- On The North American Road
Daniel C. Schecter, trans.
University of Minnesota Press
132 Pages; Print, $17.95
Following shortly on the publication of The Stray Bullet (2013), Daniel Schecter’s translation of Jorge García-Robles’s book about William S. Burroughs in Mexico, the University of Minnesota Press has issued At the End of the Road, the author’s companion volume on Jack Kerouac. One of the great values of this book, as is the case for the earlier one, is to place Kerouac in the context of transnational phenomena, hence to broaden the conception of him that prevails in the United States. As I wrote about The Stray Bullet a last year in these pages (36.3), understanding Beat Generation authors in this way, rather than as limited in their perceptions to a few roughly strewn sand piles in the landscape of US culture, is essential to grasping their contributions to literature. In response to depictions in their work of encounters with marginalized cultures and subcultures both in the United States and abroad, critical treatments have generated occasions for smugness about racism in American literature. Beginning with literary bully Kenneth Rexroth in the late 1950s, a steady stream of critics have done their best to pound the Beat Generation into a picture of overgrown adolescents giggling at shapes and colors different from what they knew back home.
For their fascination with zones of cultural ferment that manage to elude the smother of dominant culture (African-American neighborhoods, farmworker encampments, impoverished districts in Third World countries), Burroughs and Kerouac have been corralled into characterizations as sexual tourists or “hipster racists.” It is, of course, entirely appropriate to question their participation in imperial white privilege—their work proposes such questioning on a regular basis—but restricting them to this dimension effaces the major challenge their writing brought to the mechanisms of domination. In the preface to At the End of the Road, written for the US edition, García-Robles considers the paradoxical complexity that pervades Kerouac’s perceptions of Mexico. García-Robles begins: “After his own, Mexico was perhaps the single most important country in Jack Kerouac’s life.” Proceeding to a detailed exposition of this importance based on both literary and biographical sources, García-Robles never shies away from the fact that Kerouac “invented and embellished Mexico with his literary designs.” This imaginative treatment is one part of a literary project in which “all the places, situations, and people he re-created in his novels were inventions, too.” These observations are a refreshing inversion of the typical US approach to Kerouac that sears the skin of his books for their supposed distortions of nonwhite persons and cultures, viewing him as a thinly disguised memoirist rather than the novelist he was and preposterously holding him to the journalistic standards that García-Robles explicitly rejects.
The strongest parts of At the End of the Road occur when García-Robles considers the nature of Kerouac’s relationship to Mexico, focusing on the aspects of the country’s reality that interested him and the fictions he produced about them. Noting the flimsy, pseudo-ethnographic imagery that Kerouac sometimes employs, García-Robles pushes further to see dynamic literary machinery at work. He cuts through the cemented image of Kerouac as a mere purveyor of US stereotypes: the Beat author’s “racializations,” rather, are encounters with the deep insecurities of a dominant culture and opportunities to discover what it fails to capture. “In his mind, Jack was beginning to concoct the mythic face of Mexico, whose immediate, apparent freshness contrasted with the hypercivilized, pragmatic civilization of America.” Offering comparisons with reactions to Mexico by other foreign writers—Vladimir Mayakovsky’s disillusionment that the Indians weren’t James Fenimore Cooper’s, Jack London’s ideologically crystallizing statement on the degeneracy of Mexicans stemming from their “various commingled bloods,” those of D. H. Lawrence, Jerzy Grotowski, Carlos Castaneda, and even Burroughs for other reasons—García-Robles focuses on Kerouac...