The Road Trip Story: Kerouac is Not a Beginner

On the Road is a road trip story.

(Any objections?)

I’m sure the influence of this experimental novel, with its meandering structure, has been the bane of many a writing teacher’s existance. I’m basing this assumption on the fact that my writing teacher, David Keplinger, took the time during a class to discuss road trip stories and the dangers of them.

It boils down to this: very rarely do road trip stories have a point.

Keplinger talked about how the story often followed similar lines.
A.) troubled boy/girl begins adventure by leaving college/family/social structure behind
B.) troubled boy/girl has adventures with random people (promiscuous sex, drugs, car breaking down, some scene where people are stuck in the rain)
C.) troubled boy/girl has some epiphany that leads them to realize they’ve left their true love/future/hopes somewhere 
D.) troubled boy/girl manages to get to the home of true love/future/hopes and goes to knock at the door
E.) dramatic moment: troubled boy/girl knocks on door…and rest is left up to reader’s imagination

Keplinger’s argument was that the story started with the knock on the door. That’s where the conflict comes in. Sure, the story had some events and some really trying moments…but episodes and conflicts are not the same thing.

On the Road definitely is episodic. But Keplinger’s argument is intended for beginning writers who have all the subtlety of jackhammers. Beginning writers don’t understand what conflict is, don’t understand how to resolve it, and don’t know how to tell something in a scene.

Kerouac, when he wrote On the Road, was not a beginner. It’s clear in his prose alone and it becomes clearer when you see how he handles the novel as a whole. Episodic? Yes. But that is part of his point. The episodes, if you look at them, become the conflict itself.

Sal goes off on his own for trip. Sal and Dean go off on another trip. Sal and Dean go off on more trips. Trip, trip, trip. Episode, episode, episode. Readers get irritated; they go What Is The Point Of All This?

The point is just that: this is an exhausting lifestyle. This is an exhausting pace. Cars run out of gas. Wives get fed up. Eventually, Dean will go off on his own, leaving the lout, Sal, behind…which was Sal’s greatest fear in the opening of the book. In the scroll version of On the Road, Kerouac says that had he not been married, he would have gone with Dean again — but instead goes to a theatre show he doesn’t want to go to, with his wife. That shows a shift in Kerouac/Sal’s attitude…even if all he wants is to go with Neal/Dean and live that exhausting lifestyle.

Kerouac didn’t need a knock on the door to end the story. The road keeps going, but the story is done.

Stories like that are not for the faint of heart and they are not for beginners, like I was (and still am…) when Keplinger talked about what not to do.

Well, I say, if you want to write a road trip story — try it and see what happens. Just be aware that for a road trip story to work, the conflict, the real conflict has to be worked out on the road.

Lightning, the Lightning Bug, and the Price of Some of Kerouac’s Revisions

**Be forewarned, adult language/content**

Mark Twain once said something like (I don’t have the direct quote in front of me): “the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

Agree or disagree, Twain has a point. To illustrate, I give you two passages from On the Road — the 1957 version and the Original Scroll version.

In the following section of the book, Kerouac has just offered to stay overnight on an old boat. (Character names are different in each passage. For clarity purposes just realize that Remi=Henri and Lee Ann = Diane.) Note that the character of Lee Ann/Diane is naked and sunning herself on the boat deck. Kerouac’s character is looking at her from above, on the poop deck.

Here is the first one, from the 1957 version of On the Road:

     “Remi was astounded; his admiration for me doubled. ‘Sal, I’ll pay you five dollars if you have the nerve to do that. Don’t you realize this thing may be haunted by the ghosts of old sea captains? I’ll not only pay you five, I’ll row you out and pack you a lunch and lend you blankets and a candle.’
      ‘Agreed!’ I said. Remi ran to tell Lee Ann. I wanted to jump down from a mast and land right in her, but I kept my promise to Remi. I averted my eyes from her.”

Now, same passage in the Scroll version:

Henri was astounded; his admiration for me doubled. ‘Jack I’ll pay you five dollars if you have the nerve to do that. Don’t you realize this thing may be haunted by the ghosts of old seacaptains. I’ll not only pay you five I’ll row you out and pack you a lungh and lend you blankets and candle.’ ‘Agreed!’ I said. Henri ran to tell Diane. He was amazed at my courage. I wanted to jump down from a mast and land right in her cunt, but I was true to Henri’s promise. I averted my eyes.”

You’ll note some obvious differences: There are no paragraph breaks in the Scroll version. There are fewer commas in the Scroll version. Kerouac fixed the “I was true to Henri’s promise” — where it sounds like Henri made a promise instead of Jack, in the 1957 version. He also cut the scroll line about Henri being impressed by his courage in the 1957 version. (Probably so he didn’t sound quite so egotistical to the reader.)

