Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

On The Road Again

Every decade or so the urge to re-examine the Beat writers asserts itself in a flurry of new books. See this week's NYTBR for the latest clutch of works excavating the lives of Neal, Jack, Allen, and friends. Welcome Courtney Love to the fold. Will appearing in the NYTBR palliate her monstrous hunger for fame and adulation? Let us pray it does.

I experienced a Beat phase as I was finishing high school. In fact, it followed hard on the Paris-in-the-twenties-writers phase, overlapping in places. At the time I did not find this odd.

I read all of Kerouc, some Ginsberg, the Ann Charters biographies, the Joyce Johnson cottage industry that sprung up after her brief affair with Kerouac. I tried Paul and Jane Bowles but neither grabbed me. Maybe I was too young. There was the time I brought Naked Lunch to the dentist's office, where I was having protracted work on a tooth that did not survive. The dentist spotted the book and began talking enthusiastically about its greatness. Burroughs must've laughed in his grave at the scene: a staid-looking dentist yakking about Naked Lunch to a prone, numbed patient, paralyzed by a mouthful of dental implements.

My penultimate Beat experience was driving across the country while reading On The Road. I was seventeen years old. I kept a journal of the trip, writing at night in motels along the way. I threw the journal out in my early twenties, a colossally stupid act I still regret.

Once in Los Angeles, I got into Bukowski. My big outing in those days was to navigate the 405 Freeway (which terrified me), take the curving Wilshire offramp (for both exiting and merging vehicles) and find parking in Westwood. I would then eat dinner at The Olde World restaurant, where I drank my first espresso, and walk to the bookstore at the end of Westwood Boulevard. I don't remember what this place was called, only that I spent inordinate amounts of money there. I was attracted to the Bukowski books by their covers. They were Black Sparrow Press Editions, thick, pebbled paperboard, resolutely plain. It never occurred to me that the man himself was merely a few miles away, documenting his squalor. I read him as I might read dispatches from foreign land. Essentially they were, and while I appreciated his talent, the repetitive material, the endless obscenities, and his general hatred of women finally wore me out.

Ultimately I came away from Kerouac and Bukowski feeling both wasted their considerable talents. Thumbing your nose at the establishment is great, and it makes for very attractive reading at certain ages--late teens and middle age come to mind--but finding a way to survive within the establishment whilst thumbing your nose is even better. Consider writers like Zadie Smith and Jane Smiley, who have skewered numerous aspects of society yet remain welcome at the Big Important Writers Table. William Gibson and Margaret Atwood, friends from the Great White North who miss nothing. The venerable Ferlinghetti. And how about that Tom Pynchon, who has managed to make himself a fine writer's life without giving one interview to People Magazine?

We must continue boring from within.


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