Readings: Jack Kerouac

One of the things I’m doing to help with my own writing is reading a lot of critical biographies and works of interesting authors. It’s always instructive to see how others write, and also to get a glimpse of their lives and the forces and ideas that influenced their own writing. My latest reading in that vein is a book called Memory Babe, by Gerald Nicosia. It’s a critical biography of the American ‘beat’ author Jack Kerouac.

I read Kerouac’s famous book On The Road many years ago, and I was not that impressed with it. It seemed a grand example of style over substance. And the characters, Dean Moriarty (based on his friend Neal Cassidy) and Sal Paradise (the narrator, based on Kerouac himself), did not strike me as uplifting role models. This impression has been confirmed by the biography, which is written in a feverish, action-packed style, not unlike On The Road itself (no doubt a stylistic choice on Nicosia’s part). The detail is incredible. We are privy to the most private and seedy parts of Kerouac’s life, just like the proverbial fly on the wall.

I’m interested in how Kerouac developed his style and how he overcame the many obstacles that stood in the way of his writing. Sometimes they’re external, like publishers and friends, but often they’re quite internal – the man was his own worse enemy at times. I’m still getting through the book: so detailed is it that I’m about two-thirds of the way through, and On The Road hasn’t been published yet. I’m up to the part where he has just written the Subterraneans. And since I have a copy, I’ve started reading that. I also plan to re-read On the Road at the point when it gets published in the book.

I wonder will I like it better second time around? I’m probably in a better position now as a reader to appreciate it than when I first read it. As I recall, that first experience was coloured by a particularly devastating relationship breakup. But, then again, I also read Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker just after On The Road, and that’s still one of my favourite novels. But that’s all another story…

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