Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Pg. 69: John Leland's "Why Kerouac Matters"

The latest feature at the Page 69 Test: John Leland's Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of ‘On the Road’ (They’re Not What You Think).

About the book, from the publisher:
Legions of youthful Americans have taken On the Road as a manifesto for rebellion and an inspiration to hit the road. But there is much more to the novel than that.

In Why Kerouac Matters, John Leland embarks on a wry, insightful, and playful discussion of the novel, arguing that it still matters because at its core it is a book that is full of lessons about how to grow up. Leland’s focus is on Sal Paradise, the Kerouac alter ego, who has always been overshadowed by his fictional running buddy Dean Moriarty. Leland examines the lessons that Paradise absorbs and dispenses on his novelistic journey to manhood, and how those lessons — about work and money, love and sex, art and holiness — still reverberate today. He shows how On the Road is a primer for male friendship and the cultivation of traditional family values, and contends that the stereotype of the two wild and crazy guys obscures the novel’s core themes of the search for atonement, redemption, and divine revelation. Why Kerouac Matters offers a new take on Kerouac’s famous novel, overturning many misconceptions about it and making clear the themes Kerouac was trying to impart.
Among the early praise for Why Kerouac Matters:
"Having immersed himself in Beat culture while writing Hip: A History, Leland, a New York Times reporter and former editor-in-chief of Details, makes a convincing case that Jack Kerouac's most famous novel has endured for half a century because it's a book about how to live your life. The lesson isn't about impulsive self-gratification, as many readers believe, aided by Kerouac's tendency to go vague in his most emotionally critical passages. Leland reminds us that narrator Sal Paradise was always looking to settle down into a conventional life, and Kerouac, Leland says, was generally of a conservative mindset. Framing On the Road as a spiritual quest, Leland deftly combines the biographical facts of Kerouac's life with discussions of his literary antecedents in Melville and Goethe, as well as the inspiration he took from contemporary jazz, finding in bebop's rhythms a new way to circle around a story's themes.... Leland's insights provide new layers of significance even for those familiar with the novel."
--Publishers Weekly

"An engaging, smart and fresh take from New York Times reporter John Leland, Why Kerouac Matters mixes serious discussions of Kerouac and his legacy with glib, colloquial sidebars. Leland riffs on Kerouac's alleged anti-Semitism ("he certainly quacked like one"); his facial hair ("America's ongoing goatee problem"); "his use of weed, Benzedrine, morphine, alcohol"; comparative sex lives, with lists of Sal's fictional trysts vs. Kerouac's real ones; and what Kerouac's zeitgeist novel has meant for later generations. Leland calls it "a slacker bible for the last half century."
--Regina Weinreich, author of Kerouac's Spontaneous Poetics and editor of Kerouac's Book of Haikus

"Leland offers a close reading of On the Road, providing enough trenchant analysis to make the book an excellent primer not only on Kerouac's novel, but the Beat movement in general. Some of the parables and metaphors in the text that may have gone over the head of the average first-time reader are nicely addressed, and reveal that Kerouac was a writer capable of greater gravitas than he is often given credit for, even if it is expressed in the rather rough-hewn language of the autodidact. Rather than being part of a manufactured movement, Leland enshrines Kerouac in the same legion of American letters as Melville and Whitman."
--Gerry Donaghy, Powells.com
Read an excerpt from Why Kerouac Matters, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

John Leland is a reporter for the New York Times and former editor in chief of Details magazine. He is also the author of Hip: The History.

The Page 69 Test: Why Kerouac Matters.

--Marshal Zeringue