Sunday, February 01, 2004

The Beat Goes On

I have managed to get through a good portion of my life without reading any Beat literature. Until now. I am in a casual book group with my Bookman and two other friends. We take turns making suggestions for reading and then get together at a coffee shop when we are all finished reading the book. At our last meeting in early December, T wanted to read On the Road by Jack Kerouac. For lack of any other proposals we all agreed. I checked the book out from my public library and dutifully started reading. The book has a good introduction in it talking about the Beats and Kerouac and how he wrote the book. That was all interesting. I don't agree with the Beats and their drugged out lives. I don't believe that you need to be stoned in order to achieve a different level of consciousness or world view. Knowing that Kerouac wrote On the Road in a three-week frenzy of benzedrine and who knows what else, I admit I was prejudiced from the get-go. Still, I was willing to give the book a chance. I finished the book last night and have thought about it and my final determination is that I didn't like it much. To me it was just one long rushing from here to there and back again. In fact, the book made me feel sad and I don't think I was supposed to feel sad. I felt sad about the women who attached themselves to these men who couldn't or wouldn't be faithful to them. I felt sad for the men and their running away because that's what it seemed like to me, that they were always running away. About two-thirds through the book Sal, the narrator, is walking the streets of Denver, he buys a container of hot chili from a street vender and walks and eats and muses:

I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily a "white man" disillusioned. All my life I'd had ambitions; that was why I'd abandoned a good woman like Terry in the San Joaquin Valley....I was only myself, Sal Paradise, sad, strolling in this violet dark, this unbearably sweet night, wishing I could exchange worlds with the happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negroes of America.
This passage bothered me on so many levels. And it raises the question, can an author with a racist passage like this be faulted for it, or must he be given lenience for not rising above the prevailing culture of his time? I'm not sure I have an answer for that. Occasionally there would be a beautiful sentence or passage in the rush of people and places. I think some of the best passages were ones about jazz:
The behatted tenorman was blowing at the peak of a wonderfully satisfactory free idea, a rising and falling riff that went from "EE-yah!" to a crazier "EE-de-lee-yah!" and blasted along to the rolling crash of butt-sacrred drums hammered by a big brutal Negro with a bullneck who didn't give a damn about anything but punishing his busted tubs, crash, rattle-ti-boom, crash. Uproars of music and the tenorman had it and everybody knew he had it. Dean was clutching his head in the crowd, and it was a mad crowd. They were all urging that tenorman to hold it and keep it with cries and wild eyes, and he was raising himself from a crouch and going down again with his horn, looping it up in a clear cry above the furor.
These few and far between beautiful words weren't enough to redeem the book for me. I can understand why the book is considered a classic, nothing like it had been written before. And according to the introduction, the book captures a time and generation. But does that automatically make the book a literary classic or simply an historical and cultural landmark?