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
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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.