Jack Kerouac's Favorite Book
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September 18, 1957, Vol. II, No. 47
Back to the Village
By Jerry Tallmer
Jack Kerouac, the Greenwich Village writer who (with Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso), had to go to San Francisco to become a San Francisco writer and get famous, sat in Goody's Bar, off 10th Street, the other night, in a battered royal-blue polo shirt, his white T-shirt showing beneath, the bright red top of a cigarette package projecting from the pocket on his chest, his strong arms reaching perpetually for the bottle of Schlitz before him on the table, his dark rakish face and glistening black hair more handsome than Cary Grant's or Wally Reid's. "Man," he said, "I can't make it. I'm cutting out."
He was talking about the whirl of TV and radio and cocktail parties they've had him in, the Viking people, ever since he returned from Europe and Tangiers just a few days ago. He was talking about the publicity, the success, the rave reviews, the terrifying half-hour with Wingate on "Nightbeat," the girls, the bars, the lion-hunters, the whole bit.
"Some day," he said, "if I can write it. If anyone could write it. They have a little girl there, sitting by you, while you wait to go on the TV."
"Just to keep you happy?"
"Just to keep you happy. One of those cute little uptown chicks. If I could write it..." He muzzily flagged the waitress for another beer and told how he and Wingate had gone out on the town after the show. The show itself had come as quite a shock to many of his friends and the general public. Kerouac had clammed up almost totally, giving terse, non-communicative answers and looking like nothing so much as a scared rabbit. One of the few young authors of (inversely) the Big Yes, he had sat there like a stump, saying no.
"What was it, were you scared?"
"Yeah, man, plenty scared. One of my friends told me don't say anything, nothing that'll get you in trouble. So I just kept saying no, like a kid dragged in by a cop. That's the way I thought of it -- a kid dragged up before the cops."
The conversation switched to poetry readings. Could Kerouac go on stage to read some of the San Francisco poetry, his own and Corso's and Ginsberg's? "No, not me. I can't go that. I get stage-fright. Wait till Allen comes back -- he's great. He loves that."
To what did Kerouac attribute his sudden recognition on the West Coast, after years of the opposite here in the East: "One thing," he said. "Rexroth. A great man. A great critic. Interested in young people, interested in everything." But presently, when the subject had drifted to jazz -- its decline and fall this past half-decade -- Kerouac talked of a California jazz concert which Kenneth Rexroth hadn't dug at all. "What a square!" Kerouac cheerfully hooted. "What a square!" And then it emerged that, some time since, Rexroth had kicked Kerouac out of his house as an objectionable loafer -- just to be an artist, he had said, wasn't enough. As Kerouac recalled the incident he seemed to derive great pleasure from it, and to hold no slightest grudge against his mentor.
About "On the Road," the novel now making such a splash, everywhere, Kerouac insists on dismissing it as "my potboiler." He wrote it six years ago, in 1951, allegedly "to amuse my wife" -- the wife he had then, anyway. "I'm a serious artist," he said, lightly but intently, downing the beer without a break, "a serious artist...like James Joyce. I've written eight books since 'On the Road.' Viking's going to start bringing them out."
"What's your best one?"
"A book called 'Dr. Sax,' a kind of Gothic fairy tale, a myth of puberty, about some kids in New England playing around in this empty place when a shadow suddenly comes out at them, a real shadow. A real shadow," he said, stressing the image, his black eyes flashing. "Then there's 'The Subterraneans.' That's about an affair with a colored girl. And then there's..." But he let it drop as something weird popped back into his head and he said: "Man, man, on that TV they make you up!"
"And what's happening to you next? Beside the TV and all that?"
"I'm cutting out. They don't know it, but I'm cutting out. I'm going down to my mother's in Orlando. Always go back to my mother. Always." He grinned widely, dangerously, but not altogether freely.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]