Yes, Jack Kerouac Still Matters

Babysitting my granddaughters the other day, my eye caught a headline in my son-in-law’s The Wall Street Journal, which lay on the marble kitchen countertop of their suburban home. It concerned long-deceased writer Jack Kerouac. His 100th birthday was March 12.

I thought it ironic that this birthday was recognized by a publication like The Wall Street Journal.  Kerouac’s lifestyle and philosophies seemed a conscious rejection of everything which that newspaper represents.

I also thought it ironic that he was born only a few months before my dad. The two of them couldn’t have been more unlike (and I’m forever thankful of that).

No American writer has experienced such a mixture of worship, mockery, and vilification than Kerouac. My belief is that most who hate him have read little if any of his novels or poetry. Some undoubtedly bring their political or cultural prejudices to the table.  His early critics were literary and social conventionalists. After the 1960s, his critics, most of them older than 30, saw him as dated and trite.

A few surprising facts to shake up the myths: Kerouac was plagued his entire life by guilt inflicted by the Catholic Church, as well as the early death of his older brother, Gerard, whom he worshipped; he had a deep understanding of classic world literature; he pioneered “spontaneous prose” but continually reworked what he spontaneously wrote; he hated being labeled the “King of the Beat Generation” and almost sued the producers of the exploitative TV show Route 66; unlike friend and fellow beat Allen Ginsberg, he was baffled by the hippie counterculture that both writers had inadvertently spawned; he (reputedly) watched TV airings of HUAC hearings while simultaneously smoking marijuana and cheering for Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

A less surprising fact: he wrote the Great American Novel. Maybe the most American.

Like many, I read On the Road while in college.  (I discovered it on my own; no university English professor would dare assign that book.)  And like all who read it, it kindled a brush fire under my ass, flinging me behind the wheel of my car to travel across America…twice…loving everything and everybody along the way.

On the Road got under my skin like no other book ever has.

Flash forward forty years, and I’m astonished at how and why I fell under Kerouac’s spell.  In 1979, when I first tentatively read Road (I’ve read it five times total, and several other Kerouac books), the author had been dead ten years.  Road had been in print for 22 years.  Kerouac’s (Sal Paradise’s) first car trip with Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty) was ten years before that.   

How could someone’s experiences from just two years after the end of World War II have such a visceral effect on a starry-eyed kid who, in two years, would be scratching his head over the popularity of a corporate phenomenon called MTV?  From Charlie Parker to Haircut 100? Are you fucking serious? The times, indeed, had a-changed.

Today, wrapped in the “forlorn rags of growing old,” I cringe when recalling some of the dangerous behaviors on my own road trip, in direct emulation of my hero.  (“Did I really do that?”)  But I was young, and young people play-act and do dumb things.  Thankfully, I didn’t get shot, or catch hepatitis or HIV…or end up a morose alcoholic, living with his mother, dead in central Florida at age 47.  Significantly, neither am I the poet Kerouac was.

I probably took the emulation bit somewhat farther than most—I kept my paperback copy of Road in the glovebox of my ’79 Chevy Impala as motel rooms store copies of the Holy Bible—but that doesn’t negate the fact that I had a fantastic time trying to emulate him, and would never trade in that naivety. 

I have flashes of that old sensation: anticipating leaving home to plunge into the red-orange glow of the West when I was 23.  It was the openness of possibility and discovery, of being young and unencumbered, of experiencing freedom in America for the first time.

I haven’t done research, but I wonder how many college kids or grown-up kids today read On the Road.  I’m afraid to find out. I don’t think it matters. That book has made a permanent imprint.

They look and talk differently today, but young people still have Kerouac in their veins, cell technology notwithstanding, and even if they don’t know it and can’t verbalize their motivations. I met them last year while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. They’re willing to, at least for a while, reject Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  They’re old enough yet bold enough to chance a great adventure and love everybody and everything along the way.  Crazy enough to dirt-bag one of America’s trails, or start a rock band, or follow a band around the country, or suspend time while suspending themselves by rope against a rock face.

In six weeks, at the A.T. trailhead at Wind Gap, Pennsylvania, I’ll join them again.  (I defy the golf course and fishing rod.)  It won’t be the same as when I was 23, but I can still capture shards of that fading feeling. I’ve got God on my side, and “don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?”

Those of us in the know are still with you, Jack.  Belated Happy 23rd Birthday.

Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac (photo by Carolyn Cassady)

A Salty Side Trip to Key West

Some places are more “salty” than others. Not surprisingly, they all have a close relationship with water…with the fringes. Key West, Florida, U.S.A. is one of them.

Key West is the southernmost island in the chain of islands that dangles like a string of pearls off the southern tip of Florida.  My wife Lynn and I visited last month while scouting retirement locations on the mainland (see previous post).

Residents call their tiny speck in the ocean the “Conch Republic.”  (Conchs are small, meaty, edible monstrosities that find homes in those shells you hold to your ear to hear the ocean.)  In 1982, after a stress-inducing U.S. Border Patrol roadblock, locals became angry and seceded from the United States.  Sort of. It was a mock secession, but residents use the incident now to boost tourism.  Key West even flies its own micro-nation flag. These folks obviously have a great sense of humor.

For such a small place, Key West has a lot going for it.  Here’s a quick tour:

L to R: Dave, Robin, Lynn, Anonymous

We stayed with friends Dave and Robin at the condo they rent every year.  I met this super-friendly retired couple while hiking the Appalachian Trail last year.  (Their permanent home is in the mountain village of Hiawassee, Georgia.)  Although we only had a brief meeting on trail, we hit it off. They invited us to stay with them, and now we’re like old friends.

The first night the four of us ate at Half Shell Raw Bar, where I satisfied my craving for seafood with raw oysters and conch fritters.  The following morning, Dave and I hiked around the island for several hours while Robin and Lynn hung out at the condo.

Then Lynn and I embarked on a whirlwind (hurricane) tour of tourist spots.  First we saw the Harry S. Truman Little White House where, beginning in 1946, President Harry Truman spent 175 days of his presidency.  His famous desk plaque that says “The Buck Stops Here” is on one of the desks.  Other presidents, dating to William Howard Taft, have also stayed here…some, like 45, who pass the buck more than others.

Truman Little White House

Next, we had nachos and Key lime pie (a KW essential) at the original Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville on Duval Street, which ranks with Bourbon Street, Times Square, and Court Street at my alma mater (Ohio University) for party spirit.  Although I’m closer to Deadhead than Parrothead, food is what mattered at this moment, and Buffett’s came through for us (largest pile of nachos—a veritable food castle—I’d ever seen).  Also, friendly service by an actual lifetime resident…a Conch, not a recently arrived Freshwater Conch.

(NOTE: authentic Key lime pie is always pale yellow, never green.  Don’t get the wrong color!)

The next stop was the Southernmost Point of the Continental U.S.A.  We actually hit this place by accident while strolling around.  The spot is identified by a large, concrete, buoy-type structure painted an ugly red, black, and yellow.  (The structure was vandalized this past New Year’s Eve by two drunken tourists who couldn’t get laid).

Musician Jimmy Buffett…
…and Margaritaville. Anyone seen a shaker of salt?

It’s important to know that this is not the southernmost point of the U.S., merely the contiguous U.S.  (The true southernmost location in the U.S. is the south tip of the island of Hawaii.)  It’s also worth noting that the concrete buoy is designed merely for tourist purposes.  (The actual southern tip of Key West is a half mile west at the Naval Air Station.)  Also, while advertised as only “90 miles from Cuba,” the distance is actually 94 miles; four miles is a lot of ocean to dog-paddle.

Tourists lining up at false southernmost point

As John Lennon sang, “Just gimme some truth.”

But I guess a lot of people choose to ignore truth, because they dutifully line up in sweltering heat to have their photo taken while posing next to this large, ugly, recently vandalized, painted cement buoy.

Continuing on, we passed the Key West AIDS Memorial at White Street and Atlantic Boulevard near Higgs Beach (one of two sand beaches on the island).  Key West has long been known as a community sympathetic to gays, and the memorial has engraved names of 1,240 people in the Florida Keys who died from complications of AIDS.  It was the first municipal tribute to AIDS victims in the world.

Speaking of profound tragedies, further down is a memorial to Africans who in 1860 were rescued by the U.S. Navy from a Cuban-bound slave ship, the Wildfire.  Despite their rescue, over 300 died from disease and malnourishment and were buried in a mass grave beneath the sand.

I found these last two memorials more interesting than the Southernmost Point. And, of course, there were fewer people.

