My dad expressed doubts that Zen and the Art would have much of an impact on a sixty-seven year-old reader like my mother. "I think there is a window of time," he surmised, "during which, if one does not read a certain seminal work of literature, then the potency of that work is lost and the reader will remain unmoved. You have to read Zen and the Art in your 20's or 30's in order for it to really open doors in your mind," he added.
I glanced at my books where I have a shelf dedicated to my friends' and family's "Top Ten Favorite Books." The spine of Kerouac's On the Road implicated me. I winced with regret that I had not read On the Road in my 20's or even my 30's. I asked him if he thought it might be too late for me to read Kerouac's On the Road. "Maybe," he replied, "may be."
When your loved ones are gone, you will you pursue their ghosts in the things they loved and if they loved books you will pursue them in books, which is why I fervently exhort you to request that your book-loving loved ones compile a list of their "Top Ten All-Time Favorite Books" and entreat them to put some thought into it, which is what I did eleven years ago. Four of those of whom I asked and received such lists have now passed away.
So, five days ago I plucked from my book shelf what was definitely one of my dad's "Top Ten Favorite Books"* and dug in, even though the potency of this book may have theoretically expired for me.
If I'd read On the Road in my 20's, I would have written a feminist critique of it. I would have focused on the women in this novel, namely "Dean Moriarty's" abandoned wives and the mother of his children. I would have reflected upon the inaccessibility of safe and legal birth control which left most sexually active women in the late1940's with little choice but motherhood and denied them beat mystical detachment, and free-wheeling adventures "on the road" in search of "valid values" and chance to discover their own identity beyond the confines of motherhood. There would have been much haughty disdain for Kerouac and Neal Cassady.
In my 30's I would have written a spiritual critique of On the Road. I would have focused on the author and Cassady's relentless yet empty search for spiritual fulfillment and authentic values. I would have insisted that such things can never be found in the carnal pleasures of drugs, alcohol and the flesh of prostitutes. I would have posited that the continual motion of Sal and Dean's travels were in reality a running away from their own consciences, and a running away from the truth that lies in every human heart. There would have been much haughty disdain for this story.
But I am not in my 20's or even my 30's (shocking, I know). So here is what I have to say about it now:
It took me a good 60+ pages to get lulled into the rhythm of Kerouac's prose, his shambling, staggering, reeling, rollicking, raggedly stoned raptures. In this decade of my life I am more inclined to focus on what is of redeeming value rather than lambasting that which offends me.
I found Kerouac's writing to be lyrical, ecstatic, and astonishingly beautiful. At times, I grew weary, yes, and just like being on an actual road trip I grew impatient and exhausted and wanted to get to the blasted final destination (the end of the story).
But beyond the writing, there are many revelations for me in Kerouac's On the Road. Now is and was the exact time in which I was supposed to read this book, the exact time in which Kerouac's influence is at its most potent for me personally. Not my 20's and not my 30's but now.
The revelation for me comes from reading the introduction, written by Ann Charters, the only biographer that Kerouac co-operated with. In this introduction, Charters reveals how much Kerouac struggled to get this story, the story of Neal Cassady and himself, on the page. He struggled with how to tell this story. In an initial draft he used Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel as a kind of template. He was dissatisfied with the result. He tried imitating Theodore Dreiser's style and again he was not happy. Finally he decided to forget all that horseshit and write it as it happened by using first-person narration and a confessional style. The story began to fly onto the page, or "the scroll" I should say. Once he made the decision to write it as it happened, it took him three weeks to essentially nail it.
This was a revelation and a gift for me. I have been struggling with how to tell The Story I have to tell. There is a trend in the literary world that is anti-narrative and anti-confessional. This has made me an extremely self-conscious writer. First-person narration and a confessional style is what comes naturally to me. I have been blocked by this trend, I have been unable to take my essential story and perform some sort of trendy bullshit with it. I want to write it as is happened. I feel as though my dad, via Kerouac has given me the green light to do just that.
EDIT - I've just consulted his list and On the Road was not one of his top ten favorite books, but one of his "honorable mentions."