From Obscurity to Infamy to Nothingness
Ruminations on a Lost Love
As tortured paths go, any road that begins in the working-class precincts of the northeastern United States and ends with a Nobel laureate in the Rhineland may be in a class by itself. There’s a through-line, though, I promise you, even if at times it resembles a tangled skein.
I was/am a charter member of that class of people who get lost in books. The world has been, perhaps, a bit too real for me for a bit too long. When your life experience includes your brother leaving one day, never to be seen again, a book–any book-offers a safe controlled space. Or at least it seems to.
Horribly undisciplined almost from the start, I missed or ignored every literary wave that my classmates caught. I was looking for something. I just wasn’t sure what, or where I would find it. The only thing I knew for certain was I wasn’t going to find it in my neighborhood of small brick and timber capes and forty-by-one-hundred lots. The local public library, I was sure, was the place to look.
So great was my certainty that I eventually found myself a teenage employee of the EPL, with first dibs on the returns that filled the carts that awaited me each day. I was paid–paid!–to keep the books organized, volume by volume, shelf by shelf. Almost anything could find its way into my bookbag.
It was sometime during those years that I read On the Road. I still remember the cover art of the library’s paperback copy, which was of a piece with dozens of other titles printed during the 1970s. The acquisition librarian evidently didn’t believe that the central novel of the Beat Generation was worthy of the hardcover treatment.
Grudging toleration of the writers gathered under that banner, David S. Willis tells us on Quillette, has almost always been the case. Lately, even that has been in short supply and the group may fade from literary memories. Or at least the memories of the keepers of the literary canon. A mixed-up group of white guys exploring music, drugs, sex and violence. Why spend time with that? We have Tarantino movies now.
I’d like to say that first encounter was Damascene, but it wasn’t. It was a book I was “supposed” to read, at least according to the hippie-worshipping kids I found myself in daily contact with. How could I really experience, say, the totality of a Grateful Dead show if I didn’t understand the Haight in 1967? And how could I understand that without understanding Beats? So I read it. The earth didn’t move.
Yet for some reason I picked up another volume, The Dharma Bums. Then Howl and Other Poems. Something kept me returning, expanding my reach. There was no upside to this. I was still in high school. We didn’t have a subset of literati running around quoting Rimbaud and Keats. The most important thing to most folks in those years seemed to be whether we’d win the state football championship or not. The work of gay poets wearing rags was not a social asset in any sense.
Still, the names and the titles piled up. Kerouac and Ginsberg were first. Later I attacked Burroughs. Corso. Holmes. Ferlinghetti. Snyder. Cassady. Cassady? Isn’t there a Dead song about Cassidy? I thought that was about somebody’s baby, but there is that second verse about country miles in the Cadillac. Hmm, maybe the mimicking hippie kids were on to something.
Neither before nor since have I been as captivated by a group of writers. Maybe it was the work itself. Maybe I was taken by the notion of a group of people who sat around talking about things I found important, or at least more important than football. Maybe it was just the idea of a cohesive group that was attractive. I’ve never felt comfortable in any group of any size; I suppose I’m jealous of those who belong.
Throughout it all there was Kerouac. The third title I read was The Subterraneans. That’s the end of the road for most people. I kept going. Tristessa. Maggie Cassidy. And then Visions of Gerard, the recognizably near-autobiographical story of a sainted child whose death, at age 9, shatters the younger brother who lives. That Gerard was, in the telling, an aware, engaged intelligence–words I’d hesitate to apply to my own 4-year old Down Syndrome Irish twin–didn’t matter. Every word hit like a laser-directed hammer. Here was evidence that ghosts were real.
I tore through whatever titles I could lay my hands on. The more I read the more consonance I found between Jack and me even as unanswerable questions arose. How could this giant of hipness, founder of the Beat generation, spend so much time living with his mother, much of it mere miles from where I was living? What lay behind the drinking? And why did the writing seem more and more tortured as his life wound down?
One shouldn’t look to artists in sorting themselves out. I stay away from literary biographies not because I can’t fathom the drama in getting up and facing a blank page, but because I want the work to speak for itself. I never want to be distracted by who I think the writer is.
Except, of course, when the writer is a working-class kid, reared in an ethnic enclave, ridden by guilt and tormented by his Catholic upbringing. Those aren’t distractions, they’re credentials, the only kind that matter.
Maybe that’s why I kept reading Kerouac, much more of him than many people do, I think. Recognizing oneself, knowing that you’re not some completely peculiar freak, a product of oddly juxtaposed cultures, that’s heady stuff. Few movements, literary or otherwise, have captured my heart and mind the same way. But few have helped me unlock such an important door.
So a few years later, when I stumbled across Heinrich Böll, I was primed to instantly recognize that what I’d thought was my own struggle was not just an American story but a global, probably universal one.
Maybe the work of the Beat Generation will fade. Maybe it will persist.
And maybe love can never be lost.