Thursday, June 04, 2009

Buried in the Railroad Earth

For a number of years when I was younger – let’s say from around 1995 to 2001 – there were few writers, if any, whose work affected me as profoundly as the work of Jack Kerouac, the mercurial, hard-living, enigmatic American scribe most famous for writing the classic 1957 novel On the Road. That book and many others have stayed with me ever since that period. I’ve always assumed that literally thousands of young men (and perhaps young women, but it’s less clear) who ever harbored literary aspirations since Kerouac was with us have probably felt the same about this man’s writing.

There have been many, many books and essays written about Kerouac, and probably any one of them can offer a more coherent literary analysis than any thought I can offer to the reader here. But I have recently had occasion to reconsider his work, and it came to me as a complete surprise, allowing me to discover again, almost freshly, the resonance Jack Kerouac’s words have had through my life since 1995.

I don’t remember exactly how I first got onto Kerouac. I suppose I had heard enough about On the Road over time and was starting to get interested in literature and eventually decided that as a single young man, the definitive novel about getting in a car and high-tailing it several times across the United States with a couple of buddies for kicks was something I ought to read. It didn’t matter that the trips were taken in the late 40s and the book wasn’t published until 1957. Something about that concept of spontaneously blowing cross country with your pals has natural appeal to young men without many ties, still savoring their first true taste of personal liberty. I didn’t have a whole lot of liberty, however, because I was a soldier, and therefore sworn to do whatever Uncle Sam wanted me to. But I didn’t have a family, and I did have some crazy dreams, most of which were destined never to be realized; some of which actually would be, but only later.

Oh man, but I would think if you were a young man in your twenties, and an American on top of that, and starting to develop literary aspirations on top of that, then you couldn’t avoid running smack into Kerouac. Who else had ever laid down what it meant to be young and free in the United States of America better than he did? Who else had ever written so crazily and so knowingly about the holy longing inside of us all, the desire to see things, the thirst to know things, the need to understand everything?

So at some point I decided that I had to take on Jack Kerouac’s writing. And I suppose I felt that I needed to begin at the beginning. So I bought a paperback copy of the first novel he published, in 1950, called The Town and the City. I had no idea what it was about, and if you were to suggest to me at the time that it was more or less a knock-off of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, that is an idea that would not have found purchase in my mind because I didn’t know who Wolfe was and had never heard of that book either. I knew The Town…. was a big book, and that was fine by me. And I also knew that I had planned to visit New Orleans, on my own, over a three-day weekend, so I decided to bring Jack with me.

This was the end of August, 1995. I can distinctly remember sitting in a coffee shop at an outdoor table in the Garden District across from one of those cemeteries with the above-ground graves sipping on a coffee and reading Kerouac, feeling like much the Bohemian, but also feeling like I was trying too hard to appear sophisticated. Good thing nobody was paying any attention.

I remember the little boy in the story accompanying his fedora-wearing father to the race track and proudly placing bets. I remember the drawn-out death of that father in the novel, a figure so central to the forlorn spirit of the book; also representing a parallel to Thomas Wolfe’s earlier story. I remember the mangled dog tags belonging to the protagonist’s brother being discovered by Japanese soldiers in some Asian theater of World War II, after the body that wore them had been obliterated. I remember the sadness I felt when I came to that scene. I remember the very first words of the novel: “The town is Galloway….”, a thinly-veiled facsimile, I would learn much later, of Kerouac’s own provenance of Lowell, Massachusetts.

I don’t remember very well my first reading of On the Road, which came next. It was probably also in 1995. But I do recall the overall effect, which was one of total immersion into my own crazed dreams, as though Kerouac’s fictionalized chronicle had opened up a huge door within myself. As I imagine happened to so many others, the book landed on me like a bomb. I started journaling even crazier thoughts (I had been journaling since college), and, inevitably, began the regrettable imitation of Kerouac’s fiction that probably so many other young writers have done. I made a mix tape for my brother called “We Lean Forward to the Next Crazy Venture Beneath the Skies”, a direct quote. I remember puzzling like everyone else did over the famous question Kerouac poses towards the end of the novel, “Don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?” I remember how Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty in the novel said “Whoo-wee!” all the time.

I remember a whole first “novel” I started to write called “No Wonder You Look Tired” (honest to God!) that I managed to keep working on until 1997, when I lost about ¾ of the manuscript in an armed robbery in Philadelphia. Later I even changed the name of the novel to The Sound of Diamonds, which was, again, stolen from Kerouac ("Silence is the sound of diamonds which can cut through anything.") The entire story grew out of a broken heart, and it was a pitiable Kerouac imitation from top to bottom. It was painful to lose the fruits of that struggle at the time, but I think I can render the final assessment that this was the most appropriate fate for that particular story. (Incidentally, I still have the first 50 pages or so, handwritten. They’re atrocious!)

