Kerouac in Rocky Mount, N.C. cont’d

May 29, 2008

In the photo above, you can see the back of the house on West Mount Drive in Rocky Mount, N.C. where Jack Kerouac spent several months in early 1956.

He lived there with his sister, Caroline, or Nin, and her husband, Paul Blake.

It’s only through the dedication of John J Dorfner of Raleigh, N.C., that we know about this house. In the early 1980s, after moving to the state with his wife, he became obsessed with knowing more about Kerouac’s time in Rocky Mount.

Understand, nowhere did any biographer mention the possible location of the house. That’s why when I made a similar search about the same time, I came up empty handed.

I was working at my first newspaper job in 1986 and heard from another writer that Kerouac had spent time in Rocky Mount. I figured it was a rumor really, and thought little of it. Then, I read a column by another reporter, Cindy Trew, who wrote about tracking down the house in “Big Easonburg Woods.” I was very touched by her column; she was a fine writer.

So I trekked to Braswell Memorial Library, looked through the North Carolina collection. Nothing. I drove around in Little Easonburg, which is just west of town on Sunset Avenue. Nothing.

Then in the late 1990s, curious again, I went to Braswell Library.

By this time, Mr. Dorfner had published his slim, but dense, volume, Kerouac: Visions of Rocky Mount.

There were photos inside and I drove along West Mount Drive until I found the house. It is pictured above.

AHEAD: How John Dorfner found the Blake-Kerouac House and saved it from obscurity, for now, at least

Kerouac in Rocky Mount, N.C.

May 28, 2008

The day is flying … finally back in the office after appointments all morning, with another appointment coming up shortly.

Today once I sit still I’ll be wrapping up some articles describing my visit to see “The Mythical Scroll,” Jack Kerouac’s 120-foot long manuscript for “On the Road” which was on view at the New York Public Library.

The scroll is now on view in Austin, Texas, which is currently hosting another remarkable exhbit. The scroll will be on view in Austin through June 1.

I had a delightful conversation with John Dorfner yesterday, the writer who actually tracked down the West Mount home where Kerouac stayed with his sister Nin and her husband, Paul, for some time in the 1950s.

More on that conversation tomorrow.

The R Word

May 27, 2008

Welcome back after what I hope was a wonderful long weekend. I was at my desk yesterday, wrapping up a feature column about seeing Jack Kerouac’s 120 foot-long manuscript at the New York Public Library earlier this year. That seems like forever ago.

It’s nearly impossible to say anything about Kerouac that doesn’t sound overdone or obvious. Yet, “fools rush in ….”

I am also working on a sidebar that will explore the status … and future … of the Blake-Kerouac House in Rocky Mount, N.C., the home on West Mount drive where Kerouac stayed for a time in 1956.

It’s probably no surprise the recession has reached its claws into this isolated writer’s life. I had saved up enough money to work on the novel for a few months and most of it has trickled out to pay for heat last winter, car repairs, vet bills, food for the critters. Did I say gas?

Who knows what the future holds. I’ll keep going as I always do, and the money will have to take care of itself. We’ll tighten our belts around here for a while and get through it.

Still, a recession provides great tranquility and a slowdown means I can focus more fully on the novel. I have several short stories brewing and plans to publish them at a local printers under my own Permanent Press imprint.

Figuratively Speaking

May 23, 2008

It’s Friday, and time for Figuratively Speaking.

Today, it’s One Fell Swoop.

I’ve often wondered exactly what this phrase really means, how it was first used and how it originated.

So let’s start by taking it apart.

SWOOP. An intransitive verb! How wonderful. Swoop means to move rapidly downward through the air, as in, I saw the owl swoop to capture the mouse in the dark.

Swoop also means to carry out a sudden attack: Investigators will swoop on the home before arresting him.

Swoop can also be transitive: She swooped the kitten up into her arms.

Now here is where it really gets interesting …

FELL. We know fell as the past tense of fall, but it also means, in a transitive sense, to cut down, as in fell a tree.

There is another, poetic meaning, that means of terrible evil or ferocity.

Which takes us to One Fell Swoop, which means all at one time, as in, We took the garbage out of the house in one fell swoop.

Now, guess the origin of this marvelous phrase?

Yes, we can thank the Bard for this one … One Fell Swoop first appeared in Macbeth, when Macduff says,

He has no children.—All my pretty ones?

Did you say all?—O hell-kite!—All?

What, all my pretty chickens, and their dam,

At one fell swoop?

Leave it to William Shakespeare to find the sparkling new use for the same old words.By the way, fell in the sense of terrible comes from the French word felon, which means a wicked person, much as it does today.

Writing: A lost art?

