In 1971 a charismatic and brainy gangster named Joey Gallo returned home to New York City after ten years in jail, intending to resume the war for control over the Profaci mafia family that had sent him to jail in the first place. Joey Gallo and his brothers Larry and Kid Blast did not seem to have great instincts as gangsters, and never rose high in the serious business of organized crime. But Joey was a natural-born celebrity, with an uncanny knack for calling attention to himself. Over a decade earlier, he got a proud showing in Robert Kennedy's book about crimefighting, The Enemy Within, and even seemed to get the better of the future Attorney General and Presidential candidate in Kennedy's own book.
The New York newspapers couldn't get enough of the fun-loving Gallo mobsters, who mostly shot and got shot by other mobsters, and in the early 1970s Jimmy Breslin wrote a book about them, The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, which got turned into a Mafia movie just before a much better movie called The Godfather was released. It's been completely forgotten today, but the movie version of Breslin's book starred a then-unknown Robert DeNiro as a member of the inept gang.
And Joey Gallo is back again as the subject of a lively biography by Tom Folsom, The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld. This book connects Joey Gallo's wandering intellect to its sources, from the gangster movies that inspired him to the Beatnik scene that enthralled him during his early years running a jukebox and vending machine service from Red Hook, Brooklyn during the late 1950s.
Gallo had particularly great taste in existential philosophy, counting Friedrich Nietzsche, Wilhelm Reich and Albert Camus among his favorites. Folsom's book breezes through Gallo's fast life and doesn't try to deconstruct what these writers might have meant to the striving gangster. It reads like a collage, skipping merrily from past to present, connecting lots of dots, from the famous Albert Anastasia barbershop shooting in the 1950s to the prison race riots of the 1960s (Gallo was an early believer in racial harmony) to the cozy Greenwich Village theater scene of the 1970s, where Gallo mingled with the likes of Jerry Orbach, Gay Talese and Neil Simon before he was shot to death in Umberto's Clam House in Little Italy one late evening after enjoying a Don Rickles nightclub performance that would be the last show he'd ever see.
Another friend of Joey Gallo's from the Greenwich Village theater scene was Jacques Levy, director of Oh! Calcutta, who would soon work with Bob Dylan on a great 1975 album called Desire that would include a song called "Joey". It's because of this wonderful song -- one of the best and longest tracks on an album full of mysterious lyrics, jangling acoustic guitars and gypsy violins, that I myself became interested in the legend of Joey Gallo. I can't deny that I'm partial to this book because of my affection for the Bob Dylan song. The book illuminates many of the lyrics for me, from the beginning:
Born in Red Hook, Brooklyn in the year of who knows when
Opened up his eyes to the tune of an accordian
to the end, when:
he staggered out into the streets of Little Italy
This song has taken on a life and legend of its own. It reappeared in a live version on the later album Dylan and the Dead in which Jerry Garcia improvises a beautiful short fill to illustrate the moment of Joey's death. The Dylan song may be bigger than its subject, and this is a perfect example of the artistic serendipity this minor Mafia figure always seemed to create.
That serendipity is the true subject of Tom Folsom's book, which ends with a vision of the new IKEA that looms over present-day Red Hook, the once desolate neighborhood where the brothers ran. It's a nice final touch. My only question, upon finishing The Mad Ones, is whether or not Martin Scorsese will turn it into a movie. I don't see why he wouldn't.
Love As Always, Kurt Vonnegut As I Knew Him by Loree Rackstraw
The then-clean-shaven novelist was struggling at this moment to break through a memory block and write a book about the firebombing of Dresden during World War II. Rackstraw became his lover and close friend, and her new memoir chronicles how Vonnegut's life changed when he finished his Dresden book, originally titled Goodbye Blue Monday but eventually called Slaughterhouse-Five, and rocketed to wealth and fame.
Rackstraw remained his sympathetic sometime-lover after his divorce and remarraige, and the stories she tells are refreshingly modest -- she doesn't claim to have been Kurt's greatest muse, though she may have been an important part of his support system.
Fittingly, this is a kind book. Rackstraw remained a writing teacher at Iowa and an editor of the North American Review, and her book offers appealing cameos of Andre Dubus, Richard Yates, Geraldo Rivera (who, I'm surprised to learn, briefly married Kurt Vonnegut's daughter), John Irving and even, in a late chapter, Jon Fishman of Phish, a dedicated Vonnegut fan. My only complaint, and a surprising one regarding a memoirist who spent her life writing and editing fiction, is with the prose itself. Many sentences are stiff and clumsy. One characteristic paragraph confusingly begins:
That 'Slapstick' was not a rave, critical success was a disappointment -- and also one that Kurt himself severely awarded only a grade of "D".
