Thursday, February 20, 2014

My Log 407, Feb 20 2014: Kerouac and the Beats: heroes of the film Big Sur have me wondering: “When are these guys going to grow up?

Jack Kerouac's grave in Lowell, Mass.
Jack Kerouac's grave in Lowell, Mass. (Photo credit: rmarshall)
English: His third of several homes growing up...
English: His third of several homes growing up in the West Centralville section of Lowell, Jack Kerouac later referred to 34 Beaulieu Street as "sad Beaulieu". The Kerouac family was living there in 1926 when Jack's big brother Gerard died of rheumatic fever at the age of nine. Jack was four at the time, and would later say that Gerard followed him in life as a guardian angel. This is the Gerard of Kerouac's novel Visions of Gerard. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Neal Cassady
Neal Cassady (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Jack Kerouac by photographer Tom Palu...
English: Jack Kerouac by photographer Tom Palumbo, circa 1956 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Cassady at Smiths
Cassady at Smiths (Photo credit: eleanor lonardo)
carolyn cassady
carolyn cassady (Photo credit: ☆eight☆)
Years ago I had a library containing many of Jack Kerouac’s books, but as I have moved around and gotten rid of books, these ones bit the dust.
I had read the books, although I was never an enthusiast for Kerouac. It is true he had a gift for word-spinning, for description , and his books are a written stream of consciousness describing a life that seemed virtually pointless to him, as it did to me, reading about it, except that his method was given to creating myths around the people he used as characters, who were usually based on his friends.
Having never been a fan of the Beat generation --- I was once assigned to write a series of articles about the Beats in Montreal. I knew nothing about them, didn’t feel for them, if they existed, and contented myself with writing about various creative, artistic, iconoclastic artists who were interesting people ---- it will not be a surprise to anyone reading this blog that I am somewhat mystified as to the continuing high regard in which Kerouac, the writer, seems to be held more than 60 years after first being published.
In spite of these reservations, I went along yesterday to see the movie Big Sur, based on a Kerouac novel published in 1962, when he was 40, suffering --- his life was a life of suffering, it seems --- from the ails of being famous after publication of his novel On the Road.  He had already descended into deep depressions and excessive drinking, and Big Sur describes how, to gain some relief, he borrowed a cottage on the Californian coast owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of a bookshop in San Francisco. Kerouac, according to the movie, immediately contacted his friend Neal Cassady, whom he had portrayed under a pseudonym in his earlier works, a man who has moved into history as a famous figure whose fame comes not from anything he achieved, but simply from being famous --- a phenomenon that has become more usual in our own day, as various rich young women have become famous for being famous.
The movie is directed by Michael Polish, and he has done a fine job of it, portraying the particular coastline  as almost a paradise, beautiful in the extreme with its pure forests,  its raging ocean, and magnificent vistas. Unfortunately, the question I kept asking myself as the action rolled on, was, “When are these guys going to grow up?”
To be honest, their behaviour seemed immature in the extreme: Cassady had a job in a tire shop, and was living at home with his wife and several children. He also had a nearby mistress, Billi,  (played by the beautiful Kate Bosworth, who seems to have become popular in recent years for winning awards as “the worst actress of the year”) to whom he sent Kerouac in the expectation that they would become lovers, which of course happened. But then Kerouac also had an affair with Cassady’s wife, and blotted his escutcheon by bringing the mistress into the Cassady home. Meantime, Kerouac had promised Billi he would take her to Mexico and marry her, promises he had no intention of keeping, and which, when he betrayed them, resulted in what seemed like near-suicidal reactions from Billi.
All the characters in the movie seemed to be terminally unhappy, or at least discontented, (which was odd considering that Kerouac’s prose, presented as a persistent voice-over commentary on the action, was justifiably lyrical about the countryside itself ), and there was really no convincing explanation as to where this unhappiness originated. It could (at least this is my take on it) have come from the very infantilism of Kerouac’s attitude to life  After all, he claimed not to have ever been a beatnik, “I’m a Catholic,” he said, in refutation of how he was customarily portrayed by the media. And it is known that during the Army hearings which finally put paid to Senator Joe McCarthy’s onslaught on civil liberties and pubic decency, Kerouac was sitting there urging McCarthy and his minions on.  Irrevocably right-wing, in other words.
I have only to read the occasional quote from Kerouac to be reminded of why I didn’t react with great enthusiasm to his prose.  He described On the Road  as “really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him. I found him in the sky, in Market Street San Francisco (those 2 visions), and Dean (Neal) had God sweating out of his forehead all the way. THERE IS NO OTHER WAY OUT FOR THE HOLY MAN: HE MUST SWEAT FOR GOD. And once he has found Him, the Godhood of God is forever established and really must not be spoken about.
Oh, yeah!
An interesting view of this group of friends was given in a recent interview with Carolyn Cassady, who is now 87, and has lived in England since 1985, in The Guardian.  She said that the other members of the group treated her husband “like a trained bear,” and added:
“ Neal said he took any drug, any pill, anyone handed him. He didn't care. He was doing his damnedest to get killed." She feels guilty about his self-destruction, commented the reporter.  Carolyn added: "I didn't realise the two pillars of his support were the railroad job and being head of a family. He realised he would never become respectable, as he wanted, and he wanted to die."
Ms. Cassady also had interesting things to say about Allen Ginsberg, who doesn’t appear in this film, but who was probably the best writer of this group.
She said: “Why this sudden interest in Ginsberg? I met him when he was 20. He had never got over feeling he was worthless. He'd go out and try to find a job, and he'd come back and he'd say, 'I'm never gonna amount to anything. I just can't do anything. Even my finger's the wrong size.' He'd tried some assembly line or something."  Ironically, writes The Guardian reporter, Carolyn is mystified by the fascination (of young people today with these writers.) "Kids in school are still eating it up. I don't understand it. I don't see any value in that at all, culturally….."
Perhaps it is the helter-skelter nature of Kerouac’s prose that appeals to the enthusiastic young of today. Mysterious though it may be to me, no one seems to hold against him his right-wing politics, his amorality, his drunkenness. The proprietor of The Word second-hand bookshop around the corner from me, told me this morning that when books by Kerouac come into his shop, he usually sells them on the same day.
I can’t believe this enthusiasm could be added to by anything shown in this film.

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