Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"Why Kerouac Matters"

John Leland is a reporter for the New York Times and former editor in chief of Details magazine. He is the author of Hip: The History.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his new book, Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of ‘On the Road’ (They’re Not What You Think), and reported the following:
The page begins with a jazz scene from On the Road. The room is a convivial mix of whores and hootchy-kootchy sounds. But the horn player, Prez, is holding back. “You see man,” says Dean Moriarty, the book’s cowboy muse, based on Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady, “Prez has the technical anxieties of a money-making musician, he’s the only one who’s well dressed, see him grow worried when he blows a clinker, but the leader, that cool cat, tells him not to worry and just blow and blow – the mere sound and serious exuberance of the music is all he cares about. He’s an artist.”

Whenever a jazz musician appears in On the Road, he is a surrogate for a writer, teaching the narrator, Sal Paradise (based on Kerouac), how to find his voice and tell a story. Sal begins the book unable to tell a story – on his first trip he imagines himself in his friends’ eyes, “strange and ragged like the Prophet who has walked across the land to bring the dark Word, and the only Word I had was ‘Wow!’” By the end he is given his prophecy, by a tall old man with flowing white hair who tells him, “Go moan for man” – in other words, go write On the Road. The musicians help him find this voice.

Page 69, which falls in a chapter called “Sal’s Guide to Work and Money,” looks at the lesson the musicians – especially the “cool cat” leader – teach Sal (and readers) about art and finance. Kerouac admired the work ethic of jazz musicians, who labored at their craft and accepted poverty in return. As I spell out in this chapter, he had a similar work ethic, often overlooked. In the six years it took to publish On the Road, he kept producing manuscript after manuscript, even as these were also rejected. The lesson in the club scene is not to let money get in the way of authentic, productive work. On the Road is not about running from work, it’s an embrace of authentic work.
Read an excerpt from Why Kerouac Matters, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue