by Wayne Mullins
One of the most common quotes you will hear from fans of Jack Kerouac is how reading his seminal novel On the Road changed their lives. I have come to the conclusion that sadly this isn’t actually true. I myself went through the same emotional rollercoaster after reading this book, but many years on I have figured out that sadly it hasn’t really changed my life a great deal (if at all), but that I just really, really liked his book. Below you will find a short essay on my related life experiences and how I tried to emulate the adventures within the book and become more “beat” after reading Kerouac for the first time.
As so often happens in my life my introduction to something important and life changing, in this case Kerouac and the Beat movement, occurred purely by the most random of occurrences. In 2004 I had grown fond of an American animated series called “Home Movies.” The series revolved around a young boy named Brandon and his friends as they write, direct and star in their own home movies, while interacting with a number of memorable and off-beat characters. In one episode, the main character Brandon decides to run away from home and “Live on the road, just like Jack Kerouac.” This throw away line that would barely register with most viewers started to play on my mind and as a fairly young (24 years old) man with little experience of American literature; I had no idea who this Kerouac fellow was or why Brandon would want to emulate him.
A short trip to Amazon provided me with my first taste of the Beat visage. Glowing references and “classic” status were thrown about like confetti and littered many of the books on offer, but one in particular seemed to stand out from the crowd in its referential glory. That book of course was On the Road. Devouring the book chapter after chapter, the story of a young man seemingly looking for answers from other people in a society that he didn’t quit fit in struck a chord within me. Having grown up either being made to read “serious” books in school or trashy horror novels for fun, it came as something of a shock to discover that the printed word could be so personal, beautiful and meaningful. Though I didn’t fully understand it at the time, something had been identified inside of me. I then came to fully realise that my quiet social awkwardness and misplaced feelings towards myself and society, a feeling that I wanted to do my own thing and be damned with conventional culture were by no means unique. I had discovered, thanks to this cartoon, that these feelings had been experienced by people just like me 50 years earlier and that they had even gone through the trouble of writing books about it.
Always wanting to see the world, and in particular America, I had managed to experience a brief flurry of adventure in my nineteenth year, when a student work programme had allowed me to travel and work in America on a Summer camp for Jewish children in the Pennsylvania mountains. Though ultimately a false dawn in my new and exciting life of travelling the world and having adventures like a Welsh Sal Paradise, it did give me a taste of what was possible, even if the highlight of my trip to the USA was lasting just one weekend in Manhattan before flying home. Though brief, I started to believe that it was possible to have the kind of life I had only read about and it none the less provided me with some frame of reference for the future I wished to experience.
After returning to the UK, I took a menial and soul destroying job as an office administrator for the Health Service, with the sole intention of saving enough money in order to plan my next trip abroad. Around this time, however, I also started an illicit and secret affair with a femme-fatal-like, slightly older work colleague. I justified this to myself as a worthy and fun escape from the brain sapping monotony that everyday life in a modern office offers. Eager to impress and deepen our emotional bond I offered to lend her the book that had come to mean so much to me. She eventually returned it some months later upon my repeated request and when quizzed as to what was her favourite part of the book, she crushed me by replying “Ohhh, all of it.” Needless to say, the book was unread and any further connection I was hoping to make with this woman would have to be purely physical and have nothing to do with something as unpopular and time consuming as intellectual attachment.
I’d love to say that my main source of joy in life was riding the pussy express all the way to fun-town, but I find that as I get older, people who have a brain capacity that limits them to banal soap operas are of no use to me. I am no longer willing to put up with know nothing idiots and empty headed hot-mouths, both of which Wales has too many off. Not being able to make a deeper connection with this woman over a movement and rich as the Beats and with something as personal to me as On the Road, eventually lead us to go our separate ways. Also, she was married, which somewhat complicated things.
But I will always remember my beautiful blonde and sexy office-lover; a woman who I will always remember (rightly or wrongly) as someone who was always five minutes away from either hitting the bottle in her sad, trapped despair or ripping my clothes off with her sweet, angel voiced fury.