This from a lifelong writing teacher? Such stylistic blunders are strange to see, but it doesn't mar the value of this book for anyone wishing to learn more about the gentle soul of Kurt Vonnegut. He earns here a rare honor among celebrity writers: a romantic literary tell-all that only upholds his adoring popular image.
The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl
Like The Dante Club, still my favorite Matthew Pearl book, The Last Dickens is filled with appealing scenes of soon-to-be-legendary early American publishing personalities hard at work. James R. Osgood of Fiends and Osgood is the hero, and the unscrupulous Harper Brothers are the heavies (today, Ticknor and Fields has been lost inside the wayward Houghton-Mifflin firm, while HarperCollins is owned by Rupert Murdoch). We also meet Frederick Leypoldt, editor of a new journal called Trade Circular and Publishers' Bulletin, which would eventually become our familiar Publisher's Weekly, along with an array of literary waterfront pirates known as bookaneers.
The historical material is delightful, and I hope Matthew Pearl will keep exploring the early publising scene in future works. But his novelistic formula -- wrap a great author in a fictional mystery and aim for the bestseller list -- may be wearing thin, and I found The Last Dickens less satisfying than his books on Dante or Poe. This may be due to my lack of particular interest in Charles Dickens -- sure, I loved Great Expectations, but Dickens was never in my personal pantheon -- and is surely due to the fact that I've never read The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I'll always be interested in any book Matthew Pearl writes, but I hope his next novel will move beyond what has now become too limiting a formula for an author of such wide talent and knowledge.
Curses and Sermons by Nic Saunders
Here, the male and female characters are simply called "The Cowboy" and "The Stranger" respectively, but the basic setup remains. Not every experimental play needs to be enhanced with cinematic visuals, but they work well here. The characters dig deep holes in the ground, perhaps as symbolic preludes to making love, and travel through psychedelic filters until they finally, as Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow eventually must, make love. The film ends happily, a satisfying exploration of an enigmatic work.
1. Japanese search parties have found the remains of poet and volcano enthusiast Craig Arnold, who had been running a blog called The Volcano Pilgrim. Jacket Copy's piece on Craig's death is the best of many I've read.
Nobody needs to wonder why a poet would love volcanoes; the metaphorical appeal is obvious. The word "volcano" is itself literary, evoking the Roman god Vulcan (the Greek god Hephaestus). Then there's Malcolm Lowry, and Susan Sontag, and let's not forget that the San Francisco beatniks hung out in a North Beach bar called Vesuvio.
Some might disagree with me, but I don't think it's exactly tragic when a poet who passionately loves volcanoes dies exploring a volcano. It's tragic if a poet who loves volcanoes dies of cancer, or catches a stray bullet during a liquor store robbery, or kills himself in a moment of desperate depression. For a poet to die in courageous pursuit of his greatest dream and fascination does not seem tragic in the same way.
(The homemade volcano photo above was found here).
2. Las Vegas Sun maps the Seven Deadly Sins to the states and counties of USA.
3. Keith Gessen gets himself into trouble reporting on an election in Russia.
4. "While the publishing industry chases the new, the young, the instantly commercial, readers are often looking for something else -- for a kind of enduring quality." Agreed. Reissed jazz-age classics from Bloomsbury.
5. Wyatt Mason invokes Emerson.
6. Bill Gates's father is writing a book called Showing Up For Life.
7. 25 Microchips that shook the world.
8. To embarrass is to block, to em-bar.
9. How George Orwell was feeling (hint: not good) while he wrote 1984.
10. Literature and classic rock (I used to try to maintain a list something like this, but haven't kept it up to date).
11. Why does everything Bret Easton Ellis writes get turned into a movie?
12. Anne Waldman on why chapbooks matter.
13. Carly Kocurek, a smart young writer from Texas who used to contribute to LitKicks as "violet9ish", is one of the authors represented in Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket by Elizabeth Englehardt.
14. I get interviewed by Mike Palecek at New American Dream. I like it that Mike asks questions like "Are UFO's real?" instead of the usual stuff about e-books and blogs.