Now I’m going to do something I never thought I would do, and defend the word “cunt.” (You have no idea how much I hate this word.)

‘Kay. So in the edited, 1957 version, Kerouac utilizes the phrase “in her” to illustrate the sexual desire he felt for the naked woman on the deck. Fine. It’s straightforward, still pretty offensive, and gets across the point that he is horny. Agreed? So, all in all, he has managed to convey what the original scroll conveys.

However, that’s also a phrase utilized in romance novels when the couples make love. In today’s terminology, it can have romantic undertones.

Cunt has no such ties. When Kerouac uses the word cunt, there is no romantic undertone, there is no respect, it is all about sex. And not just sex. Fucking. Yep, another strong word. Again, which cuts out the emotional attachment that some readers might want to put in. Now the reader understands that there are no romantic undertones, an underlying element of disrespect and objectifying the woman — so we understand something else basic about this dude’s character — as well as all the things that ‘in her’ accomplished: offensive and horny.

So…the nasty word in this case is more clear, more in tune with the character’s wants and desires, and is definitely, definitely more striking to the reader. Why not just slap the reader with a dead, wet fish to wake them up? It is effective.

Another thing changes with that one word: the tone. The 1957 excerpt almost feels Peter Pan-esque. The focus seems to stay on sea captains and ghosts and boys playing around. Even the ‘in her’ seems more like flying playfulness. Not so much in the scroll version. We are reminded that these are grown men who perform grown-up acts and can cause grown-up pain. It raises the stakes.

All of those things were edited out, and it still remains a classic. Yet, again citing my unscientific Goodreads reviewer survey — more readers gave more stars to the Scroll version. Could it be because the 1957 version had the ugly words, or ugly thoughts, which are very effective when used correctly, edited out of it? I think it’s a good indication.

Tuesday Post of Accountability!: Critique Week!

It’s Tuesday again! And every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

Stuff I have accomplished this past week:

1. Critiqued my writing group’s work in an experimental way.

There I was, reading one of my buddies submissions while peddling away on the stationary bike. (It’s hard to make marks that way.) — And no, that wasn’t the experiment. But it’s where I came up with the experiment. When I was done sweating away literally and figuratively, I go to my husband and say, “Spouse, how about we take one submission every night this week and take turns reading alternating pages aloud? Then we get to experience the stories in aural and oral fashion.” (Not as kinky as it sounds.)

Spouse says, “Sure. Why not.” Because he’s so agreeable.

And that’s what we did. As you can imagine, many interesting things came up.

First: Reading aloud does help in a couple ways. The most obvious is that typos and awkward sentences JUMP out and PUMMEL you. Especially if you’re silently going right along and your partner, who is reading aloud, stumbles. You didn’t stumble because your eye just glided right over the pothole in the road. Not so much when you hear it.

Second: It’s not all good, this experimental style. Since you are reading with a partner, the old law of observing changing the observed comes into play. I didn’t have as much of an opportunity to let the story sink in. I had a harder time with the overall critique, though I think the line critique got stronger. I don’t know if I have as many structural notes (don’t get me wrong, I still have the bigger notes) but I don’t know how detailed they are.

Third: Even though you don’t get to sink into the story, you are forced early on to articulate yourself. As you stare at a section while your critique partner waits, you have to explain why you’re making them wait. At first it comes out as “Wait a sec, something’s not right here.” Then you have to ponder. Then your partner ponders.

Then you say: “I have a problem with such and such motivation.”
Partner says: “Like, there is none?”
And you say: “No, not like that. But would the squirrel really run across the street like that? After watching his whole family go the same way?”
Partner says: “Have you never observed squirrel behavior?”

Then the conversation disintegrates from there–you use every piece of zoological information that you retain from 10th grade ecology classes, your partner counters with every time he’s ever driven a car…and you have to think further on your position. It can be rough going.

2. Not much else, really. I finished another bothersome chapter, but am pretty darn certain that I rushed it in a desperate need to get it done. In the Hero’s Journey, I believe that this chapter would be what is known as the Call to Action. Who knew calling would be such a pain in the tush? I think it has enough information to allow me to charge through to the next chapters easily enough…then I can go back and shift stuff around. MUST HAVE MORE MATERIAL my brain yells! Words, words, words!

