The ninth century Zen Master, Linji Yixuan once made the statement, “If you meet a Buddha, kill the Buddha. If you meet a ghost, kill the ghost.” The saying is harsh, but a deeper examination reveals more about the observer of The Buddha instead of The Buddha himself. Killing The Buddha means killing the fixed idea you or anyone creates about a person, a place, or an object. The relationship is not based on anything real, but on the interpretation of the matter. When the reality is experienced there is still that buffer between the new interpretations creating the tension with the old. People of all creeds and backgrounds do this, confusing their own ideas as fact; and when a person is offended by irreverence expressed towards their sacred cows their anger only increases when reminded it is the mere idea of the cow insulted and not the cow itself—whatever that cow may be. The interpretations we conjure with our experiences help us confront whatever life has given us in the moment, and aid us in our next step. Think of the coping mechanism of the child reaching for a teddy bear or a blanket. The child realizes they are in an unstable universe filled with monsters they cannot hope to beat without any help. The teddy bears and blankets are tangible reminders of a hand holding them and guiding them. Eventually, as the child becomes older the need for teddy bears and blankets decrease. This is similar to what some Eastern Orthodox monks will communicate concerning a Christian’s need for liturgies and prayer ropes. When the saint has reached perfection the familiar tangible approaches become more of a stifling restraint than actual help. At this point God can be realized without any preconceived notions and moves freely to and fro as in a dance—enjoying God as God instead of killing God with our dogmas and hierarchies.
This is the approach Barbara Shoup has taken in her novel, Looking for Jack Kerouac. She kills the legendary Kerouac people have formed by reading his popular books, On the Road, Dharma Bums, and Desolation Angels, and introduces us to a man who is an alcoholic spouting off racist, hateful, and right wing remarks, but also brimming with compassion and love. People don’t want Kerouac the man, they want the twenty-something, road-going hipster whose life is one big adventure filled with Jazz, women, sometimes men, booze, and drugs. People cannot fit in to one main category, and will asphyxiate in any box they are forced into for the convenience of a fantasy. Jack Kerouac was a human being, beautiful and scarred like the rest of us, and he was just a Catholic kid trying to find God roaming across America. He never found God, though, instead he came face to face with his own devils as The Buddha faced Mara under the Bodhi Tree and Jesus faced Satan in the desert. Where they overcame, Kerouac was consumed. He was neither timid nor weak in faith, but he was a gentle and sensitive person who did not consider the steep price he would pay in his quest for God. Kerouac was a merry saint overwhelmed with grief, who needed to be loved as the flawed human being he was. Shoup gives us the gift of Jack Kerouac in this book.
Shoup divides the two approaches to Jack Kerouac with the characters, Duke Walczak and Paul Carpetti, two young kids from East Chicago, IN who wanted more out of life than working in the mill. Duke’s approach to Kerouac’s On the Road was one of fantasy and a naïve romance because he wanted to be a writer influenced by Kerouac with the desire to surpass him. Duke believed in the urgency of Sal Paradise’s desire to get on the road and follow Dean Moriarty to Denver, CO, and, eventually to meet his friend Remi Boncoeur in San Francisco for work on a ship that never manifested. Paradise wandered across America, bouncing from town to town, and dive motel to dive motel, never knowing where the next meal would come or if there would be a bed that evening. Kerouac did not mention the dangers he faced on the road but focused on the different people with eyes of complete wonder; but there are dangers, and there are people who seek to harm another. Duke ran into naked hostility and racism when he and Paul were in southern Tennessee as they procured a ride from an older black man. There were boys the same age as Paul and Duke with a confederate flag on their car yelling for these “Yankees” to go back home, and called them “n****r lovers.” Duke wanted to engage them, but Paul convinced him to get in the black man’s car and leave. The boys chased them, throwing beer cans at the car, speeding up and slowing down, driving along side of them, and eventually sped away. The driver apologized to Duke and Paul when he dropped them off outside Chattanooga, but he knew the country better than they, and if they stayed with him, all three might find themselves lynched.
When Duke and Paul finally arrived to St. Petersburg, FL they spent a few weeks living out of a YMCA and restaurants asking about Kerouac to annoyed locals. The irritation had nothing to do with the questions but how Duke related to them in the bars and diners treating them as a means to an end. He was also writing down notes and observations, and, whether intentional or not, Duke objectified the people he talked to. He had a predetermined box to force upon people, and eventually at the Tick Tock people responded to him and Paul with violence. There was an old drunk spouting off his bigotry and right wing politics all in a slur. Duke took on the man by reminding him of the constitution, and perhaps he should take time to read the document before spreading such hateful words. The drunk tried to take a swing at Duke, but fell over himself. He was picked up by a good friend and other people in the bar surrounded Paul and Duke. They all knew Duke and Paul were looking for Kerouac, and the men pointed at the passed out drunk, “There he is.” Duke’s idealism had been shattered as he and Paul were beaten, and thrown out of the bar. Duke decided to leave for California to get his next fix from the next person, but Paul opted to stay in St. Petersburg.