1. According to Rolling Stone, Gus Van Sant's film version of Tom Wolfe's 60s-culture classic The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test will start shooting soon, and may feature Jack Black (bad idea) or Woody Harrelson (slightly better) as novelist and psychological adventurer Ken Kesey. Woody Harrelson might actually make more sense in the role of Beat legend Neal Cassady, who drove the bus called Further during the real-life cross-country journey chronicled in Wolfe's book. He seems too old to play then-young Ken Kesey in this story, while Jack Black would have to severely rein in his comic instincts to avoid overpowering the role. I hope Gus Van Sant knows what he's doing here.
2. Meanwhile, George Murray of BookNinja gives a hopeful nod to Steve Jacobs' soon-to-be-released film version of J. M. Coetzee's powerful Disgrace, starring John Malkovich.
3. A Bertrand Russell comic? Okay, though Russell was mostly bested by his star student Ludwig Wittgenstein.
4. The story of William Warder Norton, founder of the influential book publishing firm that bears his name.
5. Philip K. Dick and Jack Spicer.
6. Denis Johnson's newest novel is called Nobody Move.
7. The earlist known dust jacket for a book has been found.
8. New Directions has a blog.
1. Beat poet Gregory Corso has made the cover of this week's Economist. Some clever illustrator has formatted the opening of a recent Barack Obama speech about nuclear disarmament as an homage to Corso's great 1958 poem Bomb (though I couldn't find a Gregory Corso credit anywhere in the magazine). Also, I bet you anything the Economist illustrator cribbed the layout from this LitKicks page, though I couldn't prove this in court. Via Stop Smiling.
2. Amazon.com made a really stupid decision to de-rank books with gay/lesbian content, and suffered through an Easter Sunday twitter tornado for it. Can you imagine what our great literary legacy would look like if all gay/lesbian-related books were subtracted? Forget about it. Amazon has apologized for the "glitch", but the success of the spontaneous #amazonfail movement on Twitter will certainly inspire other protests to come.
3. The unforgettable Beverly Cleary just celebrated her 93rd birthday!
4. When the Flock Changed is an excerpt from Maud Newton's upcoming novel.
5. Jay Thompson on Marcus Aurelius and Stanley Kunitz at Kenyon Review blog.
6. Mike Shatzkin on a racial showdown at circa-1950s Doubleday.
7. Yeah, I post about John Updike a lot. More to come. Via Books Inq, here's On Easter and Updike by David E. Anderson.
8. The Onion on Beckett.
9. Bill Ectric attempts to singlehandedly resurrect the career of Charles Wadsworth Camp, author (and father of Madeleine L'Engle).
10. A celebration of the chapbook.
11. Carolyn Kellogg on John Fante.
12. City Lights (a bookstore that would never de-rank books with gay/lesbian content) has published Days I Moved Through Ordinary Sounds, the record of a creative writing program for "juvenile detention facilities, homeless shelters, inner-city schools and centers for newly arrived immigrants" (more here).
13. Okay, real quick, here are a few things I don't like about The Beats: A Graphic History by Harvey Pekar, Paul Buhle and Ed Piskor. Pekar's drawings are rather ugly; I yearn instead for the affectionate emotional shadings of Robert Crumb. The section on Jack Kerouac seems to be based on a close reading of Ellis Amburn's biography Subterranean Kerouac, the only major biography that claims to find closeted homosexuality at the center of Kerouac's life and work. As I wrote when Amburn's book was published, this interpretation really doesn't illuminate the work very well at all. Conversely, the biographical section on Allen Ginsberg all but ignores the crisis Ginsberg endured as a child when his mother went insane, which actually does illuminate the poet's work considerably. The book also suffers from chronological problems and all-out mistakes, as when the book claims that the Jewish Torah is equivalent to the Christian Old Testament (actually the Torah is only the first five books, the books of Moses). However, The Beats: A Graphic History does have some excellent material on lesser-known Beats towards the end.
14. What the hell is up with a cheezy-looking book called City of Glass (by Cassandra Clare)? We already had a perfectly good City of Glass.
