Beat Blues is the latest book by Jonah Raskin, author of the wonderful American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation. It is what its publisher calls a “historical novel” and “reality-inspired fiction” for it is set firmly in the Beat locale of San Francisco in 1955, with various real people functioning as characters.
The novel tells the story of Norman de Haan, a WWII veteran who moves from New York to San Francisco to take a job at City Lights. He becomes involved in the Beat scene, with numerous characters flitting in and out of the story as Norman figures a few things out about the world. We meet Bob Kaufman, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and many more Beat figures on our journey, with Natalie Jackson perhaps being most central to the story.
Ultimately, this is about Norman’s growing awareness of racial inequality. Throughout the book, we see him increasingly coming to appreciate the struggles of black people in the United States in the mid-fifties, though honestly the effort to make this clear is more than a little ham-fisted. Norman is in many senses a 21st-century character forced upon a different era. Raskin has shied away from producing an organic and authentic morality tale by producing an oddly woke protagonist, who – whilst not perfect – is absurdly progressive by comparison with his mid-20th-century peers. (Raskin even tells us near the end of the novel that Norman “was truly woke.”)
On racial issues as well as matters of sexuality, there is little in the way of subtlety. From the opening line (“a world blinded by whiteness”) to completely arbitrary insertions in the midst of conversations (“I never did like the word fag”), this is less a novel than a crude series of unnecessary reminders: prejudice is bad. At one point, we are even told that a magazine cover “prompted Norman to think about race and his own future.” Why do we need to be told this? Are there no more subtle ways to show a character’s growth than to literally tell the reader someone is growing and learning? Perhaps more troubling is the fact that, despite its avowed anti-racist stance, numerous characters in the book are merely stereotypes, and that’s before we get to the issue of why an anti-racist book aiming to restore black people to the Beat narrative is told entirely through the perspective of a white man…
This lack of subtlety spills over into the historical part of the historical novel, too. Raskin falls victim to the innate problem of using real characters – how can we incorporate these into fiction without them seeming inauthentic or added for the sake of name-dropping? Bob Kaufman is first to arrive, replete with artificial dialogue (“I’ve sailed the seven seas…”), awkwardly spilling his own biography. He is a caricature of the Beat poet rather than an authentic representation, and in every clause uttered he is there to remind us that he is Bob Kaufman. He appears in a diner in New York by chance, where he runs into Norman, who has just been offered a job at City Lights, and then tells him about North Beach (whilst giving his whole life story in the process). It is comically implausible. Other Beat figures are similarly cartoonish, although Neal Cassady seems quite authentic as a sociopath.
This contrivance continues throughout. There is little that is believable and characters appear or open their mouths purely as a nod to its historical setting. It seems that the author simply wants as many famous faces in the book as possible, with Weldon Kees, Simone de Beauvoir, and Nelson Algren showing up quite randomly. Sometimes, this leads to problems even in the historical detail. Why would Gregory Corso attempt to steal a Jack Kerouac manuscript in 1955 if Kerouac did not become famous enough to give it any resale value until several years later? Why is Cassady depicted as a Scientologist when in fact it was Burroughs who (in 1959) became enamoured of L. Ron Hubbard’s cult? (Has Raskin confused Hubbard and Edgar Cayce?) Why does Ginsberg do his signature “Ohm” almost a decade prior to learning it in reality?
There are yet more problems. At one point, we see Neal Cassady hotwiring a car but later he tosses the keys to a valet, and elsewhere Norman is with Ginsberg and Kerouac, then suddenly, with no explanation, in bed reading, then talking face-to-face with a character who’s in another part of the city… This sort of narrative inconsistency occurs often, with important action frequently chopped up by random jumps in time as the author takes us where he wants to go rather than where the narrative should go. Even when it is relatively straight, it is seldom clear who is doing or saying anything because of odd stylistic quirks in reportage, and where there are more than two characters in any scene it becomes a challenge to pick the dialogue apart. It is a confusing and contrived story at times, little more than a clunky vehicle for obvious messages.
There is a simple rule when it comes to fiction: Show, don’t tell. In other words, we allow actions to hint at meaning rather than beating the reader over the head with exposition. Sadly, this book is the absolute opposite of that. At every stage, we are told exactly what is going on and why. No one says or does anything without a rather obvious commentary and this adds to the artificiality of the text. At one point, Norman even tells his therapist: “I suppose I’m suffering from what you’d call survivor guilt.” Never mind the fact that he’s been seeing this therapist for some time. It is purely a means of informing the reader in the most obvious of ways.
Ultimately, this novel is an attempt to tell a made-up story against the backdrop of a real setting and to point out prejudices that existed in the 1950s. It does not really succeed in any sense except providing an array of famous faces, but there are more effective ways to convey historical settings than presenting cartoonish depictions of famous people and there are better ways to expose racism than by simply telling the reader: this is racist, that is racist, everything is racist. They say that utopian fiction is seldom successful because it is a crude vehicle for an author’s personal views and I would contend that the same is loosely true of historical fiction. Without an engaging plot, coherent narrative, believable dialogue, and realistic characters, a book cannot succeed regardless of name-dropping and moralising.