THEY say that nothing succeeds like success, but there is one thing that can beat it, at least in arts and entertainment: success followed by self-annihilation. Thus it's slightly surprising that the mass-market rediscovery of Jack Kerouac has taken so long. It's been nearly forty years since the publication of On the Road (1957) hurtled him into instant international fame—household-word fame that he couldn't handle and gradually lost, but not before it cost him his dearest friendships, the fulfillment of his artistic promise, and most of his personal freedom in the twelve years remaining until his alcoholic death, in 1969.
Surprising, but not entirely so. At marketing meetings Kerouac is no doubt pitched as "the James Dean of American Lit.," but the real man and his work don't fit that image, any more than he fit the marketing label "King of the Beats" in the 1950s. His writing—quirky and digressive and not always easy to read, sometimes nearly impenetrable—is more of an acquired taste than publicists might wish. As to the man, he was a handsome guy who took a good photo, but he was not the charismatic figure of his legend; by all accounts he was shy, even insecure, possessed little personal glamour, and wasn't as adventurous as most of his friends. He portrayed himself honestly in his books, even in the most-often-quoted passage in all of his work—the point in On the Road when Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) meets Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg):
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. Two piercing eyes glanced into two piercing eyes—the holy con-man with the shining mind, and the sorrowful poetic con-man with the dark mind that is Carlo Marx. 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.... They rushed down the street together, digging everything in the early way they had, which later became so much sadder and perceptive and blank. But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.....
Those phrases describing "the only people for me" are almost always quoted out of context. In context, one is most struck by the narrator's self-deprecation and alienation, the outsider's yearning, the fact that Kerouac never felt himself to be one of those fantastic beings he admired so deeply. Those who find out about the people who burn, burn, burn from a T-shirt inscription don't know that Sal Paradise (the character based on Kerouac) "shambled" after the "mad ones" who interested him—"a lout compared" who couldn't keep up.