Later I read On the Road again, and I still own the version I bought back in ’95. I am quite sure I’ll read it a third time.

Then there was the book that really got to me – even more than On the Road – a little pipsqueak of a novel Kerouac wrote around 1953 called Maggie Cassidy. It wasn’t published until later, after On the Road made him a literary sensation. To this very day it is my favorite Kerouac novel and will always be one of my favorite books. It was probably the major inspiration behind that early attempt at a novel I mentioned, although, I need not point out, Kerouac’s book was much better than my efforts. This novel also influenced later writings of mine, including a collection of eleven unpublished short stories called A Son of the Suburbs written between 2002 and 2005, and in particular two stories called “The Fountain of Agonies” and “Poison Summer”.

Maggie Cassidy doesn’t seem to be remembered as one of Kerouac’s better novels by the critical establishment. For me, however, the book was seminal. It didn’t have much of a plot – few Kerouac novels do – and I can see why it wouldn’t appeal to everyone, since it’s about a high school girlfriend written from a boy’s broken-hearted point of view, with a decidedly nostalgic flavor. But it really slammed into me where I was at that time in my life. The language was beautiful, filled with longing and anguish. To me the words felt like my own thoughts and inexpressible ideas, all coalesced right there on the page. Even though it was dated, and its author seemed to pine for a time which for me was a vanished America, never to be experienced, the sentiments and the crushed-soul emptiness expressed in the novel resonated through every part of me. I felt like I had once loved young Maggie. As with On the Road, I remember certain turns of phrase – the boy in the novel fixing his gaze on “the swan of her neck”, for example – and I also recall the exuberant and sometimes infantile cajoling between the main character, Jack Duluoz (Kerouac’s alter ego in many novels), and his pals, talk about beaning each other with baseballs, etc. From the moment I read this novel, it struck a chord in me that still sustains in spite of the fact that my circumstances have changed tremendously since that time and continue to do so. I’ve read that book twice too and am seriously considering a third run. It would be interesting to read now that I have two young daughters.

After Maggie Cassidy I was hooked into Kerouac, and felt a kinship with him in spite of how divergent his life and lifestyle had been in relation to what my own were. I went on to read other books: Visions of Gerard, a moving, short novel based on his relationship with his dead older brother, who passed away at age nine from an illness; Lonesome Traveler, a kind of half-short story, half-essay collection about his various travels in America doing odd jobs, the title of which I later purloined for a profile I published of the singer-songwriter Bill Mallonee in Rock & Sling magazine; Desolation Angels, an amazingly-titled later “novel” (by the end of his career the line between fiction and nonfiction had blurred considerably in Kerouac’s work) which revisited some earlier terrain but with a wiser, more visionary eye and considerably more free-association-style prose. (By this time Kerouac had fallen under the influence of Zen Buddhism and had a far more mystical outlook on the world.)

Speaking of titles, Kerouac was always my favorite in the art of naming his books, and other titles of books he wrote which I have not read still marked me in their own smaller way – books like Old Angel Midnight, Mexico City Blues, Pomes All Sizes, and my favorite in the title stakes, The Sea is My Brother.

And so it went. After the year 2001 or so my infatuation with Kerouac waned slightly, but the inspiration he gave me, the insatiable hunger his language sparked within my gut to write my own mad dramas, has never left me, ever, since those earlier times. His influence lingered in my writing, as I have explained, as it did elsewhere. When I attended The New School in New York City to pursue a master’s degree in Creative Writing in 1998, I met a writer named Hettie Jones, who knew Kerouac personally and had authored a memoir called, unabashedly, I Am Hettie Jones. She was a graying, former Flower Child-type, but I remember speaking with her at some faux-intellectual cocktail party and listening to her account of Kerouac coming upon her and a girlfriend in a pub and wrapping them both together in his arms in one massive bear hug, shouting his greetings. My twin brother and I still quote and make reference to Kerouac regularly, as though he were another brother whose words and memories were integral to our own.

Thus we come to last weekend, when I, now a somewhat chubbier, less energetic, but still literary (or so I like to think) husband and father of three small children, rolled out with my family to attend a wedding of my wife’s cousin in northwestern Massachusetts. Being a husband, and a man who is not all that into weddings in the first place, I had barely been paying attention to where this wedding would be taking place. I just knew I had to be there for it and we had to bring all three kids. Only a few days before we left, it occurred to me, probably by listening closely to my wife, that we were going to Lowell. And it hit me then: Wait a minute. Lowell, Massachusetts? As in, the birthplace of Jack Kerouac? As in, the “town” in The Town and the City? As in, the setting for Maggie Cassidy? Yes, that Lowell.

