Paul Maher Jr has written an intimate, interesting look at the life of Jack Kerouac – not the whole life, but rather the youth, leading up to the publication of his most famous work, On the Road. I Am the Revolutionary begins in the 1700s with some family history, carries us through his childhood, education, and travels, and ends with Jack picking up the newspaper that changed his life – the one containing Gilbert Millstein’s review of On the Road. In short, it is the story of how Jack Kerouac became Jack Kerouac, the author still known today as King of the Beats, whose novels sent millions of kids on the road, and whose voice has inspired poets, novelists, and musicians for more than a half century. Continue Reading…
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Summer of Crud is a coming-of-age story that takes place on a road trip across America. It makes reference on a few occasions to the Beats and in fact appears to be an attempt to update Kerouac’s On the Road for the 21st century. However, while not a terrible novel, it certainly is no modern classic. Continue Reading…
Tales of Ordinary Sadness is a collection of fifteen short stories by Neil Randall, and its title is a reference to Charles Bukowski’s short story collection, Tales of Ordinary Madness. Sadness certainly is the theme of the collection, with each story acting as a study in the more depressing areas of modern life – this is a writer not afraid to deal with addiction, abuse, poverty, or disease. Randall provides an uncanny insight into the pitiful conditions of working class Britain in the twenty-first century, exploring how things got so bad. Continue Reading…
In his new book, Ambiguous Borderlands: Shadow Imagery in Cold War American Culture, Dr. Erik Mortenson looks at the “paradox” of mid-twentieth century life in the United States, where there were unprecedented levels of comfort for many citizens, and yet the impending threat of nuclear holocaust. While people became wealthier than ever before, there came also a crushing pressure to conform or fit in with mainstream society. Mortenson argues, Continue Reading…
Larry Beckett is generally best-known as a songwriter, yet probably better known to Beatdom readers as the author of Beat Poetry – the first book entirely devoted to the poetry of the Beat Generation. Yet he has devoted much of his life to writing poetry, and earlier this year he released an impressive book called Paul Bunyan through Smokestack Books in the UK.
Paul Bunyan is part of Beckett’s American Cycle series of “long poems” concerning junctures in American history. In an interview with Shindig! Magazine, he explained:
When I started reading American literature, I looked around for its great narrative epic poem, and didn’t find it. So American Cycle is a sequence of long poems out of the American past: US Rivers: Highway 1, Old California, Paul Bunyan, Chief Joseph, Wyatt Earp, PT Barnum, Amelia Earhart, Blue Ridge, US Rivers: Route 66. I’ve been working on it for 45 years; I’m now doing research for the last section, John Henry. Each section is written in a form appropriate to its subject. Its themes are love, local mythology, history, justice, memory, accomplishment, time.
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. Continue Reading…
In 1959, the painter, Brion Gysin, “accidentally” cut through a pile of newspapers with a Stanley Knife and changed the future of writing. William S. Burroughs, who would popularize this “cut-up method” would prefer to say that Gysin “cut into the future,” but regardless of semantics – “art is merely a three letter word, my dear” – that which was done could not be undone. Burroughs worked to hone the technique from purely haphazard to a careful, almost scientific, process wherein cut-ups acted as inspiration. Though it had, arguably, been done before by the founder of Dadaism, Tristan Tzara, the cut-up method became Burroughs’ obsession during the 1960s, spilling out of his prose and into the wider culture. Continue Reading…
In 1995 a scholar named Jorge Garcia-Robles wrote a long essay about William S. Burroughs’ time in Mexico, partly based upon interviews conducted with Burroughs and people that knew him during his time there. The essay was well-received and won the Malcolm Lowry literary essay award, and Garcia-Robles became the leading expert on the Beat Generation and their ties to Mexico.
Unfortunately this reviewer doesn’t speak Spanish and had to wait a rather long time for the book to be translated. Eighteen years seems surprising for such a highly regarded text to be translated into English. Having waited so long to read this book, and having had it sent all the way from the University of Minnesota (where it was published by the university press) to Cambodia (where your humble reviewer resides) just compounded my excitement.
From the moment I opened the packaging, however, I was disappointed. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover – and you shouldn’t – but in this case the cover is just plain ugly. The repetition of one image across the front seems lazy, the text is hard to pick out, the spine colour doesn’t match either the colours on the front or the back, and the back cover makes it look like a children’s book.
But, as I said, one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
Once you open the book, you can see some thought has gone into the layout, and it is mostly visually pleasing, although I would suggest that the text size and line spacing again make this appear like a children’s book – albeit an attractive one.
But I will stop criticizing the design now. That’s neither the fault of Garcia-Robles nor the book’s translator, Daniel C. Schechter, and, after all, some of Burroughs’ own books had ugly editions and that didn’t detract from their quality.
My ultimate assessment of this book – which I have put off now for too many paragraphs – is that it’s more or less unreadable. As I mentioned previously, I do not speak Spanish cannot pass judgment on Garcia-Robles, who by all accounts is a wonderful scholar and an invaluable contributor to Beat studies. So I have to say that the fault lies at the feet of Schechter, the book’s translator. The man appears to have had a tough task set out for him. The original Spanish – I’m told – was a playful, lively, and inventive narrative that fused the culture of Mexico with the research that the author had done. This has simply not come across in the English edition. My guess, as someone who does have experience in translation, is that Schechter has been too literal and too exact, and the result is very awkward and irritatingly inconsistent text. It feels at times as though the publishers simply fed the original text into Google Translate and barely spent an hour tidying up the resulting gibberish. After only a few pages, I found myself dreading the next paragraph as it had become such a chore to read.
In some ways, too, it appears that different writers have written different paragraphs or even chapters, as the chopping and changing of Schechter’s narrative continues to jar the reader. It becomes particularly convoluted when we move into chapter two and Burroughs’ arrival in Mexico. Once again I will give Garcia-Robles the benefit of the doubt and assume that his text read well in Spanish, but in English it’s nothing short of embarrassing:
Mexico City, mid-twentieth century. Maaamboooo… ah uh! Caberets everywhere, brothels on every corner, a vibrant nightlife. Big on the scene was Perez Prado, the pint-sized Cuban inventor of the mambo, with a face like a seal’s and a Luciferesque beard, deported for playing the national anthem in mambo style. Never mind: nothing could stop the fiesta. Cha cha cha… ah uh! It was madness. Aaron Copeland visits the Salon Mexico and is enchanted by the dance hall; the muses descend and he composes one of his greatest symphonic works. Miguel Aleman allowed everything. Hell, we could go all night, the clubs never closed: Ciro’s. Catacumbas. Las Veladoras. La Rata Muerta, Waikiki. Leda. Lola. Tato’s. The culture of the blowout – anything goes. The Mexican Revolution had played itself out, and everyone was fed up with packing pistols and taking up arms. Civilization, senores, civilization! And partying hard. Enough already with the revolutionary ideals, banditry dressed up as a noble cause. Mexico wants peace, progress, cosmopolitanism… ah uh! More madness. Girls girls girls.Tongolele wiggles her hemispheric hips. Ninon Sevilla, the Cuban firecracker, she of the enormous mouth and huge ass, the perennial bad girl of the movies. Su Muy Key, Kalantan, Mapy Cortez, M.A. Pons… glamour gals, happy Afro females, sweat-glistening models, caressable lubricated specimens of the torrid tricolor night. Aaaahhhh uh!
Here Garcia-Robles is attempting to describe Mexico City around the time of Burroughs’ arrival by conveying through prose the vibrancy of the culture and the sentiment of the people. In English, however, the result is a confusing mess of words. It goes on for another few pages, in some ways becoming worse and worse as repetition of phrases are used increasingly out of context (“aaaahhhh uh!” soon becomes as common a means of ending a sentence as a period).
Alas, while Garcia-Robles appears to have consulted some useful sources and provided a solid run-through of Burroughs’ time in Mexico, the book’s focus is too much on capturing the atmosphere rather than actually getting information across to the reader. Granted, the details of Burroughs’ own escapades already can be found in Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw and his thoughts on Mexico are pretty much stated in his collected letters, but there should be room to elaborate. Instead, the bulk of the book is given over to sidenotes and diversions. The author appears more interested in transporting the reader back in time and into a very specific place than to give a detailed account of this important period in Burroughs’ life. That’s not to say that there aren’t great nuggets of information hidden away, but this reviewer feels that Garcia-Robles’ book offers little more than existing biographies.
However, despite the many negatives in this review, and the use of the word “unreadable”, the book is not entirely without its merits. Certain sections, where the text is simple and to the point, are interesting and enjoyable to read, and add some background information to the story of Burroughs’ time there. For example, there is a short chapter on Lola la Chata that is engrossing and more or less devoid of the bizarre quirks throughout the rest of the book. The problem here, though, is that most of it isn’t directly related to Burroughs or his time in Mexico. It’s a footnote that overshadows the actual narrative. The section even ends with the acknowledgment that Burroughs never met la Chata but that he was interested in her, and ends with the dubious assertion:
No doubt, Lola, from the heavens, would smile contentedly upon learning of Burroughs’ interest in her.
There is also a lot of information on Burroughs’ charismatic lawyer, Bernabe Jurado, and even a short essay by Burroughs himself about Jurado.
Also of interest are hard-to-find photos, mostly relating to the death of Joan Vollmer. These might disturb some readers as two of them feature Vollmer’s body after she was shot in the head.
Altogether the English translation of The Stray Bullet should be a wonderful contribution to Beat studies, but instead it falls flat on its face. Any valuable information is obscured by crude writing and digressions. I am assured by friends that the Spanish version is indeed worthy of the praise it has garnered since its publication, but I stand by my unusually harsh judgment of Schechter’s translation. This book is virtually unreadable.