The New York Times Book Review keeps a bench of dull and competent specialists like Alan Light, including John Leland, who gets called up whenever there's a Beat Generation-related title to review. I don't know why they can't find a writer with some panache or maybe an original viewpoint to review these books instead. Leland's summary of The Beats: A Graphic History by Harvey Pekar, Ed Piskor, Paul Buhle and others in today's Book Review could not be more rote and mechanical. He hits all the standard points in the standard history, and even dishes up Kerouac's quote about "the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live". But there are no new ideas or angles in this article; it may as well have been generated by an algorithm. I read the Pekar/Piskor/Buhle comic-format book myself, was pleased by a few of the tangential chapters towards the end but disappointed by the flat aspect at the book's core. Leland doesn't even touch on the book's real deficiencies, instead delivering a sniffy complaint about clunky prose before winding up for a weak conclusion: "Here was a group of writers who hoped to change consciousness through their lives and art ... They rocked."
Supposedly every snowflake in the world is unique. Can't the New York Times Book Review find writers who will make sure their reviews maintain the same standard?
The problem may be intrinsic to the Book Review, because even the thoughtful Walter Isaacson seems to strain for insight in his review of Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution by Richard Beeman. He points helpfully to the book's new emphasis on the role played by a South Carolina politician, Charles Pinckney, but even so his article feels surprisingly conventional (a little pun there, if you think about it). The drafting of the US Constitution is not exactly fresh material, so the main thing the review needs to do is explain why this book is important enough to deserve a full page in this publication. After finishing the article, I'm barely convinced.
Luckily, there are several examples of excellent writing and original thought in today's Book Review. Arthur Phillips' novel The Song Is You is on the cover, and here's reviewer Kate Christensen first sentence:
If novelists were labeled zoologically, Arthur Phillips would fall naturally into the dolphin family: his writing is playful, cerebral, likable, wide-ranging and inventive.
Now we're getting somewhere. Christensen's intense level of engagement gives this article life, and so does David Kirby's in his consideration of poet Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno's Slamming Open The Door. Michael Meyer's endpaper essay about how book publishing advances have evolved over the centuries is extremely informative and useful, but a strong point of view also buttresses the piece, conveying a sense of relevance and conviction that makes the piece not only useful but memorable. I hope the Book Review will run more examinations of book publishing practices (a hot topic that gets much better coverage in the blogosphere) in the future.
I always like anything Liesl Schillinger writes, even though she unwisely kicks off today's review of A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith Rakoff with an utterly pointless generalization:
Do you remember how bored we all were a decade ago? The cold war was over; the stock market surfed a rising wave; President Clinton had announced a national budget surplus; and good fortune was so rampant that rich neurotics paid therapists to be reassured that it was O.K. to be happy. Belatedly, we've learned how lucky we once were to live in uninteresting times.
Hmm, well, as my memoir-in-progress will shortly show, I was personally going through a terrible divorce and a painful work crisis a decade ago, so "uninteresting times" is hardly the phrase I would use myself to describe 1999. I imagine many other readers of this article will react the same way, since we do not measure out our memories by news headlines but rather by events of personal importance, making generalizations like this one rather silly. Still, I would read a Liesl Schillinger review over an Alan Light or John Leland review any day, and her coverage of A Fortunate Age gets better when she explains the novel's intriguing parallel to Mary McCarthy's The Group.
The Great Weaver from Kashmir by Halldor Laxness and Leaving Tangier by Tahar Ben Jelloun get some attention from Alison McCulloch in a fiction roundup, and Michael Beschloss offers fresh thoughts following Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy. This all adds up to a satisfying Book Review in a Sunday New York Times that also includes a Deborah Solomon session with Joyce Carol Oates and a Wyatt Mason profile of poet Frederick Seidel in the magazine. There's also a searching piece by David Barstow on the mystery of Sylvia Plath's son Nicholas Hughes's suicide on the front page of the news section.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, global activist and indie publisher extraordinaire, turns 90 years old today. Here's his Litkicks biography page, and here's the poem we've been running on this site for many years:
The pennycandystore beyond the El is where I first fell in love with unreality Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom of that september afternoon A cat upon the counter moved among the licorice sticks and tootsie rolls and Oh Boy Gum Outside the leaves were falling as they died A wind had blown away the sun A girl ran in Her hair was rainy Her breasts were breathless in the little room Outside the leaves were falling and they cried Too soon! too soon!
The great folksinger Pete Seeger will also turn 90 on May 3, and New York City will celebrate him in big style on this date at Madison Square Garden featuring performers like Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, Arlo Guthrie, Dave Matthews and John Cougar Mellencamp. That's going to be some hootenanny birthday party. Pete Seeger and Lawrence Ferlinghetti are two American sages, feisty, stubborn and deeply politically engaged. What blacklisted Communist Pete Seeger and embattled Howl publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti had in common is that they both loved to fight for their causes. They both wore out their competition.