It was then that I knew, absolutely, without question, that I had to visit Jack Kerouac’s grave, for I knew he had been buried back there, even though his death occurred in 1969 where he had been living at the time, near Orlando, Florida. Lowell was really the only place you could have interred Jack Kerouac. It had made such an impression on his soul as a youth – a reality so beautifully and sorrowfully played out in his earlier novels, as Lowell was an industrial town filled with smog, ramshackle row homes, and hard-working, humbled Americans struggling to get by.

The morning of the wedding, we made our way with a group of attendees, my wife’s family and friends, to a place called The Owl Diner in Lowell – the sort of wondrous, small-town eatery that has amazing, home-made food and a cramped, manic atmosphere that you might call “local flavor”. It was the site of a truly delicious breakfast and some fun conversation. Across the way from where I sat, outside the window, I could glimpse a few bedraggled row-homes, with sagging porches and peeling paint, and I thought about Jack Kerouac and the children running through the streets of the Lowell he had painted for me there many years before.

While I was putting away a huge platter of corned beef hash, listening to people talk, taking turns with my wife to hastily shove scraps of food towards my one-year-old son in the hopes that we would be quick enough to stave off his bellow for more vittles, I finally said, “I’m sorry, I have to do it.” I pushed back from the table and approached a young waitress. “I know this sounds ridiculous,” I said, “but I really love Jack Kerouac’s books, do you know if he is buried here?” I knew he was, but it was a way to kick it off. She gave me a look that said, “Whatever”, but said she wasn’t sure. An older woman, however, seated nearby, said to me, “Oh yes, I’m sure he is. Isn’t he in the such-and-such cemetery…..”

A beefy, Good Will Hunting­-looking dude, decked out in a white apron stained with grease from the food he’d been slinging in back moments before he evidently went on break, and who called me “guy”, said he would go find out fawr me. A few minutes later he came back to our table, tapped my shoulder, and said, “He is buried here, guy. Edson Cemetery.” I thanked him for his neighborly spirit and his, well, good will.

From there it was all my brother-in-law’s iPhone. He is not necessarily of the literary persuasion, but he is a darn good sport, and generous, for he knew it meant something to me. I tell you, that man had located Edson Cemetery, found directions, committed them to memory, and was ready with his car to whisk me over there as soon as we got back to the hotel all within about 20 minutes. Just like the commercials, I was thinking.

It turns out, by some “coincidence” – which I don’t know if it’s too out of line to call Providence – Jack Kerouac’s grave was located only 1.5 miles from where we were staying. I know Kerouac was no saint. But he was a child of God, and a Catholic (a bond I actually can claim with him), and he wrote words which really had marked my life, as I was rapidly recalling with more clarity with each passing moment.

My hard-charging bro-in-law brought me straight to the man’s gravestone. We disembarked from his car. We were standing in a lovely, bucolic cemetery, very large, set in the middle of southern Lowell, with many streets stuffed full of those same tired row-homes right there within view. There was a gentle breeze and a lazy, unoppressive sunshine filtering through large, leafy, obviously well-aged trees. A stout fellow wearing a green Vietnam-era soldier’s blouse and baggy shorts was standing nearby looking at the ground. I knew we were in the right place. As we set off down the gravel pathway this guy turned and said to us, “Are you here to see Jack?” I said we were, and we exchanged some brotherly/literary pleasantries, paying homage to the man below.

And there, marked with a simple, unassuming rectangle of grey stone, was Jack Kerouac’s final resting place. We stood before it and I was startled with the knowledge that right there, beneath what he once described, in Lonesome Traveler, as “the railroad earth”, were the bones of this man, this seeker, this honest scribe of the American heart. In front of the grave, pressed firmly into the earth, many previous visitors, writers, fellow dreamers, had deposited pens and pencils. Some of them had little notes with them, impaled into the ground, upon which, one presumes, the writers had paid their final respects. I didn’t have a pen with me, but my brother-in-law stepped in again: he had an automatic pencil in his car. I smiled to myself: the automatic pencil, as those close to me know, is my writing instrument of choice. He handed it over, and I stuffed it into that same railroad earth.

It was endearing to me to see his childhood nickname on the grave, which as Kerouac readers know was “Ti Jean”, from his French-Canadian ancestry. His full name, as inscribed in the stone, was JOHN L. KEROUAC. But it wasn’t until I saw the epitaph that I was actually moved, for it must be the simplest, pithiest, yet most accurate epitaph I can think of for anyone.

It reads, “HE HONORED LIFE.”

Today I honor him.