Kerouac: Searching for the Road
Trans. By Daniel C. Schecter
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
Passages on Mexico drift through the ending of Kerouac’s most famous book, On the Road.
“In downtown Mexico City, thousands of hipsters in floppy straw hats and long-lapeled jackets over bare chests padded along the main drag, some selling crucifixes and weed in the alleys, some of them kneeling in beat chapels next to Mexican burlesque shows in sheds . . . ” (Kerouac 287).
Garcia-Robles argues that “there was definitely something Christian about his [Kerouac’s] interpretation of Mexico” (38). In the brief passage quoted from Kerouac’s novel, there are crucifixes and chapels mentioned. Whereas Kerouac saw himself as a Catholic, and not as the starter of some new religious faith, he was not the nicest house guest—smoking marijuana at William Burroughs’ apartment in Mexico City during Burroughs’ investigation for the possible murder of his wife. (In addition to this volume, Garcia-Nobles has published a volume on the accident in which William S. Burroughs shot his wife Joan - The Stray Bullet: William S. Burroughs in Mexico). Mexico made Burroughs into a writer, and his first important novel, Junky, was written there. Garcia-Robles argues that Kerouac was formed as a writer in Mexico, too. The two Beats spent a lot of time in Mexico, and some of it they spent together.
Burroughs wrote to a friend of his that Kerouac was a congenial person until he needed something. “For example, when we were out of money and food, I could always count on him to eat all the food there was if he got the chance. If there were two rolls left, he would always eat both of them. Once he flew into a rage because I had eaten my half of the remaining butter. If anyone asks him to do his part or to share on an equal basis, he thinks they are taking advantage of him” (Garcia-Robles 64).
Even if he was no Mother Theresa, Kerouac was a Catholic from birth, and never relinquished this religious identity, or its basis in the Sermon on the Mount. While in Mexico, Kerouac cottoned to the prevailing Catholicism:
“Here Holy Spain has sent the bloodheart sacrifice of Aztecs of Mexico a picture of tenderness and pity, saying, ‘This you would do to Man? [referring to the crucifixion of Christ]. I am the Son of Man, I am of Man, I am Man and this you would do to Me, Who am Man and God—I am God and you would pierce my feet bound together with long nails with big stayfast points on the end slightly blunted by the hammerer’s might—this you did to Me, and I preached Love?” (Lonesome Traveler, 34, cited in Robles-Garcia, 65).
Kerouac’s understanding of Christianity was something of a bent nail. Love, to Kerouac, meant that the young and hip could sleep with one another’s wives and girlfriends, and have it deepen rather than destroy their friendships. Kerouac, for instance, slept with the wife of his celebrated hero in On the Road. While Neal Cassady was the Dionysos to Kerouac’s Apollo, the wife, Carolyn Cassady, finally told the writer that they had to stop, as it was hurting Neal. Kerouac wore out his welcome everywhere he went. His self-absorption was too much. On the Road is a depiction of the endlessly frayed friendships that resulted, and ends with Cassady dumping Kerouac in Mexico City leaving the novelist half-dead from malaria. In Berkeley, California, years after their Mexican forays in which Cassady abandoned Kerouac, Carolyn Cassady asked him to leave not just her, but her husband alone. “A hysterical Carolyn told Jack that his presence did harm to her innocent husband and that she was against their seeing each other” (111).
Kerouac fathered a daughter named Jan, and throughout Robles’ account the erstwhile wife tries to garner child support from him. “Jack never recognized his daughter Janet, whom he saw only twice, though he finally agreed to help her mother with a few dollars a month. The grown-up ‘Jan’ followed in her father’s slippery steps—much as Burroughs’ son had. From very early on, she consumed enormous quantities of drugs, took several risky journeys to Mexico, even whored herself, and wrote several novels in autobiographical style. She died in 1996 at age forty-four” (123).