Undeterred I vowed to continue my Beat studies and continue with my original plan to travel and apply myself to fully understanding the messages they taught. However, I was having trouble putting into practice what I had learned as I had always been a fairly quiet and shy person, but unlike Kerouac I had neither the constitution or liking for alcohol which helped him deal with the same problem. There is a part of my brain that I can never turn off, no matter how drunk I get and that was that I was never comfortable trying to be a person that I was not. I always have a damned voice inside my head letting me know in no uncertain terms that I’m faking it and the glazed, dopey and slouched appearance alcohol gives me makes me look like a dizzy school boy after his first hit of vodka.
The years slowly ticked by as my plans to travel gathered dust amongst the haze of car payments, work commitments and my own procrastinating nature. Salvation was to come however when a kindred spirit came into my life through work, a man by the name of Neil. Being single, fun and most importantly the same age as myself, it was an ice cold shower of a wakeup call when I realised that there was a universe beyond the middle-aged, sagging, dog-eared, dried up, miserable excuse for a women that seem to populate offices everywhere. The connection with Kerouac once again came to the fore as I soon found that Neil embodied the spirit and soul of Dean Moriarty, a friend that I had been unconsciously looking for (at least in my mind) since I first read On the Road all those years ago. Neil typified the complete embodiment of how to live life without regret. He was tall, good looking, insanely confident and the women loved him, everything I felt was denied to me, either through reality or my own warped view of self. To my surprise, he was also a good person and an even better friend.
Away from the attention of the dog-eared humpties, we spent countless hours talking about love, life, our hopes and dreams and our plans for the future. Though easy to dismiss as hedonistic in nature and loud and brash, Neil possessed a keen intellect and warm personality as he continually pushed me to expand my comfort zone and to explore life. To say we were complete opposites would be a fair assumption. While I was quiet and somewhat introverted, he delighted in shouting expletives at the top of his lungs in the middle of the street, always happy to be the centre of attention. With Neil in attendance it was a satisfying feeling knowing that I was finally starting to experience some of the counter culture and wild living that I had read so much about, though be it from the safety of a Friday night out on the town in deepest, darkest South Wales.
While I continued into my slow slide towards 30 with very little hope or salvation in sight and my plans of travelling now almost forgotten in the midst of time, Neil had dreams and goals of his own that he wanted to achieve. He wanted to travel, he wanted to experience life and he wanted to have fun. Quitting his job in the company in which we both worked for and leaving his rock band behind (yes, he was even in a rock band), Neil set out for Australia and South America on his journey of self-discovery and adventure. Though tentative gestures of an invitation were made to come with him to Australia early on in his planning, I felt I had to decline the offer at the time as I saw it as Neil’s path, a path which he should be allowed to walk alone for a while. Besides, I had my own path to walk at this point and decided to take a big risk by quitting my job after nearly 8 years and open my own business.
Over a year has since passed and it brings us pretty much up to the present at the time of writing. Having stayed in intermittent contact with Neil during this time, it was with great excitement that I received an email from him letting me know that he was planning on travelling across North America. I felt that this was the right time to make another change in my life and the thought of a real life On the Road adventure with my surrogate Cassady was too good an opportunity to pass me by. The dreams from my youth of travelling and exploring life dusted themselves off and I enthusiastically wrote back asking what he thought of the possibility of road-tripping with me around the USA. Sadly, his reply was not what I had hoped.
Somewhat tired from the constant travelling over the last 18 months, Neil had decided to spend the majority of his time when in the USA entrenched in the music scene in Nashville. Not planning on making any further road-trips in the immediate future, he none the less offered me a small crumb of possibility with a bitter-sweet “maybe, who knows?” final sentence. Approaching 32 year of age and with the possibility of making my long wished for road trip looking ever slimmer by the day, I lay awake at nights, well in the small hours, staring at the ceiling and running through all the possible adventures and trips in my imagination.
One night we are hitting the Jazz clubs of Manhattan, the next we are crossing the great deserts of Utah in an open top Cadillac, then maybe a stop off in San Francisco so we can take in the spiritual home of the Beats. But all the while I am reminded that even though my dreams of travelling may never now come true, the truth in the fantasy that I had learned from Kerouac and On the Road is that they have indeed changed my life.
They have taught me that my own mind can provide me with a life that I can live a hundred times in the space of a few hours while just lying in bed, while I wait for the lesser dreams to come.