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The Weekly Blague

I Wanted to Be Kerouac

Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) in On the Road. Courtesy IFC Films.

We saw On the Road last night, the faithful adaptation of Jack Kerouac's blockbusting 1957 novel/memoir. The film, starring Sam Riley as Sal Paradise/Kerouac and Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady was flawed, no question about it. Neither Riley nor Hedlund seemed to have what it takes to fully embody these two mythical characters who are credited with having launched the Beat Generation. But their acting was good enough, and I enjoyed the movie, mostly because it communicated a realistic sense of place and time--America in the late 1940s--and of Kerouac's struggle to become a writer.

Some interviewers have asked me about my influences as a writer, and I usually tell them Hunter Thompson, Henry Miller, and Philip Roth, a "holy trinity" who have profoundly influenced my writing style. But I tend not to mention Kerouac, even though, as readers of Beaver Street know, my nom de porn was Bobby Paradise, a name I chose as a tribute to Kerouac because I saw myself as kind of an X-rated Sal Paradise. Which is to say, the influence Kerouac had upon me was more lifestyle than writing style: When I discovered On the Road in the summer of 1970, I wanted to be Kerouac, and soon embarked on a hitchhiking odyssey that went on for seven years and took me through eastern Canada, Western Europe, all over the USA, and that I employed to get around Brooklyn because it was easier to hitch a ride than it was to wait for a bus or train.

And then there was the scroll, a Kerouacian method I embraced in the heat of transcribing John Lennon’s diaries. Aware that this was going to be a life-changing experience, I wanted to get it all down in my own diaries as I’d never done before. Using an IBM Selectric and a box of teletype paper, I pounded out thousands of words per day for over a year, an endless stream of single-spaced consciousness, some of which a guitarist I was friendly with at the time set to music: Before Lennon seeped into my brain, I wanted to be Kerouac…

Which is why watching On the Road last night set off a nostalgic Kerouacian reverie. We listened to Aztec Two-Step performing The Persecution and Restoration of Dean Moriarty, and I dug out my copy of Allen Ginsberg’s (Carlo Marx in the book and film) The Fall of America, and read from the section titled “Eligies for Neal Cassady 1968.” Ginsberg wrote:

Are you reincarnate? Can ya hear me talkin?/If anyone had the strength to hear the invisible,/And drive thru Maya Wall/you had it —

I wanted to be Neal, too, but that was too dangerous.

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