You’d think the time of your life to read and appreciate On the Road would be in your 20s, since it’s a young man’s tale. I picked it up then, early in my 20s, not long after reading The Sun Also Rises for the first time, but I didn’t stick with it. I tried again some years later, in my 30s, but that didn’t go either.
Late last week I put a copy of it in my bag, and now I’m about half way through. I’m hooked this time. Maybe it’s good that I’ve put some chronological distance between myself and that book, so laden with times and places I did not witness. Or maybe I had to wait for the invention of the Internet to fully apprehend the multitude of ripples the book caused. If words are spigots for Google, “Kerouac” and “Beat Generation” and “Kerouac Traveler” and “Kerouac Essence Jack” gush forth pages and images and links and more pages on his books, his life, a half-dozen minor Beat figures, all the other major ones, the 1950s, the quarrel over Kerouac’s estate, City Lights, the Beat Museum (SF), the Beat Museum on Wheels, Lowell, Mass., and on and on: an endless tank of information inspired by a fellow who drank himself to death decades ago, but left behind books.
I typed in “Kerouac Essence Jack,” because the last time I spent much time thinking about him was when I saw a one-man play called Kerouac: The Essence of Jack, at a small theater in Chicago shortly after I moved to the city in 1987, starring Vincent Balestri, who was superb. The Internet also tells me that Balestri has reprised the role, sort of, in a movie called Beat Angel, an independent now making the film-festival rounds.
After he did his one-man show, Balestri stepped out of Kerouac’s character for a discussion with the audience, and one thing he said struck me as particularly funny. “Not everybody understands the concept of this show,” he noted, smiling at the thought of it. “Not long ago, during the discussion after the show like we’re having now, one guy told me I should seek therapy for my problem with alcohol.”