Jack London's The Road
I found my 1930s exemplary on the shelves of a second-hand bookshop, in Wellington, New Zealand. When I opened the book, saw the pronoun “I” used on every page and realized that this “I” actually referred to Jack himself, I was excited. I only knew Jack through his "The Call-of-the-Wild" kind of books. I smiled and pressed the book hard on my chest. I was going to love this one. And I did.
The Road documents the time Jack spent on the road as a hobo, a tramp, “nailing” trains, shivering, starving, getting ditched from trains, getting locked up and man-handled: namely, the time he spent traveling North America like so many other forgotten heroes.
At some point in the book, Jack jokes about the sociological value of his own writing. But this book — in my opinion — does have a tremendous sociological value. It documents an anonymous “right there, right then” that is not taught in school books. It documents that time, that space, those people from the inside, through an honest, fluid style.
“Every once in a while, in newspapers, magazines, and biographical dictionaries, I run upon sketches of my life, wherein, delicately phrased, I learn that it was in order to study sociology that I became a tramp. This is very nice and thoughtful of the biographers, but it is inaccurate. I became a tramp — well, because of the life that was in me, of the wanderlust in my blood that would not let me rest. Sociology was merely incidental; it came afterward, in the same manner that a wet skin follows a ducking. I went on “The Road” because I couldn’t keep away from it; because I hadn’t the price of the railroad fare in my jeans; because I was so made that I couldn’t work all my life on “one same shift”; because — well, just because it was easier to than not to.”
I definitely recommend this book. I learned a lot, I laughed, I sympathized and I day-dreamed all the way through it.
Jack Kerouac's On The Road
When I first grabbed On The Road on the shelves of the local library in Golden, British Columbia, I knew the title was self-explanatory. I thought, here is a classic of American literature I did not read yet, and I am currently “on the road”. When could be a better time? So I read it. And I admit it took me aback.
If words were colors, On The Road would be a firework. Loud, vivid spots exploding and leaving a smell of powder behind them, a bit like burned tires on hot tar. The book tells what happened to Jack (renamed Sal) on his trans-American road trips in company of Neal Cassidy (renamed Dean Moriarty), and occasionally girlfriends, bums and hobos.
In terms of story-telling, I liked the book, the style, the fact that Jack acts as an open door, a portal onto a little-known world: that of an American, post-WWII cultural underworld, that of a cradle where beatniks and hipsters and eventually hippies were born. I got lost in Jack’s meanders of words, in this big bunch of sentences merely strung together by Jack’s will to make a book of it.
Now, in terms of story, I admit I could not sympathize with Jack (Sal), Neal (Dean) and their friends. Not because these guys were jerks (well maybe they were, as I often found myself thinking: “what a bunch of sorry jerks!”), but because I felt so very far away from whom they were, from what they felt, from that world they both hated and craved. But I tried, nevertheless, to understand. I felt the fury; the doubts; the terror and awe that life inspired them. Many times though, I felt more sorry than inspired.
“For a mad moment I thought Dean was understanding everything he said by sheer wild insight and sudden revelatory genius inconceivably inspired by his glowing happiness. In that moment, too, he looked so exactly like Franklin Delano Roosevelt — some delusion in my flaming eyes and floating brain — that I drew up in my seat and gasped with amazement. In myriad pricklings of heavenly radiation I had to struggle to see Dean’s figure, and he looked like God. I was so high I had to lean my head back on the seat; the bouncing of the car sent shivers of ecstasy through me. The mere thought of looking out the window at Mexico — which was now something else in my mind — was like recoiling from some gloriously riddled glittering treasure-box that you’re afraid to look at because of your eyes, they bend inward, the riches and the treasures are too much to take all at once.”
If American culture is of any interest to you, then On The Road is a must-read. This America, this post-war generation of lost guys and gals did exist, and it had a tremendous impact on American art, literature and post-war culture. You’ll travel a good deal, feel sorry, disgusted, infuriated, meditative. In other words, you’ll feel alive. And somehow, I think that’s what Jack intended.
