Saturday, December 22, 2012

Even More Books About Drinking, Fucking and Travelling (Special BEATNIK Edition)

So it seems like you don't hear too much about these guys anymore, but when I was in college they were the recommended reading list for every would-be bohemian hellraiser. (Although I'm sure far more copies of their books were bought than were actually read, and far more were read than were actually enjoyed.)

Basically I'm skeptical that anybody really gets "inspired" to do something by a book they read -- I think it's more along the lines of: you feel like doing something, find a book that talks about it, and then decide to do it, using the book as your justification.

So anyway, the BEATS certainly didn't set the bar too high in the hero department. The Big Three, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs were a pretty scabby bunch -- drunks and hard drug users, generally as confused about their sexuality as they were about their politics and philosophy, dependent on their parents well into adulthood, and opposed to even the most basic disciplines of writing like editing and proof-reading.

Never mind Albert Schweitzer or Winston Churchill! These were heroes that ANYBODY could be like! Hardly a wonder they became popular. Particularly in the stuffy 50s, and particularly with my generation, who were looking for some lazy shiftless eccentric heroes after the Reagan Years.

Jack Kerouac's ON THE ROAD, published in 1957, is the vaguely autobiographical tale of his aimless journeys around America with Neal Cassady. (Funny -- back in those days, people wrote about stuff that really happened and changed the names, these days people like James Frey and JT Leroy make stuff up and claim that it really happened.)

It was wildly popular, applauded as a tale of nonconformism and a search for meaning -- but really it's just kind of about a bunch of guys out fucking around and drinking and shit, going aimlessly between Denver, San Francisco and New York to hit some jazz clubs, hang out with equally shiftless friends, and hook up with babes, with interims of living with his mom (in Jack Kerouac's case) or pumping out illegitimate children with a couple of different women (in Neal Cassady's case.)

What it lacks in story and character arc it (generally) makes up for in energy and eccentric characters and incident, though, so you'll probably be able to finish it, at least.

It was written on one big roll of paper during an amphetamine binge, supposedly, although later it was actually edited a bit - given chapters and paragraphs and stuff -- but it still occasionally reads like a rambling speedfreak who won't shut up, and the run-on sentence is the norm rather than the exception in this book.

Kerouac's other books continue in this same vein -- they chronicle his journey into middle age, his increasing isolation and alcoholism, the relationship confusion arising from free love (everybody was fucking everybody, and their wife) and his disillusionment with his own line of BS and the media hype surrounding it. Occasionally there are some shallow dabblings in Eastern philosophy and religion -- as with most of life, the Beatniks kind of cherry-picked the easy, cool stuff and rejected hard stuff like chastity, sobriety, devout prayer, etc.

(Reading OFF THE ROAD, a book Neal Cassady's wife Carolyn wrote about those years, offers an interesting look at the same theme from the perspective of the wife and mother waiting at home for the drunks to arrive.)

Kerouac himself died rather a miserable broken-down drunk at age 47, espousing conservative views, on the outs with his friends, living with his third wife and his mother, not having dealt particularly well with fame.

Here he is shortly before his death:

Now Kerouac did make a few trips abroad -- he was in the Merchant Marine, and he wrote at least one story about a trip to Europe he didn't particularly enjoy -- but the guy who was very early to the party in the global "sexpat" and drugs scene was this innocuous-looking gentleman, William Burroughs:

Living on a stipend from his wealthy parents, he lived abroad quite a bit -- Weimar-era Central Europe and pre-war Berlin, Mexico City, Tangiers, Paris and London are just a few of the places he called home. Though he was married, his preference for "boys" in these places is well documented, and if some of the passages in his works are indications, he liked them pretty young, although I don't recall ages ever being specified. (I'm thinking he probably didn't mind too much what side of barely-legal he was dealing with.)

He's one author who it's generally more interesting to read about than to actually read -- the biography of him or his letters are generally very entertaining. When he wasn't banging local boys or using enormous amounts of drugs and alcohol, he was carelessly accidentally killing his wife or journeying through the jungle in search of mystical psychedelic drugs.

His actual books are a bit more of a hard slog. Also published in the late 50s, NAKED LUNCH is a hallucinatory drugged-out collection of characters, stories and descriptions, kind of arranged at random - calling it a novel is reaching a bit. Such nuggets of meaning as can be gleaned from it, though, often involve his expat existence in Mexico, Morocco and the hallucinated "Interzone" which always sounded to me a bit like Khao-San Road.

(Highlights from the David Cronenberg film version.)

JUNKIE is a nice hard-boiled story of drugs in mid-century New York; QUEER is a pretty straightforwardly-narrated story of a trip through South America with a purchased companion he was in unrequited love with. Other novels are quite literally, words pasted together at random, and you'd probably need a couple of syringes of morphine to appreciate them. He got paid for that! Good work if you can get it.

His creaky gallows voice and creepy old sardonic persona make him an interesting spoken-word artist, also. Amazingly, after such a debauched life, he died peacefully at home with his long-time companion at age 83. Heed his advice on life here:

"Beware of whores who say they don't want money," heh heh.

Now the third member of that triumverate was Allen Ginsberg, who as a poet, I will not deal with in great detail, other than to say that he went Burroughs one further in the pederast department, and became a card-carrying member of NAMBLA.

So! Pederasts, junkies, mamma's boys, layabouts, careless firearm users, they also made evading responsibilities and undisciplined, sloppy, random, unedited writing and poetry acceptable for generations to follow. Let's raise our glasses to THE BEATS!


David S. Wills said...

This was a pretty good article. As an ESL teacher and a bit of a Beat fan myself, I enjoyed it.

However, as for the pederast thing... When Ginsberg and Burroughs used the word "boys", they did so as many men today do "girls". It doesn't mean underage - it means young. Burroughs' predilection for "boys" was in the age range 17-21. That might be a tad young for a middle- or old-aged man, but there we go. Not as bad as what most people think.

Ginsberg? He joined NAMBLA to prove that even sickos deserve human rights. Then he quit a few days later, disgusted at what he'd seen. I guess he realized that... well... fuck NAMBLA.

Captcha: "raper"

English Teacher X said...

One disturbing thing on Wikipedia about William Burroughs son,_Jr.

He went to live with his father in Tangiers at age 13 and had to evade "several episodes of grown men attempting to rape him."

I haven't read William Burrough's JRs autobiographical novels, perhaps the issue is described in more detail there.

I tend to doubt that they were checking IDs there in Tangiers during the fifties ...

Dave in Seattle said...

I remember reading some letters from Burroughs Jr. to Sr. Pretty damn funny in a tragic way. With a dad like William Burroughs Sr. you were pretty much screwed from the start.He died at a relatively young age, from suicide or OD? I don't remember.

He eviscerated his dad's writings, calling them worthless, pretentiousness ramblings of a fucked up junky who ruined my life (to paraphrase.) Then he corrects himself and explains that "Naked Lunch" was actually decent literature, everything else was shite and once again fuck you dad for ruining my life. Something along those lines.

Anonymous said...

Objectively, I find Jack Kerouac's On the Road to be wildly over-rated and flat. I think that its fame derives from the broader then-commie idealization of the values that his lifestyle communicated. He was the quintessential beat, but his writing sucked (gee, a drug addled nomadic existence that informed Kerouac that writing and editing on toilet paper was a good idea didn't produce great writing -the shock).

In days past, I had attempted to get started on some of the other books that you mentioned, but generally found them to be of similar quality, and so my previous Kerouac experience didn't let me continue. When the writing is actually okay, the subject matter remains too self-aware and narcissistic to be enjoyable or truly interesting. Bukowski is far more authentic. I recommend "Women" as a start, although you will find it best read over-time as it is a series of repetivive vignettes. However, you will appreciate its autheniticity and success at communicating much of what men-who-have-dated-a-lot go through with women. No-one has really painted a more authentic picture than he has in this book. It's a must read for you, personally, ETX.

English Teacher X said...

Heh, you're going to get full entry about Bukowski one of these days entitled, "My Biggest Influences."

As regards the Beats, we can also add "lousy parents" to their resumes, Jan Kerouac didn't get much parental guidance either.

Anonymous said...

With the release of the On the Road movie after more than 30 years since it was originally green-lighted, the beats are very much still in the news.

Good summary though. Gregory Corso is another beat not to be overlooked.

Will look forward to the Bukowski write up and assume one on Hunter T. is not far behind.

David S. Wills said...

Billy Jnr didn't actually die of the overdose, but rather a prolonged suicide of booze. He just drank himself to death quite deliberately. In fact, he was one of the first people to get a new liver, even though he didn't want it. I believe his dad made the choice when he was in a coma.

The Tangier incident was pretty significant. Burroughs wanted to get closer to his son, so he had him come to Tangier and introduced him to weed and so forth. It was pretty much the final nail in the coffin of their relationship, though. Burroughs was never father material. He tried hard but was a total failure, which mirrored his relationship with his own father.

English Teacher X said...

Accidentally shooting your mom in the head is not really the making of a good father-son bond, I'd say.

David S. Wills said...

I suppose you're right. At the very least it's a step in the wrong direction. Coupled with living thousands of miles away in a heroin stupor... Well, it's hardly Disney material.