Jack Kerouac looked like Jesus. In the ink sketch my dad did of him, Kerouac’s arms are outstretched to either side, his head in proﬁle as though waiting for the lash. His left hand reaches back, the ﬁngers of his right point as though to show the way. A shock of black hair—and his hair is shockingly pretty—ﬂows back from his high brow, his thick-lashed eyes and francophone nose. The sketch was from a poetry reading my dad had been to, and knowing my parents met at a poetry reading, I liked to imagine they were both there and that Kerouac had blessed their union.
To Jack Kerouac, then, I owe my existence.
Inside the poet’s body, dad sketched the heads of other Beat poets: Burroughs and Bukowski, and dad’s mean Russian-sized friend Andy Clausen. Just under Kerouac’s heart my dad sketched himself—like Kerouac a football player, poet, longhair blue-collar child of immigrants. They even looked alike, attractive dark-haired men of indeterminate ethnicity, who other men wanted to beat up or embrace.
Dad made a signed and numbered batch of prints from the original sketch, I later gave them as birthday gifts to a couple of my boyfriends who immediately had them framed and hung them in their bedrooms. They tore down their Nirvana posters and said from now only framed art—the beginnings of being a man? I started to resent that Kerouac image, a man’s man who other men thought it safe to love. By framing those prints I thought the boyfriends were in some way saying, look, this is a man alone supported by other men, I can worship him with the ardor you won’t return. I’ve left those bedrooms forever, but Kerouac still hangs there, saint-like.
Why is Kerouac the man other men can crush on?
Poetry in my pajamas. My family is at Penny Lane, the coffeehouse and poet’s refuge in my hometown, Boulder, CO. Mom and dad are going to read and I’m sitting on the ground up front with my sister. When I remember this we’re always wearing white ﬂannel—ﬂannel was something my grandmother liked to use for our hand-sewn pajamas (matching) and in my mind these gatherings were always comfortable, soft, and my sister and I set a bit apart and treated like angels.
Though Kerouac was long dead, his spirit was often invoked at these readings, people would mention somewhere they’d been “with Jack” or “with Allen and Jack” and read a poem usually taking place in a car.
Kerouac represented the “authentic life,” where integrity meant disconnecting yourself from the ﬂow of mainstream culture—a ﬂow that was sure to carry you from birth do death with no room for reﬂection. Kerouac was a saint, and he promised eternal life. The only true life was that of a poet—the only true poet was one who took the living of life as a form of poetry. Biography as literary creation.
Even from that young age, I felt the pressure to have experiences. Having experiences to me meant travel, adventure-seeking by doing something dangerous or that you were afraid of, and always it meant something vaguely sexual, degenerate. As a bookish young girl reading adventure stories about heroic young men, Kerouac’s brand of life adventure seemed aggressively distant. Would I, like my mother, hitchhike across the country with a knife in my boot? Would I encounter whatever it was my mother encountered—a shudder of memory that transformed my her into a collection of barely bound fragments. The danger, though inarticulate, was obvious.
Would I, like my dad, be an itinerant artist? This meant working blue-collar jobs like taxi-driving and sitting in museums in my tattered jeans or god forbid grey sweatpants and sketching energetic interpretations of the old masters—lines jumping like musical notation.
Kerouac—the life, the saint, my parents’ spirit-guide—became a mandate.
I refused to read On the Road. I refused to read any Kerouac, and only came into contact with his words when they were referenced in other people’s poetry, in the reading style I came to associate with the rhythm of driving a car—monotony disturbed by speed bumps and occasionally a struck cow.
I refused on the grounds that to truly be Kerouacian one would resist all mandates, even Kerouac’s. I refused because I realized that as a woman I couldn’t have the adventures that were considered essential to the authentic life. I refused because I wouldn’t play a game I couldn’t win.
But late at night, on the old movie channel, I saw everywhere men who reminded me of him. Kerouac was James Dean was Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke was masculinity of the 1950s. Like them, Kerouac was a man whose power came from an inﬁnite capacity for suffering. Maybe it’s a Zen thing (I recently discovered Kerouac wrote a biography of the Buddha), these men could be hit and fall down and climb back up, up some invisible rope let down by whom? They could absorb it all and fall and rise again and it would be we, the abusers, who became embarrassed. When you don’t resist, you isolate someone in their own violence, and nothing is more ridiculous than a man swinging at the air.
In college, dad tells me that if I don’t know what to write, I should go out and “sketch” people in writing as Kerouac did. I tell him August Wilson did the same thing. Kerouac’s existence oppresses me. I am the closest to having adventures as I’ve ever been: Far from home, wandering a city in the rain, pulling out my notebook to write poems about kneeling buses and men in leather jackets eating soggy French fries. I am having experiences, as we called sex at that age. I am attempting to have degenerate sex, but very little seems surprising to me or to my partners. It all feels very much by rote. I blame this on Kerouac, whose life as biography as literature makes me suspicious of my own motives—am I acting authentically or only hunting for material?
Not reading Kerouac gives him more power. There is a college in Boulder called the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Because I have not read Kerouac I can not stop accumulating ideas about him, clichés which stand in the way of my reading him but also gain power the longer I avoid him. If a writer is embodied in his work—and Kerouac seems to have made the slippage between life and work into a religion—then to not read the work is truly to disembody him, to expose oneself to haunting.
Kerouac is everywhere. His “scrolls” tour the country like the remnants of a saint.
The other day I found a postcard of Kerouac holding a fuzzy fat cat, grinning. I took it home, injured by that tenderness.
Disembodied, Kerouac can go anywhere. He becomes less a man or a body of work than a way of seeing the world. Sketching people can be a way to pay attention, to look at people (if not necessarily to like them). There is a rhythm to his arrival in my life. Whenever I get close to making sense of something there he is: Kerouac wrote about that in Dharma Bums. The effect is cumulative. I’ve become alive to references to Kerouac, to anything that might stem from him. Like a Pater Familias he hangs, framed in my childhood home, and he is atomized in my bloodstream. Whether I like it or not I’ve become a student of Kerouac, all roads lead to him.