***

The following day, Dave joined me in a jaunt to the Ernest Hemingway House on Whitehead Street.  Here’s where one of America’s greatest writers lived from 1931-39.  “Papa” wrote several long and short works here, including his popular short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

“You might as well take my last cent,” a disgusted Hemingway said as he thrust a penny at his second wife, Pauline.  She’d recently built a pool that was two-and-a-half times the cost of the property.  (Guess she thought this was cute, because she preserved the penny in concrete.)  And lazing and prowling around the property are dozens of six- and seven-toed (polydactyl) cats.  It’s still speculative that the felines are descended from a Hemingway cat named “Snowball.”

A writer’s job is to tell the truth…All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.

Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway study. He wrote in a separate annex.

Southern-Gothic playwright Tennessee Williams (The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) also lived in Key West, though we missed a visit to his house.  We also need to someday submerge ourselves in the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum.  Fisher was an American treasure hunter who, in 1973, discovered the wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which had sunk in Florida waters in 1622.

That’s about it, mainlanders.  Hope you enjoyed the tour, and next time you eat Key lime pie, make sure it’s not green.

Coastal scene, Key West

BLACK JACKKNIFE GETS REVIEWED

I’ve been a little out of touch with my long hike, but I recently discovered that my book BLACK JACKKNIFE: A NICK MONTAIGNE MYSTERY received two glowing reviews, one from Publishers Weekly and the other from Midwest Book Review. “Deftly crafted,” “a truly entertaining and memorable read,” “an author with an impressive flair for humor, originality” are some of the comments. Here’s a link to the PW review:

https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-7324789-2-3

And the Midwest Book Review Review (scroll down to “Mystery/Suspense Shelf”):

http://www.midwestbookreview.com/sbw/may_21.htm

It’s always nice to know your work is appreciated by others. If you haven’t read BJ yet, just click the book link to the right, which will take you to Amazon.

And hope you enjoy how my man Montaigne gets the job done!

New Murder Mystery Unveiled!

Any James Bond acolytes out there? Any fans of the movie Deliverance? Ever wonder what it might be like if Bond was dropped into one of those canoes in Deliverance? Maybe sipping shaken martinis between Jon Voight and Ned Beatty?

Hard to envision, I know. But I made an attempt (sort of) in my latest book, called Black Jackknife: A Nick Montaigne Mystery, my first attempt at fiction. I’m not presuming to imply my main character stacks up with an Ian Fleming creation, nor that my Georgia Appalachian Trail murder site can rival the harrowing, claustrophobic Southern woods feel of Deliverance. But I think my book has at least a few good moments.

Intrigued? Cool! I’d love for you to read BJ and let me know your thoughts. Just click the link below or top right for either a paperback or ebook copy. It might make a great Christmas present for someone…including yourself!

And I’ll tell you what: to sweeten the pot, I’ll mail a free updated paperback copy of my hiking memoir Evergreen Dreaming to the first reader who correctly guesses the identity of the killer (or killers) BEFORE chapter 18. No cheating, now!

Lastly, I welcome reviews of BJ on either Amazon or Goodreads, either positive or negative. Even if only a few words. (“Thumbs up,” “Best book I ever read,” “Only book I ever read,” “Beats a sharp stick in the eye”…whatever.)

Hope you enjoy my book. And thanks, fellow Longitudinals!

Here’s the link:

An Earth Day Tribute to Wallace Stegner

Photo by Mary Stegner

While laid up after my surgery, I read several books. One is a biography of writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner. This book was sent to me by my WordPress friend Cincinnati Babyhead. (One day I’ll have to ask about his pen name, considering Cincinnati is a long way from his domicile in Vancouver, British Columbia.) Babyhead had read my magnum opus Evergreen Dreaming, and saw that I had included an epigraph by Stegner.

(This is one of the great things about blogging: establishing a “cyberspace” relationship with a stranger based on a mutual interest. Not to mention sharing, and learning. Not to mention that, occasionally, some strangers will urge me to place my head in closer proximity to where my surgery was.)

Anyway, when I inserted that epigraph in my book, I knew very little about Stegner. My only prior knowledge came from the pages of Sierra Magazine. I’m a member of the environmental organization Sierra Club, as was Stegner for many years, and the club’s member periodical often features perceptive essays and quotes by him.benson book

I find it a minor crime that the name “Wallace Stegner,” and his achievements, are not known to more people…including me, for a long while. So here’s a short tribute to him, with gratitude toward Vancouver’s Babyhead.

***

Most people have heard of Ken Kesey. He wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, then gained infamy as a Merry Prankster riding a psychedelic bus through the pages of Tom Wolfe’s classic of New Journalism, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968). But many don’t know that Kesey studied creative writing at Stanford University under Wallace Stegner (as did writers Larry McMurtry, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Evan S. Connell, and many others).

Other than producing some of America’s finest literature, Kesey and Stegner couldn’t be more unlike.

Wallace Stegner was born in rural Iowa in 1909. He had a brutish, bullying father who yanked the family from one place to the next in search of quick, easy wealth. (Stegner’s 1943 novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain examines this restless quest.) Stegner’s most vivid childhood memories were formed in an isolated town called Eastend, in flat and rural Saskatchewan, Canada. Here, he learned hard work and how to hunt and fish. He learned how a cold prairie wind could slice through a person like a sickle through a snowdrift. He learned loneliness and deprivation, but also resourcefulness. A small boy on an immense prairie under limitless sky, Stegner early on gained a respect for the awesome majesty of the outdoors.

George Stegner zigzagged his family across the American West until settling in Salt Lake City, Utah. Young Wallace was able to find some permanence here. He excelled in school and on the tennis court, and loved to hike and camp in the sagebrush canyons and gingerbread flanks of the Wasatch Range of the Rockies. Although taking a dim view of the Mormon faith (and “denominational narrowness” in general), he made many Mormon friends and gained a lifelong respect for their solidity of character, love of family, and emphasis on roots, eventually writing two acclaimed books on Mormon history. This idea of the importance of history and roots would crop up again and again in Stegner’s work.

John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation

The young writer (photo: John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation)

He attended University of Utah, then earned a master’s and doctorate at University of Iowa, where he met Mary Page, who would be his wife for 60 years. While in school, he learned his father had left his mother while she had cancer. (George Stegner later killed himself, after murdering his mistress.) For the rest of his life, Wallace battled the ghost of his father, while simultaneously drawing on memories of his mother’s affection and strength.

Wallace and Mary eventually moved to Vermont, where he honed his writing at the famous Bread Loaf writers retreat, which also counted Robert Frost, Willa Cather, and Bernard DeVoto among its faculty. He fell in love with the untrammeled green beauty of Vermont and simplicity and self-sufficiency of its residents. He became close friends with the prickly but brilliant DeVoto, and later wrote an acclaimed biography of him, The Uneasy Chair (1974).

While many writers concentrate on one form—fiction, nonfiction, short stories, poetry, history, biography—Stegner refused to be limited. He won three O. Henry Awards for short fiction, a National Book Award for The Spectator Bird (1976 novel), and a Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose (1971 novel). His biography of Colorado River explorer John Wesley Powell, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1953), has been called “one of the most influential books ever written about the West.”

In 1946 he founded the creative writing program at Stanford University, and mentored hundreds of student-writers for the next 25 years. He retired in 1971, wearied by students (like Kesey) who he felt undervalued the virtues of diligence, and who were obsessed with the “Now” and had scant appreciation of history, tradition, permanence, and place, in either their lifestyles or writing.

Alaska 1965_Wisconsin Historical Society

With wife Mary in Alaska, 1965 (photo: Wisconsin Historical Society)

Some have ranked Stegner with John Steinbeck. He’s been called the “dean of Western writers.” His admirers argue he’s not better known due to an elitist Eastern literary press. For years, The New York Times snubbed him. In fact, after he won the Pulitzer for Angle of Repose, the newspaper clumsily hinted he was undeserving.  (On the 100th anniversary of Stegner’s birth, the Times did offer a small mea culpa.)

And while Wikipedia lists Stegner’s many awards and publications, its biography of him seems woefully brief. For proof, compare Stegner’s Wikipedia bio to 25-year-old pop star Justin Bieber’s. (On second thought, don’t ruin your day.)

While this woeful scribbler has shamefully yet to become acquainted with Stegner’s fiction, biographies, or histories, I am familiar with his articles, having read his collection, The Sound of Mountain Water (1969). One of the essays here is Stegner’s famous public letter urging passage of the Wilderness Act, eventually made law in 1964. In this letter, Stegner—who in the 1950s assisted David Brower of the Sierra Club in blocking construction of Echo Park Dam and saving Dinosaur National Monument—writes eloquently:

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed…We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”

Wallace Stegner’s accomplishments during his 84 years are beyond impressive. He was the first person to destroy the myth that the West is a land of rugged individualists, instead arguing it is a cooperative idea, and should be cherished and preserved rather than exploited by private interests. mountain waterHe was a novelist, biographer, Western historian, seminal environmentalist, and beloved teacher. He was special assistant to Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. He had a work ethic that makes most of us look like panhandlers.

He was also a man of principles. A liberal of the old-fashioned variety, when Stegner received a National Endowment for the Arts award not long before his death in 1993, he refused it on the grounds that the NEA was being manipulated by political conservatives. “People like Patrick Buchanan and Jesse Helms have been attacking it for a long time,” he said, “and the (G.H.W. Bush) administration played into the pressure…You can’t conduct arts with censors…”

Those who block dams, shatter myths, and spurn awards while standing on principle are rare birds, indeed, and deserve to be celebrated.

Happy Earth Day, Professor Stegner

STEGNER

(Photo: Associated Press)

 

A Yellow Dream

Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_041

 

(NOTE: This “short story” was inspired by a dream I recently had.  I usually stick with nonfiction, but the dream was so vivid that I had a crazy urge to be creative.  Constructive criticism is welcomed!)

The orange glow on the table next to me shows 4:21 a.m. Another night of twisting and turning.

What a weird dream. What was it all about? Thick, liquid, yellow gobs of paint on a shifting canvas.

Can I reconstruct my dream painting?

I’m standing on the side of a country road, out in the middle of what looks like a field of golden yarrow. A vehicle slowly pulls up alongside me. Not so much a car, though. It’s more like an old wooden stagecoach contraption. Maybe I’m in the Old West.

The door swings open. The events play out like a scene from “The Twilight Zone.” I expect to hear “Come inside, Mr. Kurtz, we have something for you.” I push aside a creaky wooden door and step inside.

Smells like cedar. Who’s the guy sitting there with the beat-up guitar? A wizened little gnome, he looks a bit like Willie Nelson. There’s a pretty song humming in my head. It’s a song that I’ve always liked, but I don’t know the title.

stagecoach

(Photo courtesy Grainne Rhuad, 2013)

“That’s always been one of my favorite songs of yours,” I blurt out.

I recall the subject matter: a torrid love affair, like something from an old, tangled, Scottish folk ballad. It concerns an intense relationship between a man and a woman. The end of the affair really messes up the man, and nearly kills him… or maybe does kill him, I can’t remember.

My impression – in the dream – was that the song was also a metaphor about living a full life. A life that has lots of experiences.

“Yeah,” the Willie Nelson-type guy responds with a crooked grin. “If that song doesn’t strike a chord, then you got a lifetime of empty floor plank under you.”

Empty floor plank.

He talks as if he hadn’t written the song, but that the song had only channeled through him. That he was just the song’s messenger.

Then I wake up. What startles me awake is his comment about the empty plank. I have a hollow feeling, like a vacuum has sucked out my guts. A feeling that, maybe, my own life so far has been nothing but an empty floor plank. I rub my eyes, then tell myself I have a full life, and a family that loves me. But the hollow feeling lingers.

Then I remember the melody of the song. It’s a tune called “The Old Laughing Lady” by singer-songwriter Neil Young. It’s a sleeper song off Young’s first sleeper solo album from way back in 1968.

The song melody starts with the sound of low, rolling thunder, then segues into a slow, jerky arrangement, a jingling keyboard, and a minor string accompaniment. There’s some acoustic guitar, but the guitar is more of an afterthought, as if Young is just toying with the strings. One middle section has a chorus of female moans that rise to a small crescendo, relax a little, then rise to a second crescendo, then abruptly halt.

It’s a strange musical arrangement. Perfect accompaniment to an equally strange dream.

The words of the song are intangible. As far as I know Young’s never elaborated on the song’s meaning, so maybe even he doesn’t know. I’ve always interpreted the song as being about obsession, or self-destruction, or even the grim reaper himself.

One of the verses goes like this:young_sleeve

Don’t call pretty Peggy, she can’t hear you no more
Don’t leave no message ’round her back door
They say the old laughing lady been here before
She don’t keep time, she don’t count score

Yellow lyrics for a yellow song.

At the end of the song, Young sings of “a rumbling in the bedroom and a flashing of light… There’s the old laughing lady, everything is alright.”

One last time, I sweep the bed sheets aside. Then I sit upright with my head dangling, and rub my eyes.

I start my daily routine. But the “old laughing lady” and the old stagecoach stay with me all day.

What else can I do but write it down?

 ***

(Painting at top “Wheat Field Under Clouded Sky” by Vincent Van Gogh, located in Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.  Image in Public Domain)

(Cover painting of album “Neil Young” by Roland Diehl)