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Jack Kerouac: On the Road

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Kerouac, Jack. On the Road: The Original Scroll (New York: Viking, 2007)

In the newest (and also the oldest) version of the classic Beat road novel, On the Road: The Original Scroll begins with a quartet of essays (totaling nearly 100 pages) that provides ample context for the text of the "original scroll." The absence of breaks for chapters--or even paragraphs--make this a book that should ideally be read in a single sitting; the single exception to this lack of breaks is the notation for Book 4 on page 350. In an ironic the-dog-ate-my-homework incident, the scroll's original ending suffered canine consumption; the last few pages are reconstructed from subsequent drafts.

On the Road details Kerouac's endless travels by bus and car (both driving and hitchhiking) from city to city in search of "kicks." The author and his companions--most often including Neal Cassady--visit Detroit, Denver, San Francisco, New York City and Mexico City (among other places). This colorful passage makes one long for the open road, but such linguistic triumphs are few and far between:

Soon it got dusk, a grapey dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries. I stuck my head out the window and took deep breaths of the fragrant air. It was the most beautiful of all moments. (p. 182)

The hipster lingo (referring to marijuana as "tea," calling compatriots "cat" as a noun and "gone" as an adjective) is easily parodied, but wasn't as overused and trite a half-century ago. The many derogatory uses of "fag" and "queer" grate on modern ears, particularly given Kerouac's friendship with gay writers Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs--both of whom are featured in On the Road.

Luc Sante reviewed On the Road for the NYT, Tom Vitale reported on it for NPR, and Penguin has this to say about the new version:

The differences between the two versions are principally ones of significant detail and altered emphasis. The scroll is slightly longer and has a heightened linguistic virtuosity and a more sexually frenetic tone. It also uses the real names of Kerouac's friends instead of the fictional names he later invented for them.

Howard Cunnell makes this observation in his essay "Fast This Time: Jack Kerouac and the Writing of On the Road:"

"Despite Kerouac's deletion of much of the sexual material and language, in particular the homosexual content, as part of the redrafting process, other scenes that survived into the 347-page draft, including the story of a sodomizing monkey in an LA whorehouse, were later cut for obscenity." (p. 28)

Some examples are this tea-room episode on p. 207:

There was a young man in a loud Kansas herringbone suit saying so long to his Minister father. A minute later I saw an eye watching me from a hole in the johnbooth as I sat. "I offer you anything on this side if you will put in through." I caught a glimpse of a loud Kansas herringbone suit through the hole. "No thanks" I said through the hole. What a sad Sunday night for the Kansas minister's son; what Wichita doldrums. (p. 207)

and this from one hundred pages later:

Warning him first that he had once been a hustler in his youth, Neal proceeded to handle the fag like a woman, tipping him over legs in the air and all and gave him a monstrous huge banging. I was so non-plussed all I could do was sit and stare from my corner. (p. 307)

Cunnell also notes that "The scroll version of On the Road is, however, a markedly darker, edgier, and uninhibited text than the published book." (p. 31) The evidence of this is scattered throughout the book, which I compared to a facsimile of the 1957 edition. This passage from the Original Scroll

"She says she loves his big cock---so does Carolyn---so do I." (p. 146)

becomes

"She says she loves him--so does Camille." (1957, p. 43)

and this one

He wrote of Neal as a "child of the rainbow" who bore his torment in his agonized cock." (p. 150)

is softened into

"agonized priapus" (1957, p. 48)

Later, this exchange

Louanne honeycunt you sit next to me, Jack next, then Al at the window... (p. 216)

is watered down to

"honeythighs" (1957, p. 114)

and this epithet

And do you know that the same thing happened to that dumb little cunt---the same visions, the same logic, the same final decision about everything, the view of all truths in one painful lump leading to nightmares and pain. (p. 284)

becomes the slightly less offensive

"that dumb little box" (1957, p. 184)

Combined with the insult "you dirty cuntlapper" (p. 178), the emotionality of the following passage suggests that Kerouac has some sort of personal issue with cunnilingus:

I heard them frantically rocking the bed back and forth: to my amazement I realized Neal was, shall we say, devouring her, and this was the usual routine with them. Only a guy who's spent five years in jail can go to such maniacal helpless extremes; beseeching at the very portals of the womb with a completely physical realization of the sources of life-bliss; trying to get back in there once and for all, while living, and adding to it the living sexual frenzy and rhythm. This is the result of years looking at dirty pictures behind bars; looking at the legs of women in magazines; evaluating the hardness of the steel halls and the softness of the woman who is not there. Jail is where you promise yourself the right to live. (pp. 232-3)

This passage (written in April 1951) is disturbingly prescient, given that William Burroughs accidentally killed his wife Joan during a drunken "William Tell" incident in September of that same year:

In New York he [Burroughs] once had a machinegun under his bed. "I got something better than that now...a german sheintoth gas gun, look at this beauty, only got one shell. I could knock out a hundred men with this gun and have plenty of time to make a getaway. Only thing wrong I only got one shell." "I hope I'm not around when you try it" said Joan from the kitchen. "How do YOU know it's a gas shell." Bill snuffed; he never paid any attention to her sallies but he heard them. (p. 247)

Although On the Road's literary resonance may have ebbed somewhat, its cultural influence remains undeniable. As Cunnell observes, it is part of its era:

"Kerouac's clattering typewriter is folded in with Jackson Pollock's furious brushstrokes and Charlie Parker's escalating and spiraling alto saxophone choruses in a trinity representing the breakthrough of a new postwar counterculture seemingly built on sweat, immediacy, and instinct, rather than apprenticeship, craft, and daring practice." (p. 2)

As a side note, this passage

They ate voraciously as Neal, sandwich in hand, stood bowed and jumping before the big phonograph listening to a wild bop record I just bought called "The Hunt," with Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray blowing their tops before a screaming audience that gave the record fantastic frenzied volume. (p. 215)

refers to the July 1947 "Bopland" concert at the Elks Club in LA. The audience reaction for the Dexter/Wardell tenor sax battle was perhaps unsurpassed until Duke Ellington's Newport concert nearly a decade later, when Paul Gonsalves nearly sparked a riot with a 27-chorus solo on "Diminuendo in Blue" and "Crescendo in Blue.")

Whatever its flaws, On the Road is a raucous and riotous novel; it should not be missed.

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