On Kerouac, Hemingway and a literary friend
First published in 2008.
IF YOU HAVE TIME TO HANG AROUND, I’ll tell you a little story about literature and coincidence. It’s not a significant story nor an exciting one, rather a recounting on one of those minor occurrences that sometimes appear in our lives.
A couple months ago I accidentally embarked on a Jack Kerouac reading binge. What happened was that I noticed the copy of Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums on my bookshelf and thought it would make rewarding bedtime reading. It did. Finishing the novel a few nights later, I replaced it on the bookshelf and… it was almost automatic… took down the neighbouring volume – On The Road. My binge was underway.
This was not the first time I had read these books.
It was perhaps the late 1960s when I discovered those two Kerouac books. On The Road was my first find. As I started reading it I felt a little uncertain about Kerouac’s ‘spontaneous prose’ style of writing (I didn’t know then that it was called this), but sooner rather than later it caught on and I was hooked. His rolling spur-of-the-moment unpunctuated impressionistic writing was refreshingly different and I found On The Road, and The Dharma Bums – the next of his works I stumbled upon – to be exhilerating reading.
My discovery of Kerouac came after Alan Watts and just before Ernest Hemingway and Yvonne. Watts was an American Buddhist whose writing preceded the mass discovery of Eastern spirituality by hordes of youthful and footloose Western youths. That was during that great outpouring of the late 1960s, when so many went forth into the world to discover what was out there and, perhaps for the few, to discover themselves.
Now, to Ernest Hemingway. The novel was called For Whom the Bell Tolls, his tale of the Spanish Civil War. I recall sitting around the kitchen table in our big share house in Wooloomooloo discussing the book with the other residents. I even suggested that Yvonne’s sister, Sol, name her soon-to-be-child after one of the main characters. That didn’t happen, but the reading of Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Green Hills of Africa did.
Books trigger association
Books become associated with places and people. Yvonne, my campanion when I discovered Hemingway, was a spontaneous, go-getting, sometimes bold young woman with dark, shoulder length hair parted down the middle – when she actually bothered to brush it. Her boldness and assertiveness, I came to realise, covered a psychological vulnerability that was well hidden and that seldom surfaced in those years.
She showed no literary bent then. She didn’t read much and there were no books in her room. In fact, there wasn’t much at all in her room… a wardrobe for her minimalist set of uncoordinated clothes, a matress and a chair. Yet, years later, she would put together more than a few words of fiction and even venture into journalism while living in Beijing. That, I understand, was accidental, having more to do with serendipity than planning.
We were together there at 168 Cathedral Street, Wooloomooloo (“…there, in my own slum”, as she would later write) as the new decade dawned. Despite my interest in Hemingway at that time, I didn’t see her as a Hemingwayesque or Kerouacesque character, not consciously anyway, but her up-front approach to life and the way she wore her khaki jacket with its big pockets and her dark blue beret set her apart from her contemporaries. Yes, perhaps she could have slipped out of either writer’s novels because there was an attitude, a presence about her that suggested that here was a young woman eager to taste life and ready to go where it took her.
With the end of the decade, and Yvonne’s immediate presence in my life, I put Kerouac and Hemingway aside, for years as it turned out.
Quite a pleasant place in winter
Byron Bay in winter is a pleasant place to be. There’s none of the steamy heat of summer nor the mobs of tourists that season brings. You can wander streets without crowds and even get a seat in a coffee shop.
You can also explore the town’s bookshops. The good news is that these have multiplied. Once, there were two – Icon, in Jonson Street, which sold second hand, and a small shop selling new titles on Fletcher Street.
Now there are four. Those earlier two still exist but they have been joined by another second hand dealer and – until it closed a year or so after opening – by Byron Books, which was on the corner just down the road. Making up the four is a branch of Brisbane’s Mary Martin bookshop which, like those in that city, includes a coffee shop.
How four bookshops survive the off-season in Byron Bay, a town of only 9000, remains a mystery, but the area does have an abundance of literati, some with deep pockets, and an annual writers festival to keep things literary moving along.
It was some months ago that I was in Byron and I took a walk downtown. When not in a hurry to be anywhere, when simply wandering, bookshops attract me. Like the way that honey attracts ants, their presence is somehow carried on the air and this I seem to detect and slowly home in on. So it was that this subconscious homing behaviour brought me to the newer of the town’s second hand dealers.
I wandered in – the place was empty save for a saleswoman busy shuffling books in the way bookshop staff do. She didn’t notice me walk in but as I did so my attention was drawn to a rack of books next to the counter. My eyes skimmed over titles and author’s names… and then I realised what I was looking at… Corso, Ferhlengetti, Ginsberg and… yes, Kerouac. Here they all were, the famous coterie, the inner circle, the Beats… here, in front of my eyes in, of all places, Byron Bay. I would have anticipated finding their works in an inner-urban bookshop of one in the big cities – Sydney, certainly; Melbourne, for sure; Brisbane, doubt it; Adelaide, just possibly; Hobart, forget it.
“Are people still interested in reading this stuff?”, I asked the saleswoman as I flicked through a second hand Kerouac. “Oh, yes”, she answered. “There’s quite a lot on interest in the Beats. Especially among young people”.
Satori in Desire
Another beachside place, another city.
In distance and ambiance Manly is far from Byron Bay. It’s less-well endowered with bookshops and, unlike Byron, does not have an annual writer’s festival.
