Title: Lonesome Traveler
Author: Jack Kerouac
Genre: Short story, travelouge, fiction
Long time no see! If I’m honest I’ve been experiencing a bit of a reading slump, maybe I’ve been going too heavy during isolation… I also haven’t felt like writing much, so apologies for the lack of posts.
Jack Kerouac and the “Beat Generation”
I don’t usually write anything on an author’s background, but I feel it is useful for appreciating this book and Kerouac’s writing more generally. I read On The Road (1957) in my teens and fell in love with the dreamy writing, but never delved deeper into the context surrounding Kerouac’s work.
Kerouac is widely regarded as one of the fathers of the, “Beat Generation,” a group of American writers in the post war period who were exploring American culture and politics in a form that rejected the ‘traditional’ literary narrative. These novels cover aspects of religion, exploration and rejection of materialism. Additionally, the experience of being human are placed at the forefront, with documentation of drugs, alcohol, sexual liberation and ideas of self fulfillment. Other well known authors of the Beat Generation include William S Burroughs, Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg.
Kerouac’s writing style outwardly rejects traditional literary devices, what he called, “simply poetry or natural description” deployed in Lonesome Traveler. The entirety of the novel is told through a spontaneous prose which jumps about between topics, people and places. Importantly, there is no coherency or structure – this was precisely what Kerouac was rejecting. Kerouac lived by, “first thought, best thought” and wasn’t a fan of revising his work, as he believed this was a form of “literary lying”.
The Beat Generation influenced the Counter cultural movements of the 1960s, due to its featuring of sexual liberation, prominent drug use and experimentation. However, the movement was made up of a pool of distinctly white, male authors. Women were incredibly absent. There were some female Beat authors including, Carolyn Cassady and Edie Parker, however, they never attained the same kind of success as male counterparts. In an interesting article, Lynette Lounsbury infers that female Beat authors were the “wives” to the male, literary greats of the period – never being appreciated on their own account.
It’s hard to appreciate just how revolutionary this writing was – when we are now exposed to so much variation. An out right rejection of the literary form had never been fully attempted in the 1960s, and Kerouac was one of its pioneers. Today, we have the joys of postmodernism behind us, and authors such as Lucy Ellmann and Ali Smith – who abandon the constraints of the novel.
It is unclear (from what I’ve read) whether this is based on Keroauc’s own experience entirely, or meant as a more fictional account. Nevertheless, the story follows the journey of one man as he travels through America, Mexico, Morocco, Paris, London, and a desolate mountaintop. It contains the protagonists inner philosophy on life, and is a tale of human experience told through the documentation one man’s travels.
These travels are restless, filled with drug and alcohol abuse and women, but other times, a true insight into the human condition and our relationship with our surroundings. It’s poetic, pays homage to the beauty of nature and embodies the kind of free, liberation rhetoric which was beginning to emerge in 1960s.
I love this book primarily because it is so against the grain of ‘typical’ literary fiction and challenges what we traditionally think of as a successful book – that being, having a coherent structure of a beginning, middle, and an end. Instead, Lonesome Traveler rejects these constrains and does its own thing. Today, it might not seem so original as we are readily exposed to so many different narrative forms, but considering the context, this really was one of a kind.
I love Kerouac’s prose style – he is rambling , descriptive and incoherent but occasionally, you stumble across something completely beautiful which makes you pause in amazement. I can appreciate his writing isn’t for everybody, as it is hard to follow, and I found this far harder to follow than On The Road. I had to concentrate hard to try and appreciate what was being said, but loved it all the same. The type of sensory prose Kerouac deploys enables the text to become so livable – at times, it is almost like you are experiencing what he is describing.
My favourite chapter or ‘short story’ was Alone on a Mountaintop. Before getting to this point, I admit, I was feeling somewhat disappointed with the book, but when I read this section I felt revived.
In this journey, he is alone for months on the top of a mountain, Desolation Peak, overlooking the Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest on the Canada-US border. He only has a basic cabin and nature to keep him company. Through this experience of truly being alone, the narrator documents beautifully the human relationship with nature, the experience of complete solitude and what it means to be human. It takes the reader on a kind of self fulfillment and exploratory journey that is like no other,
“Because silence itself is the sound of diamonds which can cut through anything, the sound of Holy Emptiness, the sound of extinction and bliss, that graveyard silence which is the silence of an infant’s smile, the sound of eternity, of the blessedness surely to be believed…”
It regularly features ideas about God, religion, self fulfillment and self acceptance. Now, I’m not religious, but the way Kerouac speaks about religion makes me want to listen, as it feels beautiful and insightful,
“For when you realize that God is Everything you know that you’ve got to love everything no matter how bad it is, in the ultimate sense it was neither good nor bad (consider the dust), it was just what was, that is, what was made to appear…”
In a sense, the religious elements (apart from his thinking on Buddhism) do not come across as overly religious, but more, dwellings on the human condition and a kind of philosophy to live by.
All in all, I loved the prose and the subjects the narrator managed to breach. I like the element of simplicity it puts at the forefront of the travel experience – in a way, telling us to try and appreciate the forces of nature and our surroundings. The sex and drugs didn’t do much for me, but this is never the focus. The images created make me envious as I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write in that way, but I nonetheless reveled in their ability to take me to another time and place.
However – it is hard to follow and reading Kerouac is never easy. I can’t give it five stars as I did feel drained by it in some places, and it was only towards the end that I felt any kind of connection to the text. Importantly, I just liked the ‘feel’ of the book, it made me want to pack up a rucksack and run (when COVID-19 is over of course) to see the world for what it really is. To strip back the complications and appreciate life for how it is meant to be lived.