letter to jack kerouac

Midnight after reading Lonesome Traveler and walking back on jagged stairs through Trembley rise and fall, and looking down thru springtime still bare skinny trees and wet gray moonlit mist, past the dark down beaten bare bonecold empty southside railyards, at the twinkling across the river “boy isn’t this charming, i hope the tourists come” northside lights, and the clock tower sounds its twelve bongs, my black just-bought sneakers, and should-be washed gray coat with every pocket assigned to familiar items (clock pen, dictionary, tiny umbrella, cigs, lighter, wallet, keys – my walking purse), I’m solid and comfortable, thinking toward this, the much thought about all-out attempt to address you, your life, your art, and perhaps in doing so, myself, the world, and people.

Now thru the wall come regular and more frantic now squeaks of my friend’s loft, not built for the silent pounding he’s giving his girl. She’s moaning out her real or imagined enthusiasm, just after me thinking they may as well scream, there’s nothing more constraining and inwardly frustrating than coming like the world’s end, grand all across the valley nuclear blast, but with pursed lips so as not to let on to grandma that sex is real and didn’t die with grandpa, who always did his duty in the quick mechanical way he counted the stock items at his everyday monotony grocery loading dock. She’d count his staccato plunges, never move or change her breath, he’d finish in the usual minute, turn over and straightaway they’d sleep.

My friend’s finished, and there is something to the word lonesome in this title, being now in this perfume smell long leg black stocking land of mostly strangers.

Lonesomeness is its own reward. It heightens my link to things, to the water running through the walls, and the cricket chirping motor of the frig with my juice and tea and so many rotting things my friends hope will go away.

Lonesomeness lets me linger and leaf thru my memory, of my years in Florida and the summertime all-hell-and-fury rainstorms, thickquick with lightning blasts I’d listen to, hiding out across town in my parent’s newbuilt palace, all clear and spacious and many windowed, with ceilings high and every metal surface flashing from the flash, then the quickafter cougar yell building crash thunder, not rolling but on me, making me jump and look around. One time I walked out into the large vaulted lanai and around the tiny pool, the walk-in bathtub, where the rain from above was cut into a fine mist by the closely spaced screen holes of the lanai, and could smell a burning smell, but not a flaming tree in sight.

There was another time, on the phone with a girl of no little obsession, who changed her mind about me as quick as these Florida summerstorms, and her now in a mood, and me now too, talking to her, as a storm hits and I’m trying to explain that we’re meant to be, but her not convinced, “how can you tell,” and me saying listen to God and intuition and sure signs but her still being deaf to it, with now the storm raging and I say again listen to God, but her not budging and finally I slam down the phone, just as one mother of a vengeanceful thundercrash shakes our little town with me thinking “God sounds pretty loud.”

And with mean fate and the thunder rumbling, or the memory of it rumbling, or me rumbling, I walk over and sit at the stool-height island bar in the large large immaculate bright clear kitchen to first a cigarette and then vodka poured from an immaculate bright clear Absolut bottle, and probably half a joint nearby, and brood on how it is she’s always over to see me in a flash when I get a bag and borrowing, while with her being frigid accusing outright miserly when it’s her dime, and me always giving, always again and again, like endless waves to a rocky cold shore never responding, and wondering why I put up with her bitching, but somehow then a light flicks on, and understanding seeps through me in a wordless way that builds, the power builds, and (sunlight now) I see her clearly, with compassion, and understand love all the more.

Without the possibility of any other outcome my hand moves on its own to the everpresent pen and I open my journal to an immaculate bright clear and full of all possibility page and write and write and write and write. Always in pen, no mistakes, alla prima. With no thought on why or where to, the words arrive and I duly record them. This I understand about you, Jack Kerouac, your duty on earth. I understand and appreciate telling a tale for no other reason than companionship. Very strange to ask, “Why write? What for?”

I’ve read the accounts of your life. The whole story, and it tied to your work, and especially the big-bad ever-expectant accusing fame-mongering critical commentators of course vastly missing the point, mostly cause they so needly sought one, and one that could be tidy and well-remembered by the many many strangers who wanted the synopsis tagline to go with the now well known name. “That’s not writing, it’s typing,” says Mr. Capote with a blindness that becomes him.

People say fame did you in. That’s a tagline too. I know you better. I know what it’s like to be born with a cross as big as the Empire State, and the moon and back to carry it. Love, work, and suffer. Fame was the convenient escalation of the all-the-time-there path to martyrdom for you.

You’re born with the suffering of the world and felt it more keenly than most grimy offwork dying & desperate men all around because you can see and have an artist’s compassion for things. And amidst all the deaf to God thunder, eyeshut, just do your job, never mind the glory, that so completely fills this world, you watch and live and in you builds a landscape, a vision for detail, and an immense more than Niagara’s endless rushing need to let it flow out of brain onto page, line by line by line, meanwhile cursing the slowness and quietness of the task when inside you it’s exploding.

Blast It Out ….capture the mood & image as it’s fresh, a novel in three days. This I also understand about you, Jack. There’s nothing as sad as a beauty fixed up over time, some liposuction here, and a nose job later, and on and on the plastic surgeon editors erase whatever in the work was real and true and conveyed the need for it.

