Jack Kerouac

(Three reviews by Kenneth Rexroth)


On the Road
The Subterraneans
Mexico City Blues



On the Road

Whatever else it is, and whether good or bad, this is pretty sure to be the most “remarkable” novel of 1957. It is about something everybody talks about and nobody does anything about — the delinquent younger generation.

It is by a new author, the best prose representative of the San Francisco Renaissance which has created so much hullabaloo lately. Kerouac has written one other novel, The Town and the City, but, although it got considerable praise, it seems never to have reached many readers. I don’t think this will happen this time. On the Road has the kind of drive that blasts through to a large public. Finally, and this is what makes the novel really important, what gives it that drive is a genuine, new, engaging and exciting prose style. The subject may be catchy, the publication may be timely, but what keeps the book going is the power and beauty of the writing.

First off, it should be realized that Kerouac is not writing about the present-day adolescent. The date is about 1947. There is nothing “cool” about these young men and girls. This is the heyday of bop — the Frantic Generation of the hysterical backwash of the most horrifying ten years in human history. He is not writing about criminals, but “delinquents.” The highest compliment one crook can pay another is to say that he is “smart.” If you are smart you keep your nose clean and don’t volunteer. You believe that only customers gamble. These kids are “hep,” a vastly different thing. They steal cars. But they drive them 90 miles an hour and wreck them in front of policemen. Crooks ride airplanes; if necessary, they ride the blinds — at least when young and foolish.

These innocents dash madly back and forth across the country, but they aren’t even very good at hitchhiking. Any self-respecting pickpocket has been further around the pot looking for the handle than they have been from home. They are hep — jazz excites them — but the lucid, orderly lyricism of Lester Young sounds “wild, crazy, frantic, man!” and in a neighborhood Negro club, full of ship scalers and lady welders relaxing on Saturday night, they behave as if they were witnessing a jungle orgy. On the other hand, they are not in revolt against the society which has produced them. Their talk is not of either the yogi or the commissar, but of corny entertainers, ham TV programs and the advertised virtues of the latest cars. Their values are those of the most conformist members of the middle class they despise, but enormously hypertrophied. They are demoralized and unsuccessful little Babbitts. This novel should demonstrate once and for all that the hipster is the furious square.

Does Kerouac know this, or does he reveal it unwittingly? He knows it as an artist, however he may be deluded, as a man, by his material. Flaubert thought Emma Bovary was a conventional romantic heroine; his own irony escaped him completely, except in the art of creation. On the Road is the study of the rapid falling apart of a sort of Golem. The “hero,” Dean Moriarty, is an android, a human-seeming mechanism without interior, which has broken some essential spring and gone wild. At first he appears to be a kind of superman, beyond good and evil, and also born many years after the comparatively naïve Sanine first leered at his sister. But time tells, and not very much time. These characters have the time sense of mayflies and little children. They are always talking about “the old days,” by which they mean six months ago. A year is enough. Moriarty begins to come to pieces literally, he loses part of his thumb, his legs don’t work like they used to, his agility is gone, he can no longer dodge the consequences of his acts. But he still goes roaring on, like a bulldozer out of control and fueled with alcohol.

It’s pretty frightening. Is it true? Of course there have always been people like this, but nobody ever took them seriously. For Kerouac his Golem is a symbol, the vehicle of a general indictment — “Look, this is what you are doing to us, to me and my friends, to your children.” The sins of the fathers — this is the Oedipus Complex as Public Prosecutor.

This is a book you should read. You are humane. You read good novels. This is the price in dehumanization society pays for your humanity. Kenneth Patchen has told people this in many books for many years, Henry Miller, too, Céline and Allen Ginsberg, whom the San Francisco police don’t like. Hosea said it long ago, and all the other prophets in the Bible. Things weren’t so bad then. They’ve got a lot worse. A lot worse. Still nobody pays any attention.



The Subterraneans

If Kerouac’s On the Road bugged the boys on the literary quarterlies, this book is going to give them running and barking fits. It has all the essential ingredients of a bad book. It is sentimental, naïve, pretentious and full of shocking lack of understanding of the world it describes. Since this is presumably the world of the author’s own life, this is a pretty serious indictment.

And yet it is not a bad book. Many people can accept Kerouac as a social problem who cannot see him as an artist. There is no question but when he does speak out of the Beat Generation, he is their authentic voice. Even as an accurate informant, he is not remotely as authentic as Clellon Holmes, whose novel Go is actually about Kerouac, Ginsberg, Solomon and their friends, and whose analysis of the social meaning of the Beat Generation in the recent Esquire is a sane, temperate and thorough treatment of the subject.

But Kerouac is the subject. The story is all about jazz and Negroes. Now there are two things Jack knows nothing about — jazz and Negroes. His idea of jazz is that it is savage drums and screaming horns around the jungle fire while the missionary soup comes to boil. The fact that the music of Charlie Parker is far more like Rameau than it is like the tootling of a snake charmer or a hootchy kootch pit band would strike him as the square delusion of a hopeless square — somebody like Rexroth or Gleason.

