Chapter 7," she said.

Those crumpled bits of paper were the DNA of her next book, "Trainsong," the continuation of "Baby Driver."

I left Santa Fe eventually and settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. I lost touch with Jan. And the next I heard from her -- about her -- was the sad news that she had died in the summer of 1996, 10 years after we had met. She was only 44. I wrote a newspaper column about her, but I couldn't shake the memory of her. My old friend was inside me, in my pores.

That's how Jan Kerouac became a character in the novel I was writing at the time, my first, "Angel Fire." Well, not Jan, but a piece of her. In the novel, Tia Lazarus is the daughter of famous road-book writer Jack Lazarus who is assigned by Rolling Stone to retrace his famous journey ... which leads her into the life of the story's main character Cassidy McLeod, who is seeking solace of his own. Tia becomes a kind of angel redeemer. And she lives forever, at least in words.

And that's just another way the profound journey that began in 1947 in Queens continues today. We travel our roads and we touch people and they touch people and those people touch people and the road goes on.

"And so time passes, passes by, passes over,
passes away and through and pass the butter please.
Sometimes time passes by so fast ...
you can't even see those seconds make their little streaks
of reentry into your heart."

-- Jan Kerouac, from "Trainsong"


Julianne said...

How interesting! I see I need to expand my reading list. For awhile now I've had an urge to hop on box cars and ride around, as the basis of a travel memoir. I've met many people who still do this today and they make it sound both ridiculously dangerous and ridiculously banal.

Ron Franscell said...

Having just returned from a 9,000-mile road trip to the Yukon and the Arctic, I must admit that I find a kind of sanctuary out there. I can think. I can shake off whatever bonds tie me down, at least temporarily. I can see things I never saw and hear stories I'd never hear except by going "there."

I always embrace homecomings, but they are made so much better by The Road.

Mike said...

It's on my list of things to read(i read Dharma Bums twice) and can't wait to start it. I was shocked when asked two different people about Keouac and they said they never heard of him(I guess he didn't have a reality show). This is just another reason to hate this Mtv generation.

Robin said...

It always amazes me, how people that touch us give us the gift of inspiration, legacy and love. These gifts show themselves at the most interesting of times.......when perhaps we need to hear a whisper from the past to make the day complete. (I tried to read J.Kerouac in Paris but Hemingways Moveable Feast ruined it for me. I leave on Holiday to the sea in August and France in November....cross your fingers and spit into the wind that I come home with lights in my eyes. Ron, thank you for being you. R)