3. Oh, I did do something else. I finished my first ever notebook from page one to page 160, a la Virginia Woolf! Didn’t feel like dating stuff. Didn’t feel like begging for forgiveness if I missed a day or sixteen. I wrote in it when I needed it. And I’m on to my second one. Being the same size and whatnot, I figure that I’ll be done with that one around December. Whoo-hoo!

All right guys, let’s hear your triumphs!

Kerouac, The Lotus Eaters, and Star Trek

Many academic articles have been written on Kerouac and the sense of place and time evoked in On the Road. I’m sure a great part of that reason is that place and time are very integral to the format of the book – so it makes a lot of sense. Even I noticed that place and time were super-important to how the story worked.

On that note, the note of place and time, there were two things that kept going through my head as I read the book: the myth of the lotus eaters and the most recent Star Trek movie.

Time like The Lotus Eaters

For those of you who don’t know the myth of the lotus eaters, I’ll give you the Percy Jackson-ish (also seen recently on the True Blood: Season 3 premiere, I might add) version: The lotus eaters seduced/encouraged/forced people to eat this flower. The victims ate and lost all sense of time. They descended into hedonism. Years went by in a matter of hours.

There are no fairy creatures forcing Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty to eat and be hedonistic – they do that all on their own – but, instead, the reader is the victim in this revelry. You pick up the book and are bombarded by the characters’ actions, which take years to go through, but the book reads like they’re moving from one day/one adventure to the other. According to Kerouac, he was on the road seven years. Almost an entire decade. And the book reads like just a few weeks…even though there are obvious passages demonstrating time has passed. Once you hit the road, you have devoured the lotus and all that exists is the road.

Place like Star Trek

There’s a line in the new Star Trek movie where Spock shows Scottie his own formula for warp teleportation. Scottie says that teleporting someone onto a space ship traveling at warp was like trying to hit a bullet with a smaller bullet blindfolded (or something along those lines). Spock shows the formula. Scottie says something like “Huh, it never occurred to me to think of space as the thing that was moving.”

That is what reading On the Road feels like.

Imagine a pencil. Imagine the pencil tip resting gently on an American map, at the dot representing New York. Now, try to trace a line from New York to San Francisco without moving the pencil. How do you do that? You move the map, right? The pencil stays in the same place, doing the same thing.

The pencil is the characters in On the Road. They don’t change. They party from one coast to the other.

The map is the road, moving along underneath them. They see the scenery change, they appreciate the shift, but they are still the pencil.

*

Now, this brings up a difficulty to me – both of these elements emphasize that the characters don’t change. This is problematic because, as we all learned in school, characters need to change to have a good story, right? If you go into Goodreads and look at the criticisms of this book, you’ll notice that there are a lot of one/two/three star reviews. The basic arguments are related to being bored, the characters behaving like jerks, etc. Basically, the criticism relates to the two elements noted above: place and time. The story doesn’t work like a normal story.

Well, I think the thing to take away is that Kerouac isn’t telling an everyday kind of story. It is more of a memoir and we never really know where we change in life until we come at it from experience. Kerouac wrote this book in the throes of living it, so the lack of perspective, or the change, isn’t really there.

However, I don’t think this is necessarily a flaw. It’s just a different way of writing. And not one that’s easy to pull off. In fact, I can’t think of another writer that I’ve read who writes like Kerouac, or who sees the way that he sees. I love my friends, but I don’t think I could present them in the loving way that Kerouac presents his friends, while still being honest about their flaws. I love America, but I don’t think that I could be as worshipful of the landscape without making some kind of cutting, Sarah Vowell-esque remark about the history of the places.

So, you see, I’m kind of torn. I recognize Kerouac as a skilled writer. I acknowledge the beauty of the language. I appreciate the biographical elements of his writing. But I struggle with defining On the Road as good story.
But then I wonder if the point of the story isn’t just: it is what it is.

Still thinking….

Last night, I read my little girl three books. The night before that, her father read her two. Every night my son reads whatever Star Wars/Jacob Wonderbar/space book he can get a hold of – and just Friday he was reading to us about mosquitoes. I can’t imagine what their lives would be like without books…

or their parents. 

Over at Tracy Edward Wymer’s blog, he has posted a story that captures my worst nightmare. A car crash taking the lives of two parents. Their six-year-old son, Trenton, was with his grandparents. I don’t know about you, but my husband and I have date nights. Our kids are left with grandparents. And it is conceivable that we might never come back from those date nights. Drunk drivers. Lousy weather. All kinds of day-to-day risks that can shatter a family.

To help ease that pain (which can never be erased) Tracy, who went to school with Trenton’s mother, has put out the word on OneBook for Trenton. Basically, pick out your favorite new or gently used books and send them to Trenton – and show that he is loved. I’m sending one (probably more) this next week.

