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Why Kerouac Matters



Book by John Leland.
Published by Viking.

Few literary brands need to be reduced in size and fable more than that of Jack Kerouac. In honor of the 50th anniversary of Kerouac's On the Road, the hip European clothing shop Hogan debuted its own line of Kerouac-inspired beatnik clothing, including boots starting at $475. Clearly the waves of commercialization, which started in the mid-'90s with "Kerouac wore khakis" ads, have culminated in thunderous crashes of misinterpretation on whatever levees of logical Beat discourse might remain.

Enter The New York Times' John Leland with Why Kerouac Matters. Leland doesn't attempt to defend the book so much as outline what Kerouac actually meant. Unfortunately, Leland tells most everyone who loves On the Road that their readings are, more or less, wrong.

Even the cover takes the aloof high ground, with Leland's smirking, detached subtitle, "The Lessons of On the Road (They're Not What You Think)." Leland's intellectual condescension, disguised in hip informality and Kerouac-er than thou attitude, is devastatingly off-putting. Describing Kerouac's first-person narrator, Sal Paradise, Leland rants, "So Sal is a doting nephew and an aspiring hubby. Deal with it."

Is that necessary?

Lectures with a reprimanding tone might even be tolerable, if many of his points weren't so awkwardly forced. Leland repeatedly attempts to align Kerouac with the hip-hop generation, seemingly to spite the masses that mistakenly see On the Road as a precursor to hippies and rock ‚Äòn' roll. (Kerouac was one of the biggest influences on Bob Dylan; Dylan influenced every musician of the era — that's not much of a stretch there.) "Sal may be short on bling," Leland writes. "... But he has mad flow and even flirts with a gangsta moment ... Kerouac shouted perpetual props to his mother ... Their quest was Tupac's."

Leland's sudden youthful earnestness is almost embarrassing in contrast to his previous arrogance. Eventually, he even goes so far as to label Sal's aunt the "Original Gangsta," or "O.G."

A collective groan might be in order.

Maybe even more so later, when Leland's chapter headings — self-help style — go beyond parody into a realm of fatal kitsch: from "Sal's Guide to Work and Money" and "What Would Jack Do?" to "The Faust and the Furious."

Nonetheless, few before him have written such a well-researched book on Kerouac. Even a cursory view of the sources seems to identify every book written about the writer or On the Road, and the continuous citations allow Kerouac to speak of his book in his own words. Likewise, perhaps never has the element of jazz, both Kerouac's fascination with and use of, been so eloquently observed as in Leland's expansive chapter on the theme. But by this point, most fans of On the Road, which Leland seems to have forgotten would be the only ones interested in such a book, have likely checked out.

So, when the sun goes down in America on the 50th anniversary, what meaning is left to gather from Kerouac's work? To those (this writer included) whose worldview was molded, their personal creed outlined, their vision sparked by Kerouac's sympathy, tenderness and passion, is there anything besides high-brow lectures and $500 boots? Is that once-glimpsed romance of personal experience still there?

As with On the Road's release, the only true response is to hold everything the world hands us about the book at arm's length, to find the meaning ourselves — in the pages, on the road — and to apply Kerouac's teachings to our own solos of joy, kicks and darkness.

Todd Lazarski writes for Shepherd Express

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