In 2013 I was asked to review a book called The Stray Bullet, about William S. Burroughs’ years in Mexico. I described it as “unreadable,” which made it rather surprising when, a year and a half later, the publishers asked me to review another book by the same author and translator – Jorge Garcia-Robles and Daniel C. Schechter – called At the End of the Road: Jack Kerouac in Mexico. Garcia-Robles styles himself as the “leading authority on the Beats in Mexico” and as with the first book, this concerns a major Beat figure in the author’s homeland.
Naturally, I found myself dreading this book, as reading the Burroughs one had been little more than a chore. When I opened the front cover and saw that they’d credited a photo to one “Allan Ginsberg” (sic), I was sure that I was about to slog through another entirely incomprehensible text.
Indeed, the book starts rather poorly. As I mentioned in my previous review, the translation from Spanish to English seems to have lost something. What may well have been whimsical quirks in the original have become unnatural, stunted phrasings in the translation. The text of At the End of the Road reads nowhere as poorly as the previous book’s, but it is somewhat awkward. Clearly, in both books the author is attempting to make his writing poetic, rather than reporting the facts that his supposed research has uncovered.
However, after Garcia-Robles rushes through much of Kerouac’s life, touching on various points seemingly at random, the text soon settles into a more readable prose and there are some nice turns of phrase as he sets out his goal for the book. He will, he explains, follow Kerouac – a “wayward genius” in the vein of so many other great artists and writers – as he ventures on a number of trips (the author, bizarrely, can’t say exactly how many trips Kerouac made) to Mexico. He will show us how Kerouac really suffered through these visits, yet idealized Mexico because he needed to “poetize” it and make it a “literary scenario.” It is, for sure, a fascinating area of research, and one which deserves a book devoted to it.
Garcia-Robles’ observation is an interesting concept, and one with which this reviewer agrees. Kerouac is often called the “great rememberer,” and yet it can be seen that he was often taking artistic liberties. One could argue that he saw the world differently from others, and simply wrote that, rather than merely fabricating for the sake of fiction. Yet so often his books – which are read by many as factual accounts – are to a great extent fictionalized. Later in the book, in a far more readable passage, Garcia-Robles summarizes what he wants to say about Kerouac’s view of Mexico:
For Jack Kerouac, Mexico was more a symbol than a country, a culture defined not at all by the ideological bent of its citizens or rulers but by the spirit of its people. What mattered to Kerouac was the souls of its denizens, their spiritual profile, not their social conditions.
Garcia-Robles seems keen to set Kerouac apart from all other Western literary visitors, as well as setting him firmly on a pedestal. Idolizing your subject is a dangerous trap for a biographer.
Towards the end of the book’s introductory section, Garcia-Robles comments that as Kerouac was guilty of misrepresenting or misremembering people, places, and events in his novels, so too might this author fall into the trap of inventing his own Jack Kerouac. It seems a bizarre comment to make. Of course, when looking to the past, all historians are piecing together a puzzle. Such a comment hardly needs to be stated…
Yet immediately it becomes obvious that the author, too, is taking liberties. His Kerouac is in fact gleaned from the mythology. While Garcia-Robles has done some research, he seems to have fused and confused it with an imagined Kerouac or a Kerouac taken too literally from having read On the Road. Pretty soon he is passing off hearsay and legend as fact, and speculating based upon the Kerouac in his imagination. Kerouac is seen beating up army officers and fucking sailors. He is portrayed as far more of a rebel than he comes across in any other biography, and in lieu of facts about long tracts of his life we are given descriptions of his wanderlust soul and its connection to other famous writers. On a few occasions the basic Beat chronology seems off, and when it comes to the infamous Kammerer stabbing, David Kammerer is presented as a “youth” (he was far older than Lucian Carr) and his name is even spelled incorrectly. As a pivotal moment in Beat history, such errors seem unforgivable.
And so it goes as we enter the text proper with Kerouac and Cassady entering Mexico. This is obviously what Garcia-Robles is waiting for. He paints a vivid picture, for sure, as he did in his Burroughs book. A rhythm hits the prose and the story begins to flow. Yet by this point there has been so much that is patently wrong that it hard to trust the author. He uses quotes from On the Road and takes off into flights of fancy about Kerouac’s perception of the country, and his preconceptions, and yet the only other sources used to pad out his ideas – which are, admittedly, not far-fetched – are from other writers. Garcia-Robles can tell us a lot about Kerouac, but very little of that seems to come from anything other than a careful reading of his most famous novels. For the most part Garcia-Robles is retelling Kerouac’s novels in his own voice, with his own interpretations, and while he may well be right about certain things, his guess is as good as any other Kerouac fan’s.
Altogether, Garcia-Robles paints a fascinating portrait of Kerouac in Mexico, but not one that is particularly accurate. At times the text runs smoothly, and is both an informative and enjoyable read. Yet one can’t help but feel that the lack of accuracy in recounting events is too much to take. To find out what Kerouac felt about Mexico in poetic, inventive language we already have Kerouac’s novels and his poetry. The author of this book, however, feels the need to paint a new picture, piecing parts of the Kerouac mythos together. The result is a book that falls flat on its face.