May 22, 2008

The plot is a road trip, the characters are ordinary folks looking to have some fun. In the end, it’s the quality of the prose that makes “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac such an extraordinary novel.

I read “On the Road” again recently with adult eyes. I mourned a little inside, I must say, reading through paragraph after paragraph of wild narrative. When have I read anything like that lately? When have I written anything like that? Not in a long time for either.

This novel is a large, hairy, flaming ball that roars past. The writing is out of control. Absent are the carefully crafted phrases that pass for writing these days … it seems all writers today are so worried about the critique they’re afraid to say anything at all.

I’ve never studied so-called creative writing but understand that it’s taught through “workshops” in which students sit around in a table and along with the instructor criticize each other’s work. It sounds horrid … a process for institutionalizing mediocrity.

Of course the entire writing apparatus is at fault here. Truly groundbreaking was work done by brave writers, especially those working early in the 20th century… who did literature before it was considered a career.

Now an academic machine exists to try to reproduce those glory days of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Wolfe. The publishers, meanwhile, want page-turners, gossip and trash.

As I spend more time with writing and writers, I come to appreciate Hunter Thompson and Bukowski, Artaud and Rimbaud, more than ever … they had guts.

But, I digress.

Kerouac’s “On the Road” is written with energy and a pace that exhausts. Yet, there is a musicality to it, each phrase winds like a jazz improvisation … those are Kerouac’s ideas, not mine.

Indeed, there are passages in the book when he captures jazz performances in an uncluttered, authentic way … unstudied sketches that would be impossible today, when everyone is tripping over their own feet trying to be “artful.”

For these many gifts, “On the Road” is a precious book … for readers, for writers and for a long time.

TOMORROW: Figuratively Speaking Friday

Moving targets

May 21, 2008

Now that we’ve looked at plot in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, we can turn to the people of this groundbreaking novel.

Even before we meet our narrator, Sal Paradise, we meet Dean Moriarty. This character drives so much of On the Road at times it’s hard to get away from him.

Dean is reckless with energy and ideas, a guy who pushes everyone out of their comfortable decisions and takes them into events and actions they’d never agree to otherwise.

We know Deans in our own life … and Thank God for them! I’ve had Deans sprinkled throughout my life; in college they gave me political petitions to take door-to-door and weren’t afraid to loudly criticize capitalism and its greedy fallout. They drank too much, danced too wildly, spoke truth to power. They showed me that the borders of the world are not firm. We set them, ourselves, by our own daring.

Sal Paradise is our narrator. He is immensely likable as he plods through his life, looking for hope and good times, always lonely, never connecting fully with others.

Kerouac’s Sal helped to establish the idea of a dispassionate narrator. We see this kind of narrator in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. These narrators are never really involved in the action around them, nor do they judge or comment. They simply see what’s happening and tell us.

At the same time, Sal in this novel develops his own verve for the road and after meeting Dean, sets out to hitchhike across the country.

At one point, he spends several months with a Mexican woman who’s a migrant worker; he falls in love with her on a bus when she looks at him. This are some of the most meaningful moments in the novel, because they illustrate the great longing inside the book’s bravado.

There are so many others … Carlo Marx, Old Bull Lee, Marylou and the girlfriends.

We can’t forget, either, that Kerouac based these folks on his own experiences with Allen Ginsberg (Carlo), William Burroughs (Old Bull) and Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty).

For me, that’s less important than the quality and achievement of the book.

AHEAD: Why the “Road” prose moves

Road: Plot, or not?

May 20, 2008

Time to turn again to our work at hand, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

It’s always useful to start with a little about plot. Though I’m not a big fan of plot as all-consuming the way best-sellers do it, plot tells us a lot about a work and why it matters.

On the Road goes something like this:

Restless young man just divorced from his wife meets a California guy with boundless ideas and energy. Restless man feels inspired by California guy and finds that spending time with him enables him to shed his inner hung-up-ness.

Restless man takes several fast car trips with California guy and discovers some confidence in his own wandering ideal. A sense of nobility in the suffering and accomplishments of the road. Restless young man takes off on his own and hitch-hikes across the country, meeting many interesting people and enjoying some crazy parties. Sex occurs.

So what’s the big deal about this plot?

First of all, let’s consider where the novel was in 1957. Our books were great romances, a la Tolstoy and Bronte, or novels of great families, a la Balzac and Austin, or of great people, a la Dostoevsky and Twain, or of tragedies a la Hawthorne and Hemingway.

Detective stories were taking off and spawning pulp novels about bad people in bad situations.

Here comes Kerouac writing about people who are neither in love nor in a family; who don’t pretend to be noble or dignified; who are roaming around looking for girls and parties. These are individuals without homes or even hometowns, whose parents are absent, dead or bums.