The amazing industry of Kerouac’s literary production required that he neglect all other earthly matters. He lived with his mother on and off throughout his life, and finally died on October 21, 1969, at the age of 47, shortly after getting to the highway near her house in St. Petersburg, Florida, and attempting to hitchhike. He died of hemorrhage of the esophagus.
As a writer and person, Jack Kerouac could be insensitive, but then he could get down on himself. His friend the poet Gregory Corso was made of hardier stock. Corso survived endless beatings from his father, a three-year stint in Dannemora state penitentiary, and drug addiction, living to the age of 70. Corso accompanied Kerouac and Burroughs to Mexico, but had the sense to leave the corrupt and embittered country shortly thereafter, and went to mooch off the poet Randall Jarrell in Washington, DC, instead. Corso was always looking for places to crash, but had less shame and more resourcefulness in that regard, as he was homeless almost from birth. Not having a mother to rely on, Corso formed and left relationships without remorse. While most of the Beats took their pittance from royalties and moved to cheaper climes, Corso went toward the royalty, and mooched off them directly. Corso married a Rothschild, and befriended people with money, and moved in on them, helping himself to their refrigerator and telephone. Corso’s central note is comedy. Kerouac tended to linger, and look back longingly at his questionable forays, and imbue them with nostalgia. His viewpoint is almost sentimental. The closing paragraph of On the Road is an example:
“So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? The evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all the rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty . . . ”
Kerouac was more romantic than many vagabonds of the nineteen-fifties, but he could also be exploitative. vTo tap the differential between American industrial might and ragged third-world economies, the Beats spent long periods in India (covered in a book called The Blue Hand); in Mexico (covered in this volume, and in a comparatively less accomplished account in Glenn Sheldon’s South of Our Selves: Mexico in the Poetry of Williams, Kerouac, Corso, Ginsberg, Levertov, and Hayden); in Cuba (see the volume Cubalogues, by Todd Tietchen); and in Morocco (as yet not covered in book form); and spent much time in Paris, back when Paris was still relatively cheap after the second world war (The Beat Hotel). A few (especially Gary Snyder, Joanne Kyger, and Cid Corman) spent time in Japan.
This strategy of living cheaply in order to buy time was one that was first advanced by William S. Burroughs. At the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, in Boulder, Colorado, I lived next door to Burroughs for two summers. We talked more than a few times, and once he asked me what I intended to do after school.
“I want to go to Paris,” I said.
“Good God, man, it’s become so expensive. Go where the living is cheap.” He advised me to go to a place such as Seattle, where one could live very inexpensively in the 1980s—paying rent of less than one hundred a month, compared to the astronomic rates that had already beset Manhattan and Brooklyn, where it was not unknown to spend 1500 a month. Burroughs advised this because Boeing had gone bust, and there were a plethora of empty apartments. Burroughs was always paying attention to economics. I took his advice and garnered time. A huge part of the writings of Kerouac on Mexico deal with the bargain-basement prices, too, and how they could be used to buy freedom from toil. Time, for the impoverished writer, is everything.
“He [Kerouac] sent letters to the Cassadys—without any reply—telling them of all the things they could afford in Mexico and playing up the marvelous advantages of living in such an inexpensive country” ( Robles 63). Those advantages included “underage prostitutes, who charged him a peso” 62). Kerouac was not merely an exploitative Yankee. He fell in love with at least one of the whores, a drug-addicted young woman called Esperanza Villanueva. Sick from morphine addiction, she attempted to fall asleep in his apartment, and in a semi-conscious state, “she lay on the mattress beside him as he practically forced her to have sex” (Garcia-Robles 97). Kerouac abandons the woman and never sees her again, apparently satisfied with having garnered yet another character for his road novels, while she “faded into the leaden depths of an ever-more sinister Mexico City” (Garcia-Robles 97).