Get the details on Tracy’s blog. And go hug your kids.

Adding Gravitas: Kerouac’s Word Choices

“Gravitas” is one of my husband’s million dollar words when he’s offering a critique. It’s a tricky word to digest when it’s thrown at you like: “This needs more gravitas.” He’s much more eloquent but, I mean, what can you do with that?

Generally I take it to mean that the stakes aren’t sufficiently high for my characters – but I’ve come to realize that this is not necessarily the case. Sometimes gravitas (gravity/weight/an anchor) isn’t in the story itself but in the way the story is told.

On the Road is a story with zero anchor, if you look at it. The characters flit from place to place in fast cars. There’s literally and figuratively no home-base. The characters ping around from place to place, leaving wives and children and parents. You can’t latch onto these characters. As Sal Paradise tells the reader when he gets to Old Bull Lee’s house: “Poor Bull came home in his Texas Chevy and found his house invaded by maniacs.” They are madmen. Druggies, cheaters, partiers, crazies. Trying to connect to these characters is very much like trying to nail down one of those bouncy balls you get out of the quarter machine. Ping ping ping! There goes the lamp.

So, with place and people unavailable for adding sufficient weight to a story, a writer has one refuge: language.

That’s how Kerouac centers his miscreants. He adds depth (a great deal of bullshit depth, truth be told) to their madness: “A tremendous thing happened when Dean met Carlo Marx. Two keen minds that they are, they took to each other at the drop of a hat…From that moment on, I saw very little of Dean and I was a little sorry too. Their energies met head-on. I was a lout compared, I couldn’t keep up with them. The whole mad swirl of everything that was to come began then; it would mix up all my friends and all I had left of my family in a big dust cloud over the American Night.”

This description of his two friends, who basically got together and talked ‘philosophy’ while drunk or high get some mythic heft from the way Kerouac describes them: ‘tremendous’ ‘keen’ ‘energetic’ ‘mad swirls’, he’s a ‘lout’ compared to them. Reading this, you feel like there are consequences to getting left behind – and a weird sense of admiration for those with greater faculties or abilities.

Plus, you’ve got that American Night. Capitalized. There’s not beating the sense of pride and participation in that kind of presentation. And there’s no sense of escape from the dust cloud that’ll cover them all. Reminiscent of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, shadows that still cover the whole country.

And all in a couple sentences describing two friends meeting. (Though, as an interesting side-note – Carlo Marx, a.k.a. Allen Ginsberg – had very little to do with the road trips.)

So, next time someone says that there’s not enough weight, or your characters seem flat, or there’s no meaning – instead of assuming it’s a plot point or a characterization (it still might be) see if it isn’t the way the words are working. Playing with the wording might just fix the issue.

Thursday Reviews! On the Road by Jack Kerouac (A Mentor Review!)

On the RoadOn the Road by Jack Kerouac

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having been on many, many, many road trips with my military family — I have to say that some of this story can be tedious. After all, spend enough time on the road, and you get dizzy with the monotony of the landscape. While there are those sections in this book, it is obvious that Kerouac’s reaction to the monotony of the road is the sheer joy of being on the road.

Kerouac’s observations are gorgeous, I really was swept away during the first part as he described eating apple pie in diners with almost no money in his pocket. I felt the wind as he sat in the back of truck stuffed with other men looking for work, trying to get home, or, like Kerouac, just enjoying the trip — with a few nips of some alcohol or another to keep warm. His real talent as a writer is putting the mythic beside the profane…elevating and degrading both elements at the same time, like with this passage on the first time he saw the Mississippi River: “And here for the first time in my life I saw my beloved Mississippi River, dry in the summer haze, low water, with its big rank smell that smells like the raw body of America itself because it washes it up.” (pg. 12)

Yeah, but while the descriptions of the road are lovely, nothing good happens whenever these boys stay still. Wives and children are left. Drugs are done. High-flown philosophizing that allows them to bow out of life occurs. Whenever the road ends — on one coast or the other — it’s not good. Friends and family get tired of draining freeloaders real fast. And part of the frustration of the ‘still moments’ (as I call them) is that Sal and Dean (representations of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady respectively) are oblivious to the emotional damage they inflict. Even when confronted by fed up wives/girlfriends/mothers directly, they don’t see what they’re doing.

It was a relief to me, as a reader, whenever they started moving again.

If you enjoy any of the following: fast cars, loose women, music, travel (and all the side roads that go along with it), America, your crazy uncle’s stories, alcohol, and if you like it all set to beautiful language…well, you’ll find something to like in this book.

View all my reviews