“My Road With Jack”: by The Mad Dalton

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There have been relatively few occasions when a book has successfully made the transition from well-worn classic to the big screen.  The list of attempts to bring narratives and the nuances of literature’s beloved characters to life is a terrain littered perhaps more by cadavers than heroes.  Anticipating such occasions then, becomes a mixture of both dread and excitement, where the reader wrestles with the plausibility of how a modern-day puppet master might try to pull it off.

Though reviews were mixed, efforts such as David Cronenberg’s screen version of William Burroughs’ ‘The Naked Lunch’, made the seemingly un-filmable seem possible. F Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ made the transition to the big screen relatively enhanced, depending on the adaptation and rumours have abounded for years about the eventual appearance of ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ making it’s way to the big screen, now that JD Salinger is no longer standing in Hollywood’s way.

With new and seemingly more powerful distractions abounding, reading novels seems to have become more and more of a luxury these days.  Our time has been mercilessly chewed into, but if there is a silver lining, then perhaps it is that a 90 minute film viewing might be sufficient investment to bring an author’s name and previously undiscovered back catalogue to the attention of the uninitiated, all the while allaying the fears of the purist.

I don’t presume to know whether the ink has already dried on the film rights to ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’,  but the likes of  ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ remain untainted for the time being. It is not then without some trepidation that the Jack Kerouac classic ‘On The Road’, finally found enough open road to hit theatres in the UK recently, featuring a list of perhaps enough lesser-known actor’s names to give it every chance of succeeding without collapsing under the weight of a star-laden cast. The film will see it’s eagerly awaited US release date December 21st.

Not dissimilar to the fear struck into hearts of Tolkien die-hards when it was announced that his most famous book was to become a movie trilogy, there has been more than an ounce of curiosity leading up to the release of the film, to see how the likes of characters such as Dean Moriarity (Neal Cassady’s character played by Garrett Hedlund) and Sal Paradise (Kerouac’s character played by Sam Riley), might translate to the screen and to a new generation of fans. Kerouac had even hoped to play himself in a film version alongside Marlon Brando in the role of Dean and even went so far as to write to the actor with this suggestion. It’s a pity this never materialised, but the story was enough for Francis Ford Coppola to purchase the film rights in 1979 and he remains the film’s Executive Producer.

Kerouac also envisioned the film being shot from within the car, the camera always at such an angle as to keep the motif of the long road always within vantage point.  More intriguing perhaps might be how directors Walter Salles (Sr & Jr) are able to bring perhaps the book’s most poignant feature, Kerouac’s highly charged narrative and self coined ‘spontaneous prose’ technique to the film.

The release of the film coincides with an exhibition at the British Museum in London which runs until December 27th. It features the original scroll Kerouac typed the novel on in 1951, over three weeks and under the influence of Benzedrine and caffeine. Residing in a specially built humidor and partially eaten by a dog, Kerouac held onto this literary marvel viewing it as a retirement fund of sorts, but it wasn’t to be.

Eventually published in 1957, ‘On The Road’ was ultimately embraced by a burgeoning counter-culture amidst the discord that was apparent in the America of that era. Indeed the term ‘beat’ became synonymous with cool, jazz and bebop and Kerouac spent much of his later life trying to shake the ‘King Of The Beats’ moniker in vain, unimpressed by the hippies and ‘flower power’ scene with which the term was associated.

By 1969 when Kerouac died at home in Florida, he was just 47 and ‘On The Road’ was already being heralded as the book that had blazed the trail for the dreams of American youth leading the social and sexual revolutions that were taking place.

I discovered Kerouac accidentally a quarter of a century later, in as unlikely a venue as you could imagine: in the small Scottish Borders town of Galashiels. Having read a Jim Morrison biography which cited then unfamiliar names such as Ginsberg, De Sade, Rimbaud and Jack Kerouac as influences,  I ordered a copy of ‘On The Road’. A few days later however, when I happened upon an edition owned by a fellow student, it was duly borrowed and never returned (sorry Donna!).