The writer’s need. That’s what’s missing from these histories of you, the public myth. Often I’ve wondered if you read Rilke, and what you’d have made of a line like: The only possible judgment of writing comes from it arising out of need. All the fame-mongers go to hell, I’m writing to write, with no expectation, because there’s no other way.

How could they understand the life or deathness, the very tied to your soul necessity, of expressing and remembering and living? You seek because there are details to glory in. You write because you can’t possibly keep it all in your head. There’s no other way. Your enthusiasm for living things straight out and then bringing them again to a new sort of more enduring life in words is a joyous thing. I’m glad you were alive.

But there’s a dark side to this writer’s need, the one that really did you in, and many others like you: the martyrdom side of need. Like you, I over time found that the need, the compulsion, the sense-making writer’s reflex, was strongest when emotions ran high and trouble loomed large. Soap opera circumstances arose and gave apparent direction, strength, and power to my writing. I learned to like it.

We martyrs live the sort of life that drives this compulsion, meanwhile half aware that we’re doing it deliberately. We live to extremes and milk every fight every worry every fear for every drop of truth and leave no-longer-patient lovers frantic because they can’t follow us and don’t see why or as has happened often say things like “You’re blowing things up just so you can write your goddamned book.”

Things become immense only, grandscale, including the habits that kill, that killed you, that lead very obviously though unseen and ignored toward too soon extinguished an end to a bright bright flame. A martyr’s death, and each day of drinking is penance for the everpresent sin of being a worthless ass never quite able to fully express or be what we see and hear.

Living the binge and purge, seeking extremes, crazywild people and scenes, and pulling stunts, and then outing it all in one huge orgasmic justifying write of passage, and afterward the slump, the emotional hangover and deadness and depression till again the compulsion, and another bar, more people, more scenes, to begin again the cycle, each time more out of control, with us loving it.

For the last five years I’ve lived the martyr’s life, and while in it, the life, each moment was mine, exalting and spiraling, or mired down and dismal dark. And by writing, the grand saga unfolding always, it all had a purpose and a plan. Rebel for a cause, I saw no real reason to slow down.

Until, yes you guessed it, last October, when after long pinstripe blackshoe work hours, off early, I’m alone at a bar downing my first wicked strong Zombie, now relaxing and ready for trouble and calling all over, sweet bartender lady giving me more and more quarters, while making another very lethal death drink, and me with an empty stomach.

I convince a guy and his girl to join me, though I’m way ahead and loud, they leave and I follow, argue argue in the parking lot, then I’m off driving alone, this mix tape I made blasting and me slapping the steering wheel, and I drive past my turn cause there’s more still to do in another town, and the road is straight and dark, and suddenly spinning crunch wetness smash swirl all hell imploding dark upside down and then stop. Settling hiss. Slow dripping.

I rolled the car several times off the road into a swampy field miraculously missing every nearby solid thing and me not dead. The windows were open and now mud over the entire Lincoln Continental interior and my things and my suit and me. In a daze, both drunk and scared senseless, I climb out and walk to the road, where people are talking, amazed I’m alive, then ambulance lights, hospital room, mean cop, and morning waking backache on hard & cold jail cell floor.

All day that day talk and talk and bumming smokes from cell mates, $10,000 bail and me in mudcaked business suit and ribs blaring painful but no one listening, me a criminal. The car dead, no insurance, I lose my job, thousands in lawyer money, my family all worried, fair weather friends all critical and nowhere around, and me all alone for one last month of runwild reckless drinking blackout did we fuck whose glass is this whose he what happened last night smoke smoke smoke not caring.

Then off to rehab to please the judge and get off easy, and every night there write the novel, and during the day learn the secret about my martyrdom, and learn how much better the writing is, more clear consistent worthwhile exuberant while sober, something I wouldn’t have thought possible, so long I’d been the drink-to-death dedicated describer of detail.

And here now, back to school, and five months clean and dry, with death no longer the semiconscious prize I’m after, but now work, and balance, and loving life thru and thru.

During these months I read your work, Jack, and learned your life, and sadly the last years of it which clearly would be mine as well if not for that Florida swamp and the sweet bartender and the Zombies.

Now outside the morning light and springtime birds chirping, and me the only soul awake and glad to see the morning come, whereas once long nights I closed curtains shirking to my vampire bed to lie awake, drugged, teeth chattering till noon.

Glad to see the light and glad to know somehow I saw the secret and have broken away from the artist binge and purge, the martyrdom, and can now expect to live, and not regret things and quickly watch my art turn into self-inflicted bitterness and paranoia, and then someday no warning, click, the light goes out, no fanfare, no winning lunge, just hello death, I’ve been expecting you, where’ve you been?

And glad to know of Kerouac, the language of water, now met. I among the thousands after who’ve read your words and felt the urgent go, and learn to look more closely because of you, can only offer this letter, and my respect sympathy admiration and jealous twinges in return.

“A blade of grass jiggling in the winds of infinity, anchored to a rock, and for your own poor gentle flesh no answer.”

This is my answer. May your oil lamp burn on in infinity.

(April 1992)