Garcia-Robles’ expertise in the labyrinthine ways of Mexico, and the ways in which Kerouac negotiated that culture, and the ways in which he was lost in it, make for illuminating reading. His observations open a new note in the growing industry of commentary about the Beat generation. Garcia-Robles argues that Kerouac’s Mexico is a fiction. “Ever prone to fantasy, he tended to idealize a nation with an ad hoc culture as an answer to the hyper-materialistic civilization of the USA. Particularly during his early trips, Mexico was a holy, redemptive zone, a mystical ground where the innocence of people before God appeared in even the pestilent corners of Plaza Garibaldi” (126). Kerouac “was to imagine a Mexico that only existed in his neurons” (126).
After Burroughs’ arrest for the killing of his wife, the elder of the Beats skipped out of Mexico, and moved to Morocco. Kerouac was quick to realize with the other Beats that Morocco was ripe for the taking and, as Burroughs fled his Mexican murder charge, they decamped to Tangier. Kerouac and Burroughs and the others sampled the underage boys and girls who had no money. As always, it was Burroughs who had found a new place to exploit. They typed up each other’s manuscripts in Tangiers, exchanged titles, and found reviewers and girlfriends and boyfriends for each other. It was a pattern they had first essayed in Mexico.
While we are awaiting a good book about the Moroccan leg of the Beat journey, there is Garcia-Robles, who, in addition to much insider information, and a lyrical prose style, has a grasp of the exchange rate, and a somewhat jaundiced sense of the Beats.
Kerouac thought he saw God in Mexican whores and scoundrels, and he felt that Mexicans had accepted the coming of the Spanish as the coming of God. After his various trips into third world countries, Kerouac nevertheless returned to America, having meanwhile become a monster celebrity who had unleashed an entire generation of American vagabonds. These quasi-idealistic epigones would visit all the poorer countries of the world, looking for cheap sex and cheap fun. Kerouac denounced them, but in a way he was also their pioneer. In this volume, it becomes clear that Kerouac was an aficionado of pedophilia, choosing fourteen-year-old prostitutes with which to copulate. “The girl charged Kerouac 3 pesos (24 cents)” (103). What distinguishes Kerouac is that he was, underneath all of his horror, an idealist, but one who found his ideals in sharp contrast with reality. After sampling the horrors of Mexico and Morocco, Kerouac became something of an American patriot, and returned home to defend America. In the early 1960s, he refused to even acknowledge the Cuban Revolution, and in the later sixties argued for American intervention in Vietnam. He forged a friendship with William F. Buckley, “speaking out in favor of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hysterical brand of anti-communism—a view he never renounced” (75). Kerouac did renounce his erstwhile friends toward the end of his life. In a 1964 letter to an Italian publisher, he asks not to be associated with Ginsberg and Corso: “They’ve both become political fanatics, both have begun to revile me because I don’t join them in their political opinions . . . and I am sick of them and all their beatnik friends” (Letters 377). “They have never written about any ordinary people with any love, you may have noticed . . . ” (377). Kerouac felt that as time advanced, Ginsberg and Corso had found politics as a schtick that would pay them more than poetry or literature. Kerouac wanted none of that schtick, and went in the other direction. In a letter to Ginsberg he berates him for trampling on Joe McCarthy’s grave in Appleton, Wisconsin (McCarthy died of alcoholism at age 49 from the heavy political flak he’d taken). Kerouac writes, “You’re lucky Joe McCarthy’s family didn’t sue you for trompling around the family grave” (Letters 452).
Kerouac’s idealism of the third world gave way to a more patriotic view, but one which left him isolated from his more radical friends. Drunk, he was mugged at more than one point in Mexico, as he was the prey of the “cultural-historical-vengeance against the white intruder” (94). One reads Garcia-Roble’s narrative in disbelief at an obviously important writer (On the Road is considered by many to be among the top 100 novels of American literature) who strikes us as more naïve than most. There are odd gaps in his thought between the patriot and the ex-patriot. Kerouac lost himself in a Mexico whose landmarks included the Catholic Church, and Columbus, and a belief in the love of mankind, while he was himself raping Mexican women, flush with American dollars, living a luxurious existence off the exchange rate, and fleeced in turn. In his most Mexican of novels, Tristessa, he includes at least one epiphany:
“My poems stolen, my money stolen, my Tristessa dying, Mexican buses trying to run me down, grit in the sky, agh, I never dreamed it could be this bad” (Tristessa, 84, cited in Robles-Garcia, 96).
