Daily Archives: October 2, 2007

Yet another reason to rue the day the NYT took down the Firewall: Our Miss Brooks is at it again!:

“A few decades ago, before TV commercials became obsessively concerned with prostate problems, Jack Kerouac wrote a book called “On the Road.” It was greeted rapturously by many as a burst of rollicking, joyous American energy.”

And decried by viscious little queen named Truman Persons who in a rare moment of genuine inspriation quipped “That’s not writing it’s typing!”

People quoted the famous lines: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn.”

Which wasn’t quite as famous as THIS first line by one of Jack’s best buds.

“In the Times review that launched the book, Gilbert Millstein raved that On the Road was a frenzied search for affirmation, a book that rejected the ennui, pessimism and cynicism of the Lost Generation. The heroes of the book savored everything, enjoyed everything, took pleasure in everything.
But, of course, all this was before the great geriatric pall settled over the world, before it became illegal to be cheerful.”

Wondering what on earth he’s blathering about aren’t you? Well in Brooksworld, cheerfulness was what made St. Ronald of Reagan such a “Great American.” No matter what the crisis — genocide, famine, AIDS — Ronnie may not have had the answer (or even know the question) but he was always at the ready with a cheerful smile. And for that we should thank his former employers, Jack Warner and Lew Wasserman. They trained their people well.

Brooks, needless to say, was trained by rather different parties.

On the Road turned 50 last month, and over the past few weeks a line of critics have taken another look at the book, and this time their descriptions of it, whether they like it or not, are very different.
“Above all else, the story is about loss,” George Mouratidis, one of the editors of a new edition, told The Age in Melbourne.
“It’s a book about death and the search for something meaningful to hold on to – the famous search for ‘IT,’ a truth larger than the self, which, of course, is never found,” wrote Meghan O’Rourke in Slate.
“Kerouac was this deep, lonely, melancholy man,” Hilary Holladay of the University of Massachusetts told The Philadelphia Inquirer. ”And if you read the book closely, you see that sense of loss and sorrow swelling on every page.”
“In truth, On the Road is a book of broken dreams and failed plans,” wrote Ted Gioia in The Weekly Standard.
In Book Forum, David Ulin noted that “even the most frantic of Kerouac’s writings were really the sagas of a solitary seeker: poor, sad Jack, adrift in a world without mercy when he’d rather be ‘safe in Heaven dead.’ ”
According to these and other essays, On the Road is the book you want to read if you find Sylvia Plath too upbeat.
And of course they’re not wrong. There was a traditionalist, darker side to Kerouac, as John Leland emphasizes in his book Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They’re Not What You Think).

Yikes!

And then there’s what Kerouac himself had to say. But America being the anti-intellectual bohemoth that it is, mere words and ideas are nothing compared to feelings. And so whatever deep-dish meanings On the Road may hold take a back seat to the freewheeling imagery it offered of cross-country travel, boozing, womanizing and giving the go-by to the ol’ nine-to-five.

Mark Twain had been here before with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and you can find precedents in Whitman and Melville as well. Not that Brooks cares to.

“But reading through the anniversary commemorations, you feel the gravitational pull of the great Boomer Narcissus. All cultural artifacts have to be interpreted through whatever experiences the Baby Boomer generation is going through at that moment.
So a book formerly known for its youthful exuberance now becomes a book of gloomy middle-aged disillusion. (In 20 years, The Cat in the Hat will be read as a commentary on unreliable home health care workers.)
And there’s something else going on, something to do with the great taming professionalism of American culture. On the Road has been semi-incorporated into modern culture, but only parts have survived.
Students are taught On the Road in class, then must write tightly organized, double-spaced term papers on it, and if they don’t get an A, it hurts their admissions prospects. The book is still talked about, but often by professional intellectuals in panel discussions and career-building journal articles.
The effect is that some of the book comes through fine – the longing, the nostalgia for home, the darker pessimism.”

Not to mention the scarcely-concealed desire for HOT MAN-TO-MAN ACTION. And on this both Leslie Fiedler and Gore Vidal (the latter actually having rounded third base with Jack) should be consulted.

Brooks of course doesn’t know about this any more than Butterfly McQueen’s Prissey knew about “birthin’ babies” in Gone with the Wind. Though like Prissey he pretends he does.

“But the real secret of the book was its discharge of youthful energy, the stupid, reckless energy that saves “On the Road” from being a dreadful novel. The delightful, moronic, unreflective fizz appears whenever the characters are happiest, when they are chasing girls or urinating from a swerving flatbed truck while going 70 miles an hour.
Those parts haven’t survived. They run afoul of the new gentility, the rules laid down by the health experts, childcare experts, guidance counselors, safety advisers, admissions officers, virtuecrats and employers to regulate the lives of the young. They seem dangerous, childish and embarrassing in the world of professionalized adolescence and professionalized intellect.”

Clearly Toilet Training was agony at Casa Brooks. And true to “Conservative” form, Brooks insists on regarding his anal-retentiveness as a universal principle.

“If Sal Paradise were alive today, he’d be a product of the new rules. He’d be a grad student with an interest in power yoga, on the road to the M.L.A. convention with a documentary about a politically engaged Manitoban dance troop that he hopes will win a MacArthur grant. He’d be driving a Prius, going a conscientious 55, wearing a seat belt and calling Mom from the Comfort Inns. “

Actually Sal Paradise is very much alive. You can find him here

and

here

and

here to name but a few places.

“The only thing we know for sure is that this ethos won’t last. Someday some hypermanic kid will produce a moronically maxed-out adventure odyssey that will spark the overdue rebellion among all the over-pressured SAT grinds, and us grumpy midlife critics will get to witness a new Kerouac, and the greatest pent-up young-life crisis in the history of the world.”

Ya know, I think that’s already happened —

But in Keeping with Brooksian Gloom, let’s end with with the key song from the show that defined the Beats once and for all:

“Sing a song of sad young man
Glasses full of rye
All the news is bad again
Kiss your dreams goodbye

All the sad young men
Sitting in the bars
Knowing neon nights
Missing all the stars

All the sad young men
Drifting through the town
Drinking up the night
Trying not to drown

All the sad young men
Singing in the cold
Trying to forget
That they’re growing old

All the sad young men
Choking on their youth
Trying to be brave
Running from the truth

Autumm turns the leaves to gold
Slowly dies the heart
Sad young men are growing old
That’s the cruelest part

All the sad young men
Seek a certain smile
Someone they can hold for a little while
Tired little girl does the best she can
Trying to be gay for her sad young man

While the grimy moon
Watches from above
All the sad young men
Play at making love

Misbegotten moon
Shine for sad young men
Let your gentle light
Guide them home again
All the sad young men”