Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Howl!

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness ..." says Allan Ginsberg in his poem Howl. But I think that the mind of one particular acquaintance was already quite screwed up before he met Ginsberg. That would be Neal Cassady -- who seemed to be (for no reason that I can determine) the person about who all the other Beats revolved. Cassady didn't do anything -- well, not much beyond drinking, whoring, stealing and brawling -- while all those around him were writing and making a more permanent mark. (Citing my sources here: Wikipedia.)

And frankly, I would have no interest whatsoever in Neal Cassady and Allan Ginsberg were it not that my current listening assignment is Jack Kerouac's On the Road (that's where the howl comes from -- it was my plaintive cry of Nooooooo when I learned that I was going to have to listen to it). On the Road is told from the view of Sal Paradise (Kerouac) and features his four cross-country road trips traveling with or seeking out one magnetic figure: Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) in the late 1940s.

Let me tell you: I was dreading this. Eleven hours of self-indulgent stream-of-consciousness boys-will-be-boys listening. I did not go into this with much of an open mind.

I'm now about two-thirds through, and I have to say that the journey has grown on me. The episodes all have a tendency to blur together -- did Sal dally with the "Mexican girl" on his first trip, or the second? Did they go via New Orleans on the second trip or the third? Why are we in Denver, again? But -- in this story -- the journey is everything, it doesn't really matter what happens along the way.

The narrator is Will Patton, who I think I've seen in a movie, somewhere ... ah, yes, Desperately Seeking Susan! Gosh, that takes me back! (He also narrated one of my favorite books: When Zachary Beaver Came to Town.) Anyway, he's doing yeoman's work here: He must have had to read through the book first to figure out when to take a pause because he's paced himself very well: Some of the sentences/phrases/thoughts can go on and on. He's interpreting Sal as awfully boyish, but he's created Dean as a total ADD, crazy, impulsive id with a growly manic delivery. Women (or girls, as Kerouac refers to them) are all kind of soft-spoken and wimpy ... but you could certainly argue that that's how the author views them. It's a good performance.

But, despite how history has shaped this book into a representing a generation of disaffected young adults (and here I do mean adults that are young -- 20-somethings), I can't see this title being of much interest to 21st century teens. Sal and Dean are searching for something ... most certainly (well Sal is, I'm not so sure that Dean wants to do much more than feed his impulses), which could resonate with teens, but their lives and concerns seem those of adults. The book also feels dated to me, and its approach to women and minorities would offend many (myself included).

I am fascinated about one thing that Sal mentions over and over again: the Travel Bureau. According to a biography of Kerouac in Google Books, this was a place where you could go and get paid to drive someone's car to a specific destination. Evidently, you could also hang out to be a passenger in one of these cars. This set up happens frequently in On the Road, with Dean doing most of the driving. And with the way Dean drives, it's a wonder any of them survived their 20s.

I'm not going to nominate this, but I'm not resentful of the time this book is taking away from the other titles I want to get through. After I finish this, I figure I've got two more books on CD I can finish before our nomination deadline of December 1, plus two more books on cassette (after the one I'll finish one tonight, I think).

Oh, and why quote Allan Ginsberg? He makes several appearances in On the Road, as the poet Carlo Marx.

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