Robles-Garcia posits that Kerouac’s motto was, “Love God and write it,” (19). Not having had a notion of the Protestant notion of Two Kingdoms, or the Judeo-Christian notion that this world is corrupt, he saw everything as blessed: the whores, the drug-users, the criminals. He rode roughshod over the Ten Commandments as he sought material for his writing. Did he finally see the light and realize that America had something going for it that could not be found in the third world?
Mexican essayist Octavio Paz, in his book On Poets and Others, blames the backwardness of his countrymen on the success of the Counter-Reformation. “There is a similarity—as yet little explored—between the Spanish and the Russian traditions: neither they nor we, the Latin Americans, have a critical tradition because neither they nor we had in fact anything which can be compared with the Enlightenment and the intellectual movement of the eighteenth century in Europe. Nor did we have anything to compare with the Protestant Reformation, that great seedbed of liberties and democracy in the modern world” (119).
Paz’s take on the difference between Mexico and America help bridge the understanding between the two countries in a way that Kerouac’s does not. Mexico is incomprehensible to Kerouac, as it is to many Americans. Although the USA took almost half of their land (former president Donald Trump said with his usual trollish humor that he thought we should invade the country and take all of it), it remains the 14th largest country in the world in geographical terms, and it has the 11th largest population. After almost a century as a socialist backwater, they have made gains in terms of economic freedoms, and there is an independent judiciary. Beset, however, with massive crime and corruption, they are lacking the “critical tradition” that Paz cites. Not having arisen from the “Protestant Reformation,” they are also experiencing a brain drain, as Mexican elites flee their collapsing country, along with much of the elites of other South American countries. Kerouac partook of their imploded economy during a lull in the 1950s, producing memorable lyrical novels that tabulate and record a sad people, which, as Gregory Corso wrote during his own brief encounter with the country, were “doomed by their sombreros.” Although Catholic, Kerouac made the best of a dire situation, and then came home to sell his time slumming in the country, and yet to defend America. There are many areas of Kerouac’s life still waiting for an astute understanding and his final period more so than any other. His last phase, in which he turned to the right and befriended William F. Buckley, makes you wonder what he did learn in Mexico. Kerouac was no G.K. Chesterton or Hilaire Belloc, whose Catholicism underwrote a powerful conservative Christian politics, but he may have joined a distinguished line of Catholic writers whose faith deepened in their later years (Sigrid Unset, or Graham Greene), had he lived. That final knowledge and writing is lost, as once he turned toward the right, he lost almost all support from publishers, friends, and fans, and, like Joe McCarthy, drank himself to death. At the end of his last volume of letters, he understands what had happened to him in one of the few letters he pens in 1968. “I’m being blackballed by the new ‘cultural’ underground.” (462), and thrown out of the revolution. He wanted no further part of it, nor they him, and he fell from grace, an old hobo, who was now ground to death under the wheels of the very gravy train he had set in motion.
Kirby Olson is a tenured English professor at SUNY-Delhi in the western Catskills. His books include a novel (Temping), about an English professor who starts a circus in Finland; a book of poems entitled Christmas at Rockefeller Center; and several books of literary criticism about ludic surrealists. He is currently working on a memoir of his time spent at Naropa Institute studying with Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.
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They are just not good enough as writers to deserve treatment at this length. Corso might be the exception as he has been largely overlooked.
The larger topic is Mexican-American, and Marxist-capitalist relationships, as seen through the Beats' major writer, Kerouac, and his abandonment of the earlier ideals of the movement as he moved toward a more conservative and Christian stance, and was thus canceled. So there is a lot of stuff going on here, but I also disagree. Kerouac's OTR is often considered one of the top 100 novels of the 20th century.