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Sunday, September 29, 2013

"Kerouac and the Beat Generation", Friends & Lovers

Kerouac and the Beat Generation (Kerouac et la Beat Generation. Une enquête, French original title)- Jean-François Duval

Who would have guessed? Don't want to sound pedantic, but I have devoted a very remarkable amount of my time reading about the beat generation, so, being honest, when I received "Kerouac and the Beat Generation" (a birthday gift) I thought it was going to be a waste of time. How wrong I was.

Jean-François Duval looks to me like the quintessential beat obsessed, but he is wise enough to use his vast knowledge on the subject to look for something else. He doesn't aim to build yet another chronicle of the times and lives of the Beats, but instead, find the surviving "starrings" of these era and let them speak, allowing them to explain, to unveil a vivid picture of the Beats, as revealing as refreshing.

Shifting the focus from the investigator/author to the opinions of the people interviewed makes "Kerouac" a lightweight and engaging read. But that doesn't make the book "simple". On the contrary, different personalities result on a very complete, multi-directional, look to the Beats. In particular on his most famous member: Jack Kerouac. The six personalities interviewed can be divided into two categories. First, the survivors: close friend and pivotal member of the movement (although it is dubious there was one) Allen Ginsberg, plus Carolyn Cassady, Neal Cassady's wife, and Joyce Johnson, both once Kerouac lovers. And second the "next generation beats", counterculture propelled by the first beats, like poet Anne Waldman, LSD guru-icon Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, writer and Merry Prankster leader, arguably the one who tried to make "On the Road" a larger-than-life experience outside Kerouac's pages (and with too many drugs involved). Duval has read it all, so he knows what the questions must be, but that means he knows (we know) the real story? The answer is not really.

For a confessed fan like myself, it was puzzling to realise we have been living with the myth, the image portrayed by the books and the impact-influence of their literature, as well as the supposed aesthetics-attitudes related to it, believing that was the truth. Well, that's the constructed truth, half the truth if you prefer. Jack Kerouac slowly killed himself because he couldn't get along with his myth. Cassady, in the words of his wife, was a guy struck between his father-husband obligations and his will to explore the world. Kesey and Leary wanted to go "Further" not because they were experimenting with drugs, but because they were convinced life as we know it is not all it should be. In a way, America needed the Beats to offer a definition of the changes the country was going through, building a generation from very different personalities, literary ambitions and attitudes... I can go on, but I don't want to spoil "Kerouac", a book that, needless to say, is incredibly absorbing, and also one that I'm sure will stimulate more reads.

My only complaint about the book? Longer, I wish it had been much much longer!

SCORE: 9/10

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