Thursday, October 04, 2007

Hey Jack Kerouac, I Think of Dr. Seuss...

I apologize for mangling a Natalie Merchant lyric for my own devices, but it's what came to mind after reading David Brooks' very funny social commentary in his recent New York Times column. Perhaps if I pondered longer about his column, I'd find a better title for this particular entry, but in a convoluted way it helps characterize the point I'm trying to make (and what else is a good headline to do?).

Brooks discusses Sal Paradise, the main character of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and points to a literary debate that apparently is broiling in the English departments of America's Ivory Towers: Is the book about youth's frenzied search for affirmation or is it about loss. Of course, to a liberal arts major like myself, the answer is easy: I can say without a whiff of irony that it's both -- and probably more.

But Brooks took a much more interesting approach to the issue. He argues that all cultural artifacts -- and at a half century, On the Road is certainly a dusty artifact in my opinion -- have to be interpreted through whatever experiences the Baby Boomer generation is going through at that moment.

How typical of a Boomer to say that. I'm no Boomer, thank you, but I can still chuckle at this line:
“On the Road” is the book you want to read if you find Sylvia Plath too upbeat.

Though, I'll admit I laughed out loud when he wrote:
In 20 years, "The Cat in the Hat" will be read as a commentary on unreliable home health care workers.

Still, I was struck at how true his words rang in my head when he noted that the real secret of the book was its discharge of youthful energy -- "the stupid, reckless energy that saves On the Road from being a dreadful novel. The delightful, moronic, unreflective fizz appears whenever the characters are happiest, when they are chasing girls or urinating from a swerving flatbed truck while going 70 miles an hour."

I can relate to that, and I think I can draw from that in my own work. (After all, I come from a generation balanced between everything being about Me and 'greed being good.') But I wouldn't cast all Boomers with the same brush strokes. Technically, the Baby Boom lasted until 1964 or '65. But I think there's a major difference between those kids who came of age during the Summer of Love and those who learned about life after waiting in line to get into Studio 54.

Kerouac wrote about the thrill and fearfulness of being a teenager. Even teenagers with the blues may be guilty of pissing off the backs of moving vehicles. Put into a good literary context, that can be powerful stuff. I don't think being reminded of that will be enough for me to wipe dust off my Kerouac, but if I write a little better now because of it, I'll tip my glass to the ol' drunk and take another sip from the sweet nectars of the Knowledge Tree.

1 comment:

Matt Sinclair said...

Yes, even liberals liked Brooks' column!