I didn’t need any books: I was finishing up grad school in Idaho and moving to—well—that wasn’t quite known to me. But here was a building on the Latah County Fairgrounds full of books, and here was Satori in Paris by Jack Kerouac among them, a slim Black Cat paperback with a blue Eiffel Tower backed in red on the cover. I’d read little by Kerouac; I knew more about his reputation than his words. The word “satori” (or “enlightenment”) lay there with mentions of France and travel, journeys and new directions—all keywords in the big Boolean search that ran through my mind that last month or two while I tried to decide where exactly to put myself.
I opened the book on a plane to San Francisco, a reconnaissance trip, because I had an urge to see the city before I left the West and likely headed back to Chicago, where I had family and a few friends and familiar streets. Chicago was the reasonable choice, and I’m a terrifically reasonable person, except for a few strange bursts when I have the desire to drop everything and go somewhere entirely new. This is how I found myself on a plane to San Francisco, all table nuts and tiny air spouts, when I read the first chapter; in this Kerouac reflects on a trip to France, where he experienced some sort of enlightenment that he can’t quite place and which happened at a moment he can’t quite peg.
So the story begins: he goes to France in the first place to research his full family name, “Lebris de Kerouac.” Once there, he frequents Parisian bars, annoys his landlady by bringing home women and stumbling in drunk, dines with and chats up strangers. He books a flight to Brittany and misses it, taking a train instead. He rambles through dark streets in Brest without a hotel and searches for his lost luggage.
The topic of his name returns every few chapters: he visits the National Library with no results, or looks up a Breton also named Lebris, an old man buried beneath comforters, and the two raise several glasses of cognac to literature and heritage. In short, nothing gets revealed. And the thread of his lineage keeps tangling: a Breton name, with origins before that in Wales and Ireland, with an ancestor from a noble family. I think.
Kerouac’s mission stopped being confusing when I stopped trying to understand it and instead took up the slide of the language, and found myself on smooth rails through single-sentence pages as Kerouac describes Paris: “O what grim rainy Gothic buildings and me walking well in the middle of those wide sidewalks so’s to avoid dark doorways—What vistas of Nowhere City Night and hats and umbrellas.” Or when I took the zip along the last frantic cab ride to the airport, where Kerouac and the driver pause a quick minute to drain beers together. The family name—the purpose—didn’t matter so much in those moments; and that’s what the book turns out to be: a testament to the moment, singular and complete.
I moved to San Francisco this summer. I packed up an incredibly small Nissan with the total of my belongings and drove three days to roll over the Golden Gate Bridge and find—well—something. I’m still not sure. Most days I worry about jobs and the odd room I’m renting and whether I will, in fact, go back to Chicago. But on better days I see only a flipbook of moments, all journey. Some satori that can’t be explained, only felt, and that’s enough.