What Manly does have is two sellers of new books. There’s a branch, a franchise I think, of Dymocks, the Sydney bookseller you find in suburban shopping malls whose stores range from the banal to the almost interesting. There’s also Humphrey’s newsagency, a large establishment that carries a modest stock of new titles.
Like Byron, Manly has two second hand dealers. One is tucked away in the corner of the minor arcade that gives onto the pedestrian area that was once Sydney Road. It’s a cramped little shop selling mainly popular fiction. The other is called Desire, a place with an Art Deco ambiance that matches the building that houses it and suggests, architecturally, Manly’s origin as a holiday destination of the 1930s.
Desire is that sort of small bookshop that attracts the serious reader as well as the passer-by looking for a cheap, quality, second hand read. The lighting, a helpful staff, the record player that staff sometimes play jazz LP’s on give it a sort of vintage, comfortable atmosphere that makes you feel as though you can linger as long as you like. It has seats and a table. It’s what a serious bookstore should be and what some of those big book barns are not. Writing on July 2008 in the comments on the dumbofeather.com/bookshops/, Jade voted Desire her favouite, describing it this way: ” …Put a bow tie on the front window and I would marry this store. All the second-hand treasures inside would become my little babies and we’d live happily ever after!”
Anyway, I wandered into Desire and started looking around… plenty of contemporary titles, some older books, fiction, non-fiction, science fiction, psychology and philosophy… even a large format hardcover of the work of Magnum agency photographer, George Rodger… different themes neatly arrayed along the walls and across the stands in the centre of the shop. Completing my circuit I edged closer to the counter and, there, I came across a peculiar set of titles arranged according to theme.
A mixed bunch of authors they turned out to be as my eyes scanned the titles. And there again were those familiar names – Ferleghetti, Corso, Ginsberg (quite a selection of his work), Cassidy (who was the main character of Kerouac’s On The Road), Clark’s biography of Kerouac, Memory Babe – Gerald Nicosa’s biography of the man and a copy of Gary Sneider’s Turtle Island. Sneider, you probably know, appeared as Japhy Ryder in Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, in my opinion the most enjoyable, most life-loving and exuberant of Kerouac’s works. Deja vue a la Byron Bay, I thought.
“Is there still a demand for the authors on this shelf?”, I asked the shopkeeper who had by now given up on his chess game outside in the arcade.
“Oh, yes”, he responded. “Especially among young people. Stuff like Kerouac’s On The Road appeals to them… the life, the experiences he writes about. It’s why we keep the writings of The Beats on a shelf by themselves. I’ll bet you haven’t seen anything like that in any other bookshop”.
How do I break the news, I wondered? How do I tell this proud bookshop owner, with his specialist sideline in the writings of The Beats, that his shop is not quite as unique as he imagines… nearly, but not quite?
“Well…”, I replied somewhat hesistantly, ” …there’s this little second hand bookshop up the coast in Byron Bay… and they too have a shelf set aside for the writings of The Beats… but I’ve never seen anything similar elsewhere in Sydney” – the latter added as an afterthought to head off any loss of bookseller ego.
“The Icon?”, he asked about the Byron shop.
“No, the new one the next street over”, I responded, knowing now then that he must not have been to Byron for some time.
Late the next day I once again walk through Desire’s Art Deco doorway and part with $16 each for Clark’e and Gerald Nicosa’s biographries of Kerouac.
I can’t account for my recent immersion in Kerouac’s writing. I enjoyed reading him in times past but I find so much more in his work now. I’ve still got a copy of Big Sur to get through – that somewhat downbeat tale of Kerouac’s time in a cabin on the sparsely populated Big Sur coast of California where the Santa Lucia mountains rise abruptly from the Pacific, and where in 1960 he sought escape from the fame that On The Road had brought. There’s a copy of Lonesome Traveller next to it on the shelf.
As for Desolation Angels, Kerouac’s story of his time as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the Cascades (something he took up on the suggestion of Gary Sneider, who spent a number of seasons isolated on one high peak or another reading, studying, writing, philosophising, doing his Buddhist practices and looking out for forest fires), I hadn’t been able to locate a copy at the time. One day while downtown I recalled seeing Satori in Paris in Borders bookshop in the city – which keeps perhaps the best selection of Kerouac of any mainstream bookshop, even more titles than that home of Sydney’s literati – Gleebooks – though I had wandered in to find their last copy of Desolation Angels.
This renewed interest in Kerouac kicked off a minor Hemingway binge. I didn’t return to those titles I read decades ago but did enjoy The Sun Also Rises (also published as Fiesta), To have and Have Not and A Moveable Feast, all early works. The latter is about his six years in Paris in the 1920s when the city was the counterculture capital of the time, home to writers, artists and jazz musicians. It’s a book about living cheap and trying to make it in journalism and, later, as a writer. It’s about the people he met and the cafes he frequented. The Sun Also Rises, too, comes out of his Paris years. It describes the lives of that avant-guard coterie which stimulated Gertrude Stein to exclaim to Hemingway that “You are all a lost generation”.
Books first read decades ago, now redicovered. Why? One thing – I now have greater understanding of the social currents of those times, and having that context makes sense of much of what those books say.
Perhaps it is a coincidence that I rediscovered Kerouac and Hemingway at the same time Yvonne and I started a writing exercise – a shared memoir. An experiment this certainly is, but I’m curious – what will it yield about my association of Yvonne, Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac?