BOOK REVIEW / King of the gas-pedal haiku

Kerouac's letters are full of riffs, mad poetry and improvisations. By Geoff Dyer; Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-56 ed. Ann Charters Viking, pounds 25

Like everyone else, I read On the Road in my teens. The momentum of that book sent me freewheeling through Kerouac's other novels and on to the rest of the Beat anti-canon.

But this widening of interest became less exuberant the further it moved beyond the text that had occasioned it. Although I thought I dug the Beats, what I meant was that I dug Kerouac; and when I said I dug Kerouac, I meant that I loved On the Road. One book. The rest - pretty well everything by Ginsberg and the other clowns, most everything else by Kerouac - is junk. But On the Road - I reread it every four or five years and it gets better and better.

Kerouac himself had no doubts on this score. His conviction that it was "a Melvillean thing", "a great novel", was consolidated rather than threatened by its being rejected by publishers for six years before Viking relented in 1957, the year after this edition of letters ends. Even at his lowest ebb, he had no doubt that he was "going to be... the greatest writer of [his] generation". As early as 1952, he predicts that the book "will gain its due recognition, in time, as the first or one of the first modern prose books in America". What he fails to anticipate is the sudden collapse, of writer and man, that would come in the wake of this prophecy's being fulfilled.

At this stage, though, faculties intact, Kerouac's scrawled literary judgements are shrewdly illuminating. When he writes that Neal Cassady's letters are "among the greatest things ever written in America" what he actually has in mind is less the achieved quality of Cassady's writing than what this "muscular rush" of energy might become if harnessed to real (i.e. his own) literary control.

Letters, as Ann Charters remarks in her introduction, contain the unmediated experience of a writer. Kerouac's cronies emerge in swift, fresh strokes - William Burroughs particularly, "a mad genius in littered rooms" with "a bored yawning voice". Kerouac's uncanny prophetic gift means that, even at the simplest, physiognomic level ("Allen is getting fat-faced and ugly") he sees his friends not just as they are but - and this is the transforming achievement of his best fiction - as they have the potential to become.

These friends banged out letter after "rambling mess" of letter to each other. Even in this pre-selected format, Kerouac's form a sprawling repository, rich in draft annotations to the six or seven books he completed in this period. There are plenty of gas-pedal haikus - "grapey dusk over Coyote" - but, as is often the case with writing undertaken in the white heat of the moment, much now seems tepid. The hard-won struggle to master "sketching". or "spontaneous prose" both enabled Kerouac to become a great writer and condemned him to being, for much of the time, a pretty terrible one. The crux is his belief that his writing - his "blowing" - was the equivalent of modern jazz. It's a valid analogy: Kerouac's fiction was so closely bound up with his life that the letters often read like "alternate takes" of passages previously released in books, but the mistake is to confuse spontaneity with improvisation. As Mingus would later put it to Timothy Leary: "You can't improvise on nothin'. You've got to improvise on somethin' ".

Charters was the obvious person to edit this volume. She has lavished on the project all the diligence and sympathy displayed in her excellent biography, but she is wrong, surely, to quote from the letters in her commentary. It diminishes the excitement of sudden revelation which is so crucial to collections like this. Parts of the correspondence need contextualising but, time and again, letters which are of value because they offer raw, unmediated experience are rendered, as it were, pre-mediated by the way that crucial lines - "I have completely reached my peak maturity now and am blowing such mad poetry and literature that I'll look back years later with amazement and chagrin that I can't do it anymore, but nobody's going to know this fact for 15, 20 years, only I know it" - are first seen through inverted commas.

It was an excellent decision, however, to supplement Kerouac's letters with some from his recipients. The most moving piece in the book, written shortly before Malcom Cowley agreed to publish On the Road, is not by Kerouac but the woman he lived with for the rest of his life after achieving celebrity as the "King of the Beats": "I'm just about ready to bust. I'm that worried I haven't heard from you since you left and my head is working overtime wondering if you got to California safe ... And say Honey did you see Mr Cowley, and what happened. I hope sincerely you had good luck this time if anyone needs success in a hurry it's you my Boy and it's about time too." The writer was his mother.

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy