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
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
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.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas