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The road to `On the Road'

Book of Sketches Jack Kerouac Introduction by George Condo Penguin: 414 pp., $18 paper

April 09, 2006|Lynell George | Lynell George is a senior writer for West magazine.

IN 1950, a young writer from Lowell, Mass., published what he hoped would be an important American novel, a book that evoked the country at a critical cultural shift. His name, John Kerouac, the book, "The Town and the City."

Despite largely polite, even generous reviews, Kerouac was weighed down by doubts. It wasn't the story, it was the telling -- which to his ear, lacked urgency.

By then, he was already bent frantically toward something else, two manuscripts that were shape-shifting works-in-tandem: "Visions of Neal" (after his friend, muse and fellow itinerant spirit, Neal Cassady) and another, a draft of which had been famously pounded out on teletype paper during a Benzedrine high, "On the Road."

Not quite stalled but idling, Kerouac was searching for something that would take him beyond a conventional, linear road-trip narrative, that would evoke the sense of dislocation he felt in himself and others, an uneasy mix of restlessness and desperation. He was casting about for a way to convey not just motion but emotion, visions, spiritual revelations -- as fast as they came to him in breathless flashes on the highway.

What happened after "On the Road" found traction in 1957 is an indelible chapter of American history. Less known, however, is the specific step-by-step process of Kerouac's arrival as a literary icon: the seven years it took to get from "John" to "Jack," to become the unwitting father of the Beat Generation, to get to that mad rush of prose.

The newly released "Book of Sketches" is the embodiment of Kerouac's painstaking progression toward this "new style of writing," his propulsive literary breakthrough. Written, for the most part, between 1952 and 1954, it is in many ways the road to "On the Road."

Sketching came to Kerouac by way of a Denver friend, Ed White, who suggested that he work like a painter "but with words." Kerouac took to the idea immediately, filling nickel notebooks that he kept in his breast pocket. He improvised, working like a jazz musician, following his emotions, writing until he was bored or spent. When he sketched, he later told his friend, poet Allen Ginsberg, he felt he wrote with 100% honesty; he had finally found a voice at last.

These notebooks convey a multilayered journey, including not just his descriptions of life in Rocky Mount, N.C., and in a San Francisco tenement, but also his digressions, epiphanies and "Tics," which he defined as flashes of memory or daydreams, "a sudden thought that inflames & immediately disappears."

In an introduction that itself reads like an associative riff, painter and sculptor George Condo compares Kerouac to his iconoclastic contemporary Jackson Pollock, who also had the ability to turn the everyday "into Art." Condo labels Kerouac a Cubist, "in the sense that the fragmentation is not of imagery but of time and place." His stream-of-consciousness seems "to be running straight at you and then split[s] up unexpectedly into multiple directions simultaneously, ending on a resolved note somehow related and yet striking out in a new direction."

Oddly, Condo doesn't address either the timing or the key role these sketches played in Kerouac's formulation as a writer. It's a striking omission. By 1952, Kerouac was marooned between drafts of "On the Road," desperately looking for a way of working that would allow him to get underneath the skin of things. Hitting on the flow of "spontaneous prose," Kerouac finally set to reworking the manuscript, applying what he'd learned by sketching. It was his turning point; he'd unearthed his writing soul.

The term "sketches" seems just right, a precise way to describe these otherwise uncategorizable vignettes: a flow of fragments -- some jagged, some iridescent, some goofing or drifting -- that vary in theme or length or tone. They aren't quite poetry, aren't quite narrative prose, yet some feel too finished to be cast off as simply jottings. They are epiphanies with shape and form and shadings; they are maps of the mind.

Like so much else in his life -- bebop before, Buddhism later -- Kerouac took to sketching like a religious rite, recording everything as fast as his fingers could move. This includes the rhythms of his sister Caroline's home ("She / prepares the aluminum / silex for coffee -- never / puts an extra scoop for / the pot -- makes weak / American housewife coffee"), the old folks sitting stoically on front porches and the fraternity of a crowded city bar:

young, welldressed,

justsuits, puffing

cigars, glad to

have the day done

& the drink comin

in, side by side

march in smiling

but there's no

room at the roaring

... crowded

bar so they stand

2 deep from it

waiting & smiling

& talking --

Men do love bars &

Good bars shd. be

loved --

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