VENICE WEST: The Beat Generation in Southern California by John Arthur Maynard (Rutgers: $22.95; 264 pp.). Those healers, chainsaw-jugglers, guitar-playing Sufi mystics on skates and other "only in L.A." types you find today on the Venice boardwalk are inheritors of the country's most genuine beat tradition. Too alienated and free-spirited to jockey for power in institutions (as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg did at Columbia and William Burroughs at Harvard), too devoted to their art and community--and, often, to their drug addictions--to cynically exploit the media (as did the Hippies), the Venice Beats truly lived in a present tense of self-discovery.
Not so author John Arthur Maynard. A USC-trained historian who holes up in the comfortable suburb of Simi Valley, he exists, like most of us, in the future tense of self-improvement, and is consequently a bit threatened by the Beats' preoccupation with "being" rather than "doing." All too empathically summarizing the Establishment view in the 1950s, Maynard writes, "If the Beats are right, then we and all we strive for are nothing at all." Maynard's sensibility acts much as ropes and cages did at P. T. Barnum sideshows: to separate us respectable folks from an "energetic gutter craziness that no one really claims to have under control." But another, wilder part of him seems genuinely to admire the way the Beats tried in their poetry to reach "a condition above life, a walking shouting, unsparing act of grace."