1. Ed Champion isn't won over by Fool, Christopher Moore's comic spin on Shakespeare's King Lear, which is enough to warn me away (I considered spending time with the book, but the cover art didn't pull me in either). In other Lear news, I'm just plain happy that an Anthony Hopkins film version of King Lear has been cancelled. Hopkins was marvelous in Remains of the Day but has been disappointing in many big roles, mainly because he can only play one character, the "Anthony Hopkins guy". I really wasn't looking forward to seeing King Lear with an icy stare and trembling lips. Meanwhile, Al Pacino's Lear may still happen, and while I also don't need to see a surly over-caffeinated King Lear, I believe Pacino has a greater range of character than Hopkins.
Another requirement for an actor attempting Lear is humility, since the King must play straight man to his Fool and read his best lines while upstaged by a storm. This is why I liked Kevin Kline's modest Lear, and would be happy to see this one recorded for posterity as well. Historic King Lears we can still enjoy include Paul Scofield, Ian Holm, Laurence Olivier and, a personal favorite of mine, Albert Finney in The Dresser.
2. Not ... another ... unpublished ... Kerouac novel ...
I am glad the estate is publishing the archives, but I don't like the hyped-up hardcover release formats and I find it strange how much excited press coverage Kerouac bottom-scrapers like And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks and Atop An Underwood or the new The Sea Is My Brother get, as if any reader would be better off reading these books instead of, say, Big Sur or Desolation Angels or Doctor Sax or Subterraneans or Town and The City or Visions of Cody or Wake Up or even Good Blonde or Satori in Paris or Vanity of Duluoz.
I think Kerouac had excellent judgement about his own work -- that's why he carried manuscripts of so many of the above-mentioned novels in his rucksack for years waiting for the world to eventually smarten up and appreciate them. But the novels he was carrying in his rucksack for years were Subterraneans and Visions of Cody and Doctor Sax, most decidedly not Atop An Underwood or And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks or The Sea Is My Brother. I trust Kerouac's judgement.
3. I enjoyed Roy Blount Jr.'s well-written editorial about whether Amazon's text-to-speech feature violates authors' rights, but I'm really not getting excited about this boring controversy. To quote a description I once read of a 1970s bar brawl between David Bowie and Lou Reed, watching the Kindle team battle the Author's Guild is sort of like watching two old ladies try to pat fires out on each other's bellies.
4. Tom Watson, author of Cause Wired, takes on Rush Limbaugh for the Huff.
5. Norman Mailer.
6. Cam'ron is working on a television comedy project, and cites Larry David as an inspiration. I can't think of many hiphop artists who could make this work, but Cam has the talent and the crude/funny chops to pull it off, and I hope it happens.
7. Apparently Alan Aldridge, the artist who drew the cover for Elton John's excellent 1975 autobiographical album "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy", was the Chip Kidd of his time, at least in England.
8. Rambling on. (If you click through you'll get to Frank O'Hara, but we're taking the slow route).
9. Jack Tippit's cartooning rat race, from a 1950s cartoonist's insider sheet.
10. Laura Albert is writing a new work of fiction at Five Chapters.
It took about two seconds for me to fall for De Eenzame Snelweg, a paperback chronicle of an American journey by two young Dutch Kerouac aficionados, writer Auke Hulst and artist Raoul Deleo. The book Hulst sent me has not been translated into English (the title apparently means The Lonely Highway), but it's enough to scan and enjoy the sensitive and funny continuous cartoon strip that runs across the entire text, following a journey from New York City to San Francisco by way of Nebraska and Denver and the other usual Keroauc stops from On The Road (though, unfortunately, Hulst and Deleo don't make it to New Orleans, an essential corner in On The Road). These tourists have fun with their Kerouac -- a "Bear Crossing" road sign inspires an artistic examination of God as Pooh Bear, and I bet Jack himself would have loved the jazzy drawing of the Lombard Street Shuffle ("the world's crookedest dance") in San Francisco, where they also visit the Beat Museum. The book smoothly captures and transmits the excitement Hulst and Deleo feel as they travel in Kerouac's path. And, as the photo of the artist's rig above shows, the artwork is a scroll.
I first read Jack Kerouac's Wake Up when it was serialized in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle over ten years ago. This is an earnest, almost artless biography of Siddhartha Guatama, the sheltered prince who left his comfortable palace and became the Buddha 2500 years ago. Buddhism clearly brought out Kerouac's most reverent instincts, as the prose appears to have been carefully written and bears few marks of his signature "spontaneous" style. It's clear that Jack Kerouac felt a strong personal connection to the story of the once-spoiled wandering prince who struggled so hard to understand the meaning of desire in human existence. Wake Up, unpublished during Kerouac's life, has finally been released in book form, and seems to be more valuable than many other recent releases of unpublished Kerouac work. The book may surprise or enlighten readers who are not familiar with the spiritual aspect of Kerouac's literary mission.
The sympathetic and peace-loving Buddhist religion was always essential to the Beat Generation mindset, and it was a strong influence in the life of the magnetic and eclectic New York City semi-Beat, semi-Warholian poet John Giorno. Subdoing Demons In America: Selected Poems 1962-2007 is one of the more appealing poetry books I've seen in a while. Giorno's very approachable and casual verses remind me of the best of the short poems that often show up here on LitKicks Action Poetry. Urbane, experimental and user-friendly, they are often grounded in day-to-day experience. One poem simply contains the lyrics to the chorus of the Rolling Stones song "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" (a Buddhist plea, of course) and others seem to transcribe subway signs or the directions on a tube of suntan lotion. Unlike much of what passes for poetry these days, these sensitive, crafty verses will never leave you mystified or bored.
Three new and worthwhile Beat Generation books! 2009 is shaping up well. I'm also looking forward to catching a rare East Coast appearance by poet Gary Snyder at the New York Public Library this Saturday, January 31 at 3 pm. Gary Snyder's career is celebrated in another new book, the Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, which I haven't yet had a chance to read.
I took a trip to the South Loop in Chicago to visit the Holy Grail of American Literature -- the Kerouac Scroll manuscript of On the Road. It was being shown at Columbia College as one of the stops in a four year tour of museums, universities and libraries. I walked up to the second floor of the College’s main building, to the Center for Book and Paper Arts, and there, laying in a long glass display case was Kerouac’s Scroll, what seemed like almost 100 feet of it rolled out flat, the rest curled up on a glass rod.
It wasn’t what I had imagined. I had read somewhere that Kerouac used teletype paper for the Scroll, so I expected to see the telltale sprocket holes on the sides. Instead, what Kerouac really used was 12 foot long sheets of architectural tracing paper. He taped ten of these sheets together, to form a continuous page 120 feet long, wide enough to fit into a typewriter carriage. The Scroll paper is thus thinner and more fragile than what I had envisioned. It was mounted on a continuous white sheet of backing paper to help support and preserve the manuscript.
The next thing that I noticed about the Scroll is that it is one continuous stream of typewritten words. There are no indentations for paragraphs, no page breaks. It starts at the top and goes for 120 feet. On closer inspection, you can see that the scroll has been edited. There are handwritten changes and additions in the margins and on the page.
I stood there for a long time and I looked at this object, this extraordinary artifact from a writer who died forty years ago. I didn’t think about the events or characters in On the Road. I thought about the writing process, and I thought about Jack Kerouac the writer. Jack Kerouac taped these 12 sheets of tracing paper together and fed them into his typewriter in the spring of 1951. He was married at the time to Joan Haverty, and the two of them were living in Manhattan, on West 20th Street. It was in their apartment, over a three-week period, that Kerouac wrote the scroll version of his most important book. A three week period. It was a tremendous feat of writing.
Today, we have computers and word processing software, but if you have ever composed anything on a typewriter, you know that the time it takes to pull the finished page out of the carriage and feed in a new page slows you down and breaks your rhythm. Kerouac reportedly could type around 100 words per minute, which is very fast, so the idea of a continuous sheet of paper would have been appealing to him in 1951. It would allow him to write his book as one giant page. The act of changing paper was eliminated from the process. Also eliminated was the urge to immediately edit the page just completed.
Kerouac was now geared up for a mammoth writing session. But why? Let’s look at Kerouac’s career in spring of 1951, when he sat down to write. He had published his first book, The Town and the City, in 1950. It got decent reviews, but it didn’t sell. Although many of the Beat characters appear (under fictitious names), the style was heavily borrowed from Thomas Wolfe. The Kerouac style had not yet emerged.