Lars Eighner's Travels With Lizbeth
Lars Eighner spent three years on the streets with his dog Lizbeth. This book tells us about Lars's homeless life between Austin, TX and Los Angeles, CA.
Travels With Lizbeth now haunts me. I found it in a bookshop in Golden, B.C, and couldn’t let go of it. I still feel it calling every time I see a bit of its cover sticking out of our bookcase behind the passenger’s seat (we’re on the road right now). I am thinking, “I passed guys like Lars many times in the street.” And what did I do about it? Nothing. I did give money. I gave food. I chatted. But like many, I judged. I am part of the foolish, the delusional, the blind; the middle-class.
By reading Lars’s book, you will read about homelessness in poignant, technical details. It is almost a walkthrough with tips and tricks about how to survive on the streets. In my case, it did not change the fact that I live nested in a comfortable middle-class life. But it did change the way I perceive homelessness. It stripped me of both the romanticization and rationalization. It made me stop looking for a reason, such as moral failure or bad choices. It made me perceive the “what ifs”, the way each and every one of us may, someday, be homeless. Travels With Lizbeth made me feel anguish, terror, endearment, admiration, puzzlement. I caught myself making mental notes about life on the streets, getting organized, mapping it out. I would do this, I wouldn’t do that; I can eat this, I must not eat that.
“Middle-class people have rights and they like to think that everyone does. The rich, of course, know that rights are bought and sold, and the poor know it too. Those between them live in an illusion.”
Now about Lars himself. I have read reviews in which the readers say they have been made uncomfortable by the "gay" aspect of the book. Yes, as it happens, Lars is gay and his tale about his three years on the streets includes one-night flirts and sexual intercourses with other guys. Had Lars been straight and told about his flirts and sexual intercourses with women, would these uncomfortable readers have felt the same discomfort? As Lars states it, being homeless doesn’t make him less human: homelessness increases emotional starvation and the need to be touched, to be desired. Those who started their review with “I’m not homophobic, but” should jump on this occasion to learn about what life as an homosexual was like in the 1980s in Texas. They should reflect on the fact that, among the chain of events that led Lars to homelessness, was the rejection from his family.
That being said, and as opposed to what I just did, Lars never shows an hint of self-pity and indulgence in his book. It is straightforward, honest, unabashed prose. It should be read by those of us who never experienced homelessness or who fed upon romantic accounts such as London’s and Kerouac’s.
Michael Cunningham's Land's End: A Walk In Provincetown
Whether or not you have been to Provincetown or plan on going, this is a book that I recommend in the “travel book” category. You’ve had your share of road books and hobo books and now you are sitting in the sun with a cup of coffee and you want quiet. You want indolent, poetical writing.
I actually found Land’s End during a day of errands in different public libraries in Lyon, my hometown. It is a short, easy-to-read book in which Michael very simply takes our hand and walks us through the streets of a small town he fell in love with, as a man and as a writer. Part travel guide, part personal journal, you learn about that tiny bit of land and enter people’s houses to share a cup of coffee.It is actually very difficult to put this book into a category. I am probably biased, as I love Michael’s writing. But I traveled with this book. I learned about a tiny place, a place I had not really heard about before. I learned about its people, its history. I learned a good deal about its importance in American literature and art. As Michael puts it, Provincetown is probably “the Morocco of America, the New Orleans of the north.”
“As night progresses, people in diminishing numbers will wander the streets (where whaling captains and their wives once promenaded, where O’Neill strode in drunken furies, where Radio Girl — who knows where she is now? — announced the news), hoping for surprises or just hoping for what the night can be counted on to provide, always, in any weather: the smell of water and its sound; the little houses standing square against immensities of ocean and sky; and the shapes of gulls gliding overhead, white as bone china, searching from their high silence for whatever they might be able to eat down there among the dunes and marshes, the black rooftops, the little lights tossing on the water as the tides move out or in.”
This is it. I wish you happy readings, and an inspiring, poetical summer!
Read last summer's selection!