Last Summer, whilst twatpacking* around the Mediterranean, Tunisair lost my backpack between Casablanca and Tunis. Though it contained nothing of value** and was returned about two months later, what I missed out on was the opportunity to read Jack Kerouac’s Lonesome Traveler as I travelled (alone) from Tunis to Sicily to Greece***. I bought other books, it wasn’t a huge problem, but when this slim Kerouac arrived back in London weeks after I did, it ended up at the bottom of my “to read” pile****. I picked it up this weekend because, well, I wanted something light.
Lonesome Traveler***** is a good, but not a great, Kerouac book. I’m sure many people would argue that there’s no such thing as the latter, but I’d describe both Big Sur and (yes, I’m going to do it) On The Road as highly significant, doing so because of their discussions of depression, alcoholism, solitude, entitlement and disappointment.****** Lonesome Traveler, alas, doesn’t really consider anything with the depth (or implied depth) of his greatest works.******* I’m going to stop the footnotes.
Lonesome Traveler is a collection of short stories, all concerned with travel. Some episodes are familiar from Kerouac’s other novels (the bits in New York, up Desolation Peak, in San Francisco), but where this volume excels is when it recounts anecdotes and experiences that are absent elsewhere.
The highlights: ‘Mexico Fellaheen’ is a brief, druggy, piece about hanging out in Mexico in the early 1950s; ‘Slobs of the Kitchen Sea’ is a funny story about Kerouac becoming a sailor to see the world, with the ship he joins in California only sailing as far as the Panama Canal then back to the USA; ‘Big Trip to Europe’ is a fast-paced, frenetic journey through Tangier, Marseilles, rural France, Paris and London. This one is fun, evocative, entertaining and feels open and engaged – Kerouac’s surprise at the length of bread in France being a particularly endearing detail.
But that, alas, is it. The beat life in the USA is better described in his other books, and the longest story in the collection, ‘The Railroad Earth’ is by far the dullest, being a stream of consciousness mess about K’s time working on the railroad. It opens with a fantastic scene – Jack wakes up, cooks breakfast, races across town to get the train he needs to get to the station where he actually works, he describes seeing it leave the platform, he runs to catch it, he writes the thoughts he imagines of those who see a man sprinting at 7am, his own insecurity about his race for the train… It’s great and entertaining, but then there are 40 pages of dull, florid, descriptions of train journeys.
What I’m ignoring is Kerouac’s language. His beautiful, sweeping, poetic prose is one of the two reasons why I return to his writing. He, yes, is a dick, but he’s a dick with a beautiful ability to describe the ocean, the mountains, cities, trees, buildings, people, coffee, opium dens, boats, sea-crossings, croissants, wines, clothes… He can be seen as he treks across his country and across the world, he can be felt as he stares, alone, as the landscapes surrounding Desolation Peak are revealed by rising clouds for the first time, he can be tasted when he eats, sleeps, smokes, drinks, walks, works, writes and travels.
Kerouac, here, is optimistic. Kerouac, here, is writing of joys and pleasures – the pleasures of food, wine, sex********, work, writing, music, movement, experience, life, living. Kerouac here is writing of times he was happy, but without the all-pervading sense of emptiness that his better works evoke. Kerouac, in Lonesome Traveler, is an unrepentant pleasure-seeker, whereas the reader of Kerouac knows already that by this point in his life (1960) he was incredibly unhappy and aware that intoxication and fame didn’t have the answers. Big Sur, his only significant work to follow this, is bleak and sad and deeper.
In Lonesome Traveler there is some beautiful poetry, and there are some fun and memorable stories, and there is the optimistic love of life that those who dismiss Kerouac (or read him stoned) tend to focus on. This isn’t his best, but nor is it his worst. But, like all prolific writers, quality is never assured when opening one of his novels.
To be honest, I’d have probably enjoyed Lonesome Traveler far more if I’d read it in the sunshine of Carthage or on a ferry sailing through the Adriatic. As Kerouac here demonstrates, travel does improve the mood, but it’s impossible to move forever… Not a major work.
* A self-abasing term I used instead of “backpacking”.
** Unless one considers the large amount of Prozac I’d already decided to give up, the cold turkey repurcussions of which are hilariously documented on this blog in posts I should probably remove from the internet in case I ever want people to believe I’m a balanced, well-adjusted adult.
*** I had quite an adventure. I wrote a novel-length journal that’s unpublishable unless I ever achieve success of such a level that I can get away with never speaking to anyone I’ve ever met before. It’s angry. Very, very angry. The ill-advised posts I put up on here were the tip of the iceberg. I wasn’t in a good place. (Literally, when in Tangier.)
**** As did a book of poetry by Lorca, still unread.
***** Incidentally, I gave my journal a title. I called it Alone But Not Lonely, a lyric from a Suede song (‘The 2 of Us’) that I would sing internally at midnight as I sat drinking Cruzcampo beneath the Seville Parasol every day for a week. I like the title, that’s one of the reasons why I haven’t burned the damning little book.
****** I’m afraid I do know what I’m talking about here – I’ve also read The Subterraneans and Sartori in Paris, both of which are irrelevant, Desolation Angels, which is good but a little under-edited, and the original scroll version of On The Road, which put me off Kerouac for years. The fact that the published On The Road is a triumph is a testament to external editors rather than the exuberance of youth.
******* I think I want to promote Desolation Angels up to the list of “great” Kerouac books, but I’m not certain I can be bothered to edit the text to reflect this.
******** Though not of romance or, really, friendship – there’s not much about human relationships – he is mostly alone but, like Brett Anderson and myself, not lonely.