Beat to the Beat
By Joseph Ridgwell.
Jack Kerouac, Beat Generation, Oneworld Classics, 2007.
“After me, the deluge,” is a well known quote attributed to the late, great American author Jack Kerouac. And of course he was right, for after the man came a million backpackers, hippies, faux Buddhists, drop-outs, haiku composers, rucksack rovers and daydream believers. Not to mention thousands of young wannabe writers who fell into the trap of thinking that spontaneous prose was the way to literary fame and fortune.
So that was the deluge, but there was also another deluge, the deluge of books by and about Jack Kerouac that have been published since his death. And still the books keep coming. And now we have another one. Beat Generation, published by Oneworld Classics. The book itself is a beautiful object that comes in a handy pocket size and which contains pages of extra material and photographs on the life and work of Kerouac. Added to these extras is an informative introduction by A.M. Homes, which all fans will enjoy.
Beat Generation is a three-act play that depicts a day in the lives of a group of rugged off-duty railroad brakemen that Kerouac wrote in 1957, but which lay undiscovered in a New Jersey warehouse until as recently as 2005. The play bears all the hallmarks of vintage Kerouac prose and dialogue, stream of consciousness language, with the added bonus of the author writing in a playful and less serious mode than his readers will be accustomed to.
But is the book any good? This is a difficult one. How do we be critical of a writer who has morphed into a huge cultural icon of Americana? The answer, I think, is to forget about criticism and concentrate on the positives of having another book to add to the already impressive Kerouac oeuvre. Kerouac, we know, was no playwright, and so criticizing his lack of dramatic ability seems churlish. For Beat Generation is a snapshot of a bygone age, and of a great writer operating at the peak of his literary powers, and an interesting insight into the mind of the man. The main themes of the play are questions on religion, mortality, re-birth, and of course booze.
In fact, the play opens with the two main characters partaking of an early morning eye-opener, and the drinking and barroom philosophising continues unabated from there on inwards. There are elements of Neal Cassady in the character of Milo, and Allen Ginsberg in the character of Irwin, but on closer inspection all the characters contain elements of the author himself. Women, as with most Beat Generation writing, have only walk-on roles, and spend most of their time in the kitchen cooking up food for the men, or standing around looking pretty. This was of course the 1950s, and women’s liberation had yet to enter the world of most men.
The characters are typically Kerouacean, rapping about eternity, Buddhism, jazz, adventure, holiness, reincarnation, inebriation, gambling, and the wonder and mystery of the female. The language seems archaic and sometimes clichéd, but here and there, dotted throughout the book, are brilliant insights and sparkling ruminations on the human condition.
In the final analysis, Beat Generation is a lovely appendage to the legacy of one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, a writer who inspired me, you, and a million other people searching for some meanings to the pointlessness of existence. It’s a must have for any Kerouac fans, beat fans, or just fans of literature. So slip a copy into your pocket, buy a bottle of cheap wine, and go sit under a tree and enjoy.
Joseph Ridgwell is the author of two books of poetry, Load the Guns and Where Are The Rebels?, both published by blackheath books and a novel, Last Days of the Cross. His work has appeared in short story anthologies, magazines, newspapers, and numerous online publications
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 12th, 2009.