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Jack Kerouac: Tristessa
afterword by Tom Graves | Devault-Graves Digital Editions eBooks
§ Maybe you're feeling nostalgic, remembering the days when guys just hit the road looking for adventure and something to write about, rather than tortured recollections of childhood or contempo 3rd person refits of the Bible. It's all TV scenarios posing as novels these days, isn't it? You want something raw, not ghost writers in the sky. You want something real, not university cw pretty, all dolled up and boring as hell.
How about some Jack Kerouac? "The first thought is always the best thought," he said, and just let the words spew forth in a metabolic vomit, achieving poetry as heady and real as the smell of leaded gasoline. Worked for W.B. Yeats... Francis Thompson... Alfred Jarry... all sorts of writers tried the "automatic" method... Henry Miller, James Joyce... all sorts, even Kerouac's good friend William Burroughs. You've read On the Road, The Subterraneans, Big Sur maybe -- were they any good? You liked them at the time, the infectious Kerouac optimism, the New Age bullshit and the endless party he and his pals enjoyed, no matter what town or country they were in. Gentle outlaws. Free Birds. Jazz junkies. The Cold War? Nuclear annihilation? Fugg it, let's get high!
Did you read Tristessa, the one set in Mexico City? You can't remember, but think what the hell, Mexico City is a cool place to go nuts in, download the eBook, crack open a cider, turn off the sound on the TV.
Well, you have to be loose to stay with this one, as the punctuation is experimental to say the least, and the grammar is often illogical (or, if you prefer, multi-dimensional). If you want raw, then this narrative is raw, as if scanned from Kerouac's notebook. In his afterword Tom Graves says Jack was too stoned and lazy to do the necessary rewriting, just winged it on the success of On the Road, which was knocked into shape by the editor Malcolm Cowley, a very influential figure in American letters in the 50s despite being monitored by J. Edgar Hoover. He might be right. Maybe fifteen good phrases, metaphors or insights per forty thousand words isn't worth a reader's time. Graves quotes Truman Capote on Kerouac: "That's not writing, that's typing."
Yet there's something horribly magnetic about Tristessa, despite the chaos of the delivery and its squalid interior documentary of the madonna-whore morphine junky Kerouac chooses as his Muse. This isn't the sunny climes of Acapulco or San Miguel. Kerouac's Mexico City (circa 1955) is an endless barrio of night and chilling rain and living with animals in one room shacks. He sleeps with roosters, rats and cats, all in his desire to be near this woman who never really returns his love, as junk is the only thing she can love.
But Jack "Duluoz" is smitten:
'The color of her face is really tan... but in the lights that shine her face keeps changing, sometimes it is jet-brown almost black-blue (beautiful) with outlines of sheening cheek and long sad mouth and the bump on her nose which is like Indian women in the morning in Nogales on a high, dry hill the women of the various guitar....'
You can see the picture, see what Jack sees, might even think the sluicing words are poetry. Others will find the syntax irritating, turn away after a page or two. Others will think Kerouac is just another sick traveller in a sick world. Despite everything, despite the graffiti narrative, the dismal sociology of it all is riveting at times. What lengths the author went to in order to express himself; the masochism, the degradation, the absurd humiliation of playing the junky's dog, crawling through the gutter, stoned and drunk, brazenly robbed of his money and poems by sinister Mexican drifters and poisoned by Mexico's open coffin of drugs: morphine, goofballs, pulque (cactus juice), mescal, beer, reefers, unknown caps of this and that. It's supposed to be romantic, but it doesn't take you long to see that this is the dark side of love, and that Kerouac just might be insane. Early photos show him to be a handsome guy and some of his women real beauties... yet no wonder he died in 1969 a broken alcoholic at the age of 47.
His contact friend in Mex City, the hard-core junky Bill Gaines, knows loving an addict is futile, puts it this way: "You put Grace Kelly in this chair, Muckymucks morphine on that chair, Jack, I take the morphine, I no take the Grace Kelly."
Kerouac knows this, of course. He's learned a thing or two about junk and love, despite his role as a Beatnik clown south of the border. 'But the sex when the morphine is loosened in your flesh, and slowly spreads, hot, and headies your brain, the sex recedes into the gut, most junkies are thin, Bull and Tristessa are both bags of bones....' So Dulouz/Kerouac comes to realize that if Tristessa loves any gringo, it's Bull, as Bull is Morphine. Jack might have money, he might have poetry, he might have devotion, but she recognizes he's too romantic to be a committed heroinisto. He thinks she's Mexico, a channel to the Aztec dream, another neglected goddess who can be rehabilitated through the love of a decent poet, and then, as his money runs low and his health lower, he realizes she's not a woman, rather, a place, a state of mind, a dream as desperate and unreal as the place that is Mexico City.
It might be the cider you're drinking but in the end you think, this works, the story of Tristessa works despite the messiness of the writing, the characters, the unwelcome confession of another drunken author who gets lucky with a publisher and starts a cult. He ends this sad tale of a sad woman with this: 'I'll go light candles to the Madonna, I'll paint the Madonna and eat ice cream... I'll write long sad tales about people in the legend of my life -- This part is my part of the movie, let's hear yours --'
So it ends... he ends, and you're invited to pick it up, carry "the story" forward. This is exactly what America did, because when Kerouac was writing his main stuff -- including Tristessa -- in the fifties the country wasn't sympathetic to minorities, gays and junkies; later the Beat Generation subverted the conservative institutional culture, and today is as close to "anything goes" as it has been since the late Roman Empire.
Much has been said about Kerouac's Catholicism and you do see it in Tristessa: 'Her blood is on my pants like my conscience --' would be one fine example among many. Was he playing Christ here? It certainly would've been no surprise if he'd ended up nailed to a cross by the end of this short novel. But when you strip it all away, the existential journalism and the gladiator poetry, he's just a tourist with traveller's cheques and a passport.
Great afterword by Tom Graves, "A Hard Look At The King of The Beats", which is actually a review of "Jack Kerouac's Recordings and Other Matters". It is a 'hard look', although a funny one. No academic devotee here glossing the King's failings, no homage in search of a study grant. Some good insight into the Kerouac method in general, although the real thrust of the piece is about his jazz poetry recordings. When you think of the success of rap in recent years, you realize that this idiom, this genre, this form of oral literature was never really explored fully in the bop era. Was Jack any good as a jazz rapper? Graves has mixed feelings about this. Maybe you're old enough to remember Kerouac with Steve Allen on piano doing some On The Road, thought it was o.k. (even if he was reading rather than rapping in the groove).
'...my poems stolen, my money stolen, my Tristessa dying, Mexican buses trying to run me down, grit in the sky, agh, I never dreamed it could be this bad'.
© LR Dec 2015
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