Kerouac’s restless tale in pursuit of his hero Dean Moriarty and the encounters on America’s highways, towns and cities, resonated with me immediately just like it had so many.  I began planning my own epic trip across its highways during rain-filled hours at my student’s residence, now that places like ‘Des Moines’, ‘Denver’ and ‘Wyoming’ had been brought to life.

Kerouac brought more than just literature into perspective, but also people themselves, by being the person he was.  Before breaking his leg (a story he told in ‘Vanity Of Duluoz’), Kerouac had been a former high school American football star.  Kerouac was in many ways the first ‘sensitive jock’, who made it ok to have such diametrically opposed interests as sport AND poetry long before the likes of Eric Cantona popularised “Rambo” to the bewilderment of the English press.

Kerouac talked openly about his feelings, showing a more vulnerable, perhaps feminine side. He brought a Buddhist approach to his work, showing a love and devotion to his Mother that was always apparent, though always wrestling with the role of being a “man’s man”.  That being said, Kerouac preceded Kurt Cobain who announced ‘everyone is gay’ years later to a new generation.

I wouldn’t be the first to suggest just how significant his influence was over me, both as a person and as a writer. In homage, after initially reading ‘On The Road’, I began to refrain from using any punctuation in the dry college essays I was forced to write, much to the chagrin of my professors.

When I moved back to North America,  I even attempted to acquire one of the magical Benzedrine inhalers so I could experience the same high that Kerouac and his circle had used back in the 50’s, but pharmaceutical companies had long gotten hip to it’s recreational use and taken them off the shelf. But then, that was before the internet, so it might be worth having another look!

Around the same time, a $500 welfare cheque took me to a Windsor, Ontario bus terminal where I purchased a Greyhound ticket for a journey to the deep South of pre-Katrina New Orleans I longed to experience those same open roads like so many before me, with plans to take notes of all the obscure town names I travelled through on my journey deep through America’s belly and down to the Mississippi Delta.

Broke and hungry many weeks later, I eventually found myself walking the streets of New York City, with nowhere to go and nowhere to sleep.  The only phone number I had was for a lesbian acquaintance who wasn’t picking up.  I began an incantation in the mad blur of exhaustion:

‘Where’s it at Jack, where’s it at?! Where you at Jack?! Where you at?!’

As I turned a corner somewhere in the frenzy of lower Manhattan’s Alphabets, what should suddenly appear overhead but a billboard featuring a gargantuan photograph of Kerouac himself. All these years later I am still at a loss to account for what random phenomenon may have been at work that day and what alignment in the cosmos caused this scene to play out as it did, but it remains one of the most memorable and unexplainable delights of my own past wanderings, which in case your wondering, I have never attempted to repeat.

If you walk into most book stores anywhere in the world, you will find ‘On The Road’ in the fiction section, but the fact of the matter is, that the tale of Kerouac’s adventures through America in pursuit of a dream embodied by his hero Dean, are true and not make-believe.

So whether it’s the frenzied excitement and characters of ‘On The Road’, the youthful nostalgia of ‘Vanity Of Duluoz’, ‘Dr Sax’ or ‘Visions Of Cody’, Kerouac remains an author who for a time lived the very life about which he wrote. It is a life that now forms an integral part of a now bygone era when the world was larger and the highways led to the freedom of the open road.

As we become perhaps less accustomed to well-thumbed books and more to the smudges on the screens of Kindles, it may well be that after years in the works that Kerouac as a literary institution is ready to make the transition and the film will tell the story in a manner that does the book justice by bringing a new breed of literary fan to enjoy the work of one of America’s all-time greats. Of course it’s all about the execution – figuratively and hopefully not literally!

Although one is encouraged not to judge a book by it’s cover, a movie trailer begs to draw you closer, desiring your full attention.  This isn’t the fantasy of Harry Potter here and there’s no Middle Earth in this instance, so given that I haven’t even seen the trailer yet, I’m probably content simply to allow the dust to settle on this transition taking place and in the meantime quite possibly reread the book that once again takes me to back to my own untainted version of ‘Kerouac Country’ while I still can.




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