Paul Carpetti, though, is truly a Beat character who is wholly dissatisfied with life, but he is trapped by his own confusion—he doesn’t know what he wants, but he knows what he doesn’t want. While on a class trip to New York City, Paul finds a copy of On the Road, and is instantly drawn to the rougher area of Greenwich Village to experience the Jazz and poetry of Kerouac’s longing. His girlfriend, Kathy, is suspicious of his attraction to On the Road, and when Paul invites her to read the book she dismisses the book because their priest said it was offensive; and that was good enough for her. After they had returned from New York, Paul’s mother is diagnosed with a brain tumor, and dies the following spring. He passes through high school numb and disaffected, and gets a job at the local mill instead of going to college as his mother intended. Kathy moves in and becomes the care taker for Paul, his brother, and father; and after a few months begins discussing marriage. He saw himself ten years in the future still working at the mill, but trapped by marriage and four kids. He felt he had no way out of his life until he met Duke.
Paul found a kindred spirit when Duke roared Kerouac’s love of the mad ones to coworkers deriding his Polish ancestry. The two friends would spend their breaks discussing the deeper issues of existence and what they wanted in their lives; and this was a point of contention with Kathy because Duke was leading Paul away from the standard formula of living. Duke did no such thing. Paul was unhappy and quietly desperate, and in Duke he found a companion who would join him in his search for God knows what. One day, Duke excitedly approached Paul with the news that Kerouac’s sister had died, and the Kerouac’s were currently living in St. Petersburg, FL. After a fight with Kathy over Duke and marriage, Paul finds Duke, and they leave for Florida that evening. Duke proved to be a tiresome pilgrim with women, alcohol, and his tall tales, but the breaking point came when his idealization of Kerouac caused him to mistreat people by harshly judging them—something Kerouac never did because he sought the diamonds in the street. One particular person Duke loathed was Chuck, a college student who worked at the YMCA where Duke and Paul had rooms and the library to pay his way through school. The two become fast friends, and Chuck brings Paul into his adopted family as Duke makes his way to San Francisco.
As Paul stays and works at a local crab shack, he learns that Chuck is friends with Jack Kerouac and his mother. Chuck invites Paul to watch the St. Louis Cardinals play against the New York Yankees in the World Series at the Kerouacs. There were times during these visits they had to leave because no one ever knew which Jack would come out while he was drunk—alcohol was a dice roll for the appearance of Dr. Sax or Mr. Kerouac. One evening, Paul is sitting under Kerouac’s window listening to him type when he is discovered. Paul apologizes profusely for imposing, but genuinely wanted to hear him work. Mamere, Kerouac’s mother, invites Paul in to chicken and noodles, and as he eats, both Kerouac and his mother weep for the loss of his sister, Nin. His brother Gerard died almost forty years prior and the wounds of that loss were reopened. Paul blurted out that he lost his mother earlier that year, and that is when he made a connection with Kerouac the man. Kerouac told him, “And you will never get over it. It’s not meant for us to get over that kind of sadness.” Kerouac’s remark awakened the human side of grief in Paul who had been told that he will soon get over his mother’s death, that the sadness was temporary, and life would get better. Later, he wept in the arms of his friend Ginny, and felt he could continue.
Since I finished this book, the constant word I have for it is “beautiful.” Shoup took away the mystique of the road going legend who sought for the beauty in others and in the roads he walked, but never saw the beauty in himself. He was Jean Val Jean who died never accepting the God who loved him and had mercy on him; but was generous to a fault to the people in his life. Jack Kerouac lost his brother and his sister, he abused drugs and alcohol, he was promiscuous, struggled with accepting his own bisexuality, misogynistic, a devout Catholic, a Buddhist who embraced the sacred hearts of Mary and Jesus, an estranged father, and a bum. How he saw life came out of his experiences, and he saw nothing but suffering. He wanted to seek God, and find out if there was more to life than pain; or at the very least why we have pain. He had belief in God, and still followed Jesus, but his spiritual path was unapologetically messy. His path was honest, and it was human. Shoup put on her gardening gloves and opened the thorny covers of Kerouac’s exterior to see the roses he carried within himself. Kerouac does not deserve our sympathy or worship, but our love. He is our companion in this elegant mess, and an icon pointing us towards that holy road.