They are rootless and forming their own values and society in a chaotic, post-war world.

AHEAD: Who are the people of On the Road?

Spring Monday

May 19, 2008

A sunny morning in Fiction Daily-Land, and what a weekend it was.

Saturday morning I knew something was up with the bluebird babies … they were restless all week and I imagined it was time to fledge.

Mama Bluebird fed them in the box that morning, but by mid-day, she was no longer visiting the box … she was taking worms to the highest tops of the nearby pine trees.

By the afternoon, I felt confident enough they were gone and when I opened the box, there was the next. It looked like a fraternity house after a party!! My mama bird this year was different than in years past and she wasn’t very much of a housekeeper.

The good news is that there were no bodies left in the nest, so all four must have made it out.

Bluebirds are remarkable … they emerge from their nest fully formed so to speak, able to fly to the tops of trees. In years past, the parents have taken their younglings down the street, but this year, they’re staying close to home. I am still feeding them meal worms … I hope they’re able to support themselves soon … between the dogs, cats and birds, I feel like telling the world, “Get a job, y’all!!”

Another note before starting the literary week … a friend and neighbor who’s almost 8 years old came over yesterday to help me with yard work. What fun we had!! If you’ve never gardened with an 8-year-old, you must do it at least once.

I learned all about roly-poly bugs … they have quite complex societies, according to her. There are the babies, who are the size of “three specks.” Then there are the senior citizens, who, she told me, “walk three steps then take a nap, walk three steps and take a nap.”

Tomorrow we’ll be back On the Road.

Figuratively Speaking

May 16, 2008

Now where were we … ah yes, language winners and losers.

LOSERS: Challenge. My field is marketing and feature writing, so guilty as charged! I sometimes use this word when I mean problem, failure, disaster, or shortcoming. We writers wish we could tell the truth but we must face the challenge every day of keeping the shine on the apple.

Talking. For some reason, everyone thinks it’s hip and cool to “talk” things. We don’t talk about them anymore. It comes from the expression “talk turkey,” which means to talk about something straightforwardly or frankly.

The expression has been appropriated and overused. I continually read headlines screaming, “Police talk crime at forum,” “Businesses talk economic recovery at luncheon.” It makes me want to talk sense into them!

Enough losers …let’s look at some winners.

WINNERS: I’d like to start with a line from the 1990s TV series Northern Exposure. I know, here I’m talking about TV again, but this line humbled me as a writer: “It was as if someone took all the starch out of him.” What an image! I wish I had written it.

Bellwether. An indicator, from the bell worn by the lead male sheep, the wether. The bickering between presidential candidates is a bellwether of a tough election season ahead.

Bailiwick. A favorite, though you have to be careful when you use this one or people may think you’re being inappropriate … it means area of jurisdiction … or area of interest. I’m fairly good at writing, but math is outside my bailiwick.

ON A DIFFERENT NOTE: I read that a full revision of the Oxford English Dictionary is under way, to be completed by 2037. It’s not clear whether this version will ever appear in printed form. Heartbreak!!

On the Road Part 2

May 15, 2008

In the late 1940s, when the world was recovering from the Second World War, waves of young men came home with their perspectives forever changed by what they’d seen of loss, evil and chaos.

Many of them had also seen the larger world beyond…and their borders shifted outward.

Jack Kerouac did not serve in the war, but he served in the Merchant Marines and on ships; he also worked on the railroad.

These days in our country showed us moving gradually from subsistence days to times when we could think beyond our families and farms. The Great Depression was a close event that tossed a lot of core values aside. A sense of rootlessness set in for some. Greenwich Village and New York City became a hub of new ideas.

Kerouac himself was something of a machine in terms of facts, ideas and memory. Indeed, Gerald Nicosia’s biography of him is titled “Memory Babe,” and he called himself “the Great Rememberer.”

Now these memory feats offer a sound basis for understanding the kind of mind we’re dealing with in “On the Road.” Kerouac created baseball leagues in his mind that played games and even a world series; he had stats and data on all nine teams.

So when we consider “On the Road” as a work in progress for several years, we can see it was a work he may very well have held in his mind, intact, for a long time. Word by word.

When he sat down at the typewriter in spring 1951 and completed the scroll of “On the Road,” it was a unique moment in literature: It was a performance.

The novel that resulted represents a clear glimpse at creation in its immediacy. Few authors have done anything like this — except perhaps the French poet Rimbaud, who wrote as he experienced the mental storms that gave us “A Season in Hell.”

These are moments of spark and genius.

AHEAD: Enough introduction already … Just what is the book about, anyway?