As a natural concomitant, Kerouac’s attitude toward Negroes is what, in jazz circles, we call Crow-Jimism, racism in reverse. This book is just one step removed from the “take me, you gorgeous black buck” trash of the lower paperbacks. On the Road was a roman à clef; most of the people can be found any day in The Place or The Bagel Shop. I sincerely hope that the Negro girl of this sad, lost, marijuana-clouded, “therapist”-bedeviled story never actually existed, or at least that Kerouac himself is not the hero, because seldom has a man understood a woman less.

That is, of course, the point. As an artist, Jack has wrought better than he knows. Just as the “hero” of On the Road is an automaton, a guided missile out of control, although obviously Jack thinks he is a “real sweet cat,” so Mardou and Leo never “make it.” It is a kind of sad, terrible little Greek idyll, Daphnis and Chloe in Dante’s smoke-bound limbo of the undamned. A world where the versicle of the offertory of love is, “Pad me, Dad.” Where “like” takes the place, like, of commas and periods because all life has become an amorphous simile of nothing else. Where if you can’t make it, you split, and where everybody splits, like, all the time.

It is a real art to convey this wistful terror of those for whom there is not, and never can be, any I and Thou at all, ever, and where God is the last, craziest Kick of all, and when you’ve dug, like, you cut, dig? For those people, whom Allen Ginsberg pathetically called “the best minds of my generation,” there has been a complete breakdown of the organs of reciprocity. There is nobody out there at all — nobody. The unpeopled night is not “cool.” It is empty and at the temperature of absolute zero.

This is the second Kerouac in a year, and New Directions has a third coming up. Each one is going to kick up a rumpus and a lot of foolish things are going to be said about them. Some of the worst are going to be true. Herbert Gold is right: Jack is a square, a Columbia boy who went slumming on Minetta Alley ten years ago and got hooked. But that isn’t the point. In spite of himself and his embarrassing faults, he does come across, he does portray, in a really heartbreaking fashion, the terror and exaltation of a world he never made. We’ve just got to realize that we have another Thomas Wolfe on ours hands, a great writer totally devoid of good sense. Malcolm Cowley, Don Allen and James Laughlin, who have seen Jack’s books through the press, have none of the talents of Wolfe’s great editor, Maxwell Perkins. Maybe that’s just as well. This time we are getting the innocent lost heart straight.



Mexico City Blues

In the last three years Jack Kerouac has favored us with his observations about hitchhiking, riding freights and driving other people’s fast cars across country. It would seem he did these things poorly and that doing them frightened him severely. Next, he gave us his ideas about jazz and Negroes, two subjects about which he knew less than nothing; in fact, he knew them in reverse. In this reader’s opinion, his opinions about Negroes are shared only by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Jazz, he seems to believe, is throbbing drums and screaming horns, pandemonium in the jungle night over a pot of missionary fricassee. Now, in this book of poems, he has turned to Buddhism and dope with similar results.

Somebody once said of Mr. Kerouac that he was a Columbia freshman who went to a party in the Village twenty years ago and got lost. How true. The naïve effrontery of this book is more pitiful than ridiculous. Mr. Kerouac’s Buddhism is a dime-store incense burner, glowing and glowering sinisterly in the dark corner of a Beatnik pad and just thrilling the wits out of bad little girls.

He sums it up a couple of times: “Neither life / nor death — neither existence / nor nonexistence — but the central / lapse and absence of them both / (in Love’s Holy Void Abode).” This is lucid, possibly quoted from somebody else. At its best it is considerably below the Occult Ancient East as presented on the New York Library steps, in Chicago’s Bughouse Square, or to the eager girls on that circuit immortalized by the late Helen Hokinson.

As for dope, there are a lot of words in capitals, like “A BANG OF M,” and observations like “The only cure for / morphine poisoning / is more morphine,” and a liberal use of words like “fix” and “joypop” and a brief biochemical dissertation on “goofballs.” But I think the best poem in the book is the one which ends, “And I am only an Apache / Smoking Hashi / In old Cabashy / By the Lamp.” This poem begins, “I keep falling in love / with my mother, / I don’t want to hurt her / — Of all people to hurt.”

It’s all there, the terrifyingly skillful use of verse, the broad knowledge of life, the profound judgments, the almost unbearable sense of reality. I’ve always wondered what ever happened to those waxwork figures in the old rubber-neck dives in Chinatown. Now we know; one of them at least writes books.



The first two reviews appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle (1 September 1957 and 16 February 1958). The third appeared in the New York Times Book Review (29 November 1959). Copyright 1957, 1958, 1959. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

For other Rexroth remarks on Kerouac, see Disengagement: The Art of the Beat Generation, The Making of the Counterculture, The Beat Era, Jazz Poetry, and Five Articles on Jazz.

Other Rexroth essays