Wednesday, August 02, 2006


Here, in its entirety, is the history of Jack Kerouac’s Book of Sketches as given in that book itself:

In 1951, it was suggested to Jack Kerouac by his friend Ed White that he “sketch in the streets like a painter but with words.” In August of the following year, Kerouac began writing down prose poem “sketches” in small notebooks that he kept in the breast pockets of his shirts. For two years he recorded travels, observations, and meditations on art and life as he moved across America and down to Mexico and back. In 1957, Kerouac sat down with the fifteen handwritten sketch notebooks he had accumulated and typed them into a manuscript called Book of Sketches; he included a handful of new sketches he had written that year.

This information comes not from an editor’s forward, but rather on the front jacket flap. If there is an editor here, he or she has gone the Alan Smithee route and chosen to remain anonymous. What introductory essay there is here is by painter and onetime William Burroughs collaborator George Condo. Here is Condo at his most analytic:

Read this Book of Sketches and you’ll be amazed at what a genius Jack Kerouac was.

It’s a good thing, given that Kerouac’s work appears to be in the hands of what could be charitably described as people unfamiliar with handling substantial literary archives. There are a million questions here, many of which have to do with the relationship between the 15 small notebooks, the eventual typescript and what appears here on the page, short stanzas of print that don’t look much like prose at all, tho they read Kerouac’s version thereof:

Saturday afternoon in Rocky
Mt. woods – in a tankling
gray coupe the young father
crosses the crossroads with
his 4 dotters piled on the
seat beside him all eyes
– The drowsy store the
great watermelons sit dis-
posed in the sun, on the
concrete, by the fish box,
like so many fruit in
an artist’s bowl –
watermelon’s plain green
& the watermelon with
the snaky rills all
tropical & fat to burst
on the ground – came
from viney bottoms of
all this green fertility –
Behind Fats’ little shack,
under waving tendrils
of a pretty tree, the
smalltime Crapshooters
with strawhats & overalls
are shooting for 10¢
stakes – as peaceful &
regardant as deer in
the morning, or New
England boys sitting in
the high grass waiting for
the afternoon to pass.
Paul Blake ambles over
across the road to watch
the game, stands
back, arm on three,
watching smiling silence.
Cars pull up, men
squat – there goes Jack
to join them, everywhere
you look in the enormity
of this peaceful scene
you see him walking, on
soft white shoes, bemused
-- Last night a few
hotshots & local sailors
on leave grabbed those

There is a line break right here, tho the sentence itself continues onward, a typical detail that makes you wonder if this reflects the typescript, the notebook, both, neither, or what precisely. There is no way here to tell.

In his introduction, Condo writes “These poems just breathe and flow…” tho the book itself carries (in what I take to be Kerouac’s own hand) a frontispiece that reads parenthetically “(Proving that sketches aint verse).” The only other clue comes from a half-title page that reads:

Printed Exactly As They Were Written
On the Little Pages in the Notebooks
I Carried in My Breast Pocket 1952
Summer to 1954 December ………

(Not Necessarily Chronological)

You can see Kerouac’s bulging breast pocket in the infamous Kerouac wore khakis ad & as someone who periodically writes on the street, in public transportation, even in office meetings, I’m completely sympathetic with Kerouac’s occasional comments about what a weirdo this makes him seem at times to others. When I worked in the Tenderloin in the late 1970s, where I would occasionally find myself writing away in a notebook in a residential hotel that served as a shooting gallery while a septuagenarian drug dealer was going around the lobby with a literal TV tray full of offerings – as if it were dim sum or the dessert tray at a restaurant – the only way I could get away with writing was because everybody there already knew me & understood that I wasn’t a narc, even if I wasn’t a buyer either. No one has captured this aspect of writing so well as Kerouac – in some ways, I’ve never tried simply because he ensured that I didn’t need to do so.

So Book of Sketches proves to be, like so many recent additions to the published Kerouac oeuvre, half a loaf. On the one hand – and this is the most critical point – it is great to have this in print, it’s a fabulous read, a chance to watch Kerouac actively thinking about honing specific details of his obsessive, but quite freehand craft. On the other hand, it’s a poorly done version that stands as a placeholder for a properly edited and contextualized publication that won’t appear for decades, if at all.

Kerouac noted to his friends that by the time On the Road made him famous overnight in 1957, he had already written a lifetime of work over the previous decade, much of it in the compacted 1950-57 timeframe, between the good critical reviews and total lack of sales of his first (and most conventional) novel, The Town and the City, and the actually over-edited Legend of Duluoz books that were issued in the wake of The Road¹. Watching Kerouac invent fiction, invent prose, completely rethink the task of the writer from the ground up is the real story here, much more so than the romantic tale of the questing Beat guru whose beatific surface barely covers over the thick sludge of sentimental (or worse) stereotypes that represent the worst of Catholic working class culture in the Northeast.

Sketches partakes of both sides of Kerouac – there are passages here that could easily convince a woman never to read him again, a man who could have taken sensitivity training from Archie Bunker – and there is the careful, utterly honest crafter of observations trying to fathom how best to put down everything (note that depiction of watermelon or the comparison of craps players with deer & especially Kerouac’s use of the French form regardant there), with just an occasional hint of the alcoholism that would overwhelm Kerouac in just a few short years, robbing him of his ability to think & see well before it killed him. Unlike Jack Spicer, who was killed by booze even more quickly than Kerouac, but who wrote his very best work at the end, Kerouac was a writer who dwindled throughout his final decade, becoming more & more pathetic in stages.

So Sketches is still Kerouac on the ascent &, as such, represents a major publication of one of the towering talents of the past 50 years. But as a publication, Sketches also reminds the careful reader of all that can go wrong with the works of a major author.


¹ An unexpurgated version of On the Road is due to be released next year, on the 50th anniversary of the first publication.

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