Editor’s note: As this review was being written, it was learned that Gunther’s Tap Room fell victim to a fire. The owners vow to rebuild the establishment as it once stood.
Few people associate Long Island with the novelist Jack Kerouac. The latter sang of the open road, the restlessness of the postwar era, now that much more accessible with the interstate highway system. Long Island represented the opposite: Suburban normalcy, the fruits of that same postwar boom. Still, Kerouac, in the mid-1960s, lived in Northport with his elderly mother, a woman he was pledged to take care of following the death of Kerouac’s father when the novelist was still a young man.
Kerouac liked his Northport home, mainly because it stood near a high school football field, one that reminded him of his own glory days on the gridiron in his hometown of Lowell, MA. Kerouac’s productivity, however, was drying up. He did little writing in Northport; predictably, he found a home at Gunther’s Pub, a local watering hole, which became the setting of a dramatic rendering of his time in Long Island, Kerouac’s Last Call, a play written by Massapequa resident Ed Fenton. Meanwhile, the proprietors of Gunther’s still get interviewed and in 2015, the Northport Historical Society conducted a “Kerouac Crawl” walking tour of the various drinking establishments the novelist frequented.
In The Best Minds of My Generation: A Literary History of the Beats, author Allen Ginsberg makes the case for Kerouac as more than a Beat Generation icon. The young Kerouac wanted to be no less than the greatest writer in English since Shakespeare. Closer to home, Kerouac, who had a French ancestry, created the Dulouz Legend of his many autobiographical novels, which he hoped would make him the American version of a Balzac or a Flaubert. Aiming high, Kerouac also hoped to improve upon the achievement of another Frenchman, Marcel Proust. That quest for immortality drove him hard. From 1950 to 1961, Kerouac, as Ginsberg approvingly notes, wrote 23 books, plus “endless journals, poems and notebooks.”
Ginsberg’s collection is not a complete history of the Beats. There are no chapters on Gary Snyder or Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ginsberg devotes several lectures to Gregory Corso, the pride of Greenwich Village, and William Burroughs, plus a few on his own verse. But Kerouac is the writer who matters. Without his output, the Beats might have had a short shelf life. Yes, they were against conformity, but what came next? Their distaste for materialism echoes that of the Vanderbilt Agrarians, but unlike the latter, the Beats lacked a foundation on which to recapture the old verities. Ginsberg converted to Buddhism and later taught at Brooklyn College. John Clellon Holmes found a similar sanctuary at the University of Arkansas. Neal Cassady settled into the blue-collar life in California: Marriage, children, a railroad job and later as the madcap driver for the Ken Kesey crowd. Kerouac tried to find salvation through poverty. “Everything belongs to me because I am poor,” he once declared, adding elsewhere that the “earth is Indian,” a Rousseau-like desire to return to more primitive and healthier ways. All this came with mixed results. Ginsberg became an eminence grise of American letters, while Cassady and Kerouac simply consumed themselves to an early grave. The Beats did have a hard time living normal lives.
Ginsberg is Kerouac’s ideal reader. While On The Road was edited into a formal novel, Visions Of Cody, another book about Kerouac’s travels with Cassady, represents the novelist’s peak writing: Spontaneous, wide-open, mixing humor with pathos. “[Scribble] secret notebook and wild typewritten pages for yr own joy,” Kerouac once advised. With Visions Of Cody, Kerouac reached his zenith. The fact that he was writing for himself and not for publishers or reviewers or even an audience helped, too. Kerouac was an old-fashioned writer who worked best while in obscurity—as was the case from 1951 to 1957, when the bulk of his work was written.
Ginsberg makes the case for his friend’s entire corpus. Minor works like Maggie Cassidy, an achingly good novel about adolescent love, are given their proper due. Ginsberg also boosts Kerouac’s first novel, The Town And The City, a Wolfean novel about a New England family that moves from New England to New York City, and The Vanity Of Dulouz, Kerouac’s last major novel, a lament for a wasted youth, where the young Kerouac threw away a football scholarship at Columbia University for the life of a poet. On The Road and Visions Of Cody celebrated the open highway. Similarly, Big Sur, Desolation Angels and Lonesome Traveler, the latter a collection of supple non-fiction pieces, contrasts that freedom with the gloomy reality that comes with the end of the road. These essays are important in that the Dulouz Legend comes into full view. I would add Visions Of Gerard, a heart-rending tale of Kerouac’s doomed older brother and a paean to his family’s honest working-class struggles, plus Tristessa, another poetic tribute, this time to a long-suffering Mexican peasant girl.
Kerouac is more than a cult figure. His corpus falls short of his idols not only because he met an unnecessarily early grave, but also because Kerouac had a strange aversion to re-writing. Influenced decisively by jazz legends of the day, Kerouac was determined to make his first drafts, pounded out on a typewriter, the only one worth writing. A rewrite or two wouldn’t have hurt. At the time of his death in 1969, Kerouac should have had several more books in him. For years, he talked about writing a book about the Civil War. That failure was a shame. Kerouac had all of America in his bones; he was the right man for such a book. But what’s left is a lifetime’s worth of good reading.