So Kerouac had one published book under his belt when he sat at his typewriter and loaded in the 120 foot scroll. But he didn’t just sit down and start typing and create a book in three weeks from scratch. Kerouac was the kind of writer who carried notebooks with him everywhere. He jotted down scenes, thoughts, ideas. And Kerouac had made some wild trips across the country with Neal Cassady in previous years, and had seen and experienced a great deal. In his mind he had been working out a way to weave these experiences into a novel. He had an image of the book in his mind. Now it was time to turn it into words on the page.
But there was more to the Scroll than Kerouac being ready to put the novel he had already composed in his notebooks and in his head down on paper. Kerouac had a theory of writing that he had developed in talking with other Beat writers. He called it spontaneous prose, and he even set down its tenets in “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”. Spontaneous prose was like jazz improvisation. You free associated, you followed riffs that occurred to you while writing, and you let the words flow, not trying to force them into a particular form. Another important tenet of spontaneous prose was “If possible write ‘without consciousnesses in semi-trance’”. It is the writer as jazz man. So Kerouac rigged out his 120 foot Scroll to put his theories into practice. The use of tracing paper perhaps came from the idea in spontaneous prose that you should sketch the words quickly, like an artist -- “sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words”.
Kerouac was ready to put his ideas to the test. He had one conventional novel published, but it didn’t set the world on fire. He had a bunch of great experiences and a cast of incredible characters, and he knew he could set the world on fire if he found the right words, the right way, to tell the story. Damn the publishers with their double-spaced typed sheets with each page numbered and the author’s name on the upper-left hand corner. Damn their query letters and synopses and SASEs and rejection slips. I’m gonna write this thing, and I am going to write like it should be written -- the way Charlie Parker blows the saxophone, the way Neal Cassady talks.
And so Kerouac sat down at the typewriter one fine day in April, 1951 and started writing. And what he came up with truly does blend the rhythms of jazz with descriptive prose, as evidenced by the following image of Neal Cassady as a parking lot car hiker: “he can back a car forty miles an hour into a tight squeeze and stop at the wall, jump out, race among fenders, leap into another car, circle it fifty miles an hour in a narrow space, back swiftly into a tight spot, hump, snap the car with the emergency so that you see it bounce as he flies out; then clear to the ticket shack, sprinting like a track star, hand a ticket, leap into a newly arrived car before the owner’s half out, leap literally under him as he steps out, start the car with the door flapping and roar off to the next available spot, arc, pop in, brake, out, run…”
After Kerouac finished the Scroll, he had the nucleus of the book that would become On the Road. I imagine that the experience of writing like this must have been truly liberating for him. He used all the characters’ real names. He did not edit the sex scenes. He was able to write down the raw emotion that he felt at the time, not trying to hold back or disguise his feelings. The Kerouac style was solidified.
While he was able to create the Scroll in three weeks, the task of turning it into a publishable novel took quite a bit longer. Kerouac brought the Scroll to Robert Giroux, who had edited The Town and the City. When Giroux suggested that the 120 foot long manuscript needed some editing, Kerouac is said to have replied "There shall be no editing of this manuscript; this manuscript was dictated by the Holy Ghost." Eventually, Viking Press agreed to publish the book, and after many revisions supervised by Viking’s editor Malcolm Cowley, the book finally was released in 1957, six years after the initial draft.
The Scroll represents the part of writing that is the most difficult, yet also the most rewarding. You have an idea for a story. It percolates in your brain for a period of time. Perhaps you write notes on it, or start a tentative outline or an initial chapter. Then one day you know it is big enough for a novel and you sit down and start writing it. The first draft. And you go through all the negatives that this phase in writing is prone to: procrastination, being blocked, sitting at your desk for an hour and producing two paragraphs, dreading having to sit at your desk at all. These are all the downsides to writing. But then there is that day when you start writing, and the writing flows. And it’s good. And you have this incredible emotional high that can be the only reason that we put up with all the negatives – one or two hours of flowing words, images coming easily, the brain and the fingers working as one. After the draft is finished comes the editing and eventual marketing, but the scroll phase is what I think we all live for.
The Scroll is physical evidence of Jack Kerouac’s struggle and joy. His days of despair and his days of exultation, all stretched out on 120 feet of architectural tracing paper, and preserved for us to see and reflect on.