Viva Mexico, Viva Kerouac, Viva "On The Road" at 50
By Jonah Raskin
I flew to Mexico at the start of the new year with two suitcases stuffed with contraband for expatriate friends and felt a bit like a latter-day Merry Prankster slipping across the border. Of course, Kerouac felt like an outlaw when he crossed into Mexico and I liked the idea of sharing that feeling with him.
I took a pristine, paperback copy of his 1957 novel "On the Road" to read for the zillionth time. I was curious - wanted to see how the book would strike me on its 50th anniversary, and I wanted to see, as well, how the Mexican section - one of my long-time favorites - holds up. In case you need reminding, it's a short section - only three chapters in Part IV of"On the Road," near the very end of the book - and at the end of the road, too.
But it's one of the most energizing and inspiring parts of the book. In many ways, it feels like the natural ending to the story - the crescendo -though there is a short chapter after the Mexican section - a kind of coda- that provides the final chapter.
As it turns out, I didn't get to the Mexican section until I returned to California. Just as well! So, as I reread it, I also had the opportunity to look back at my most recent visit to Mexico and to see how well Kerouac captures the feeling of Mexico, its small mountain towns and big monstrous cities, its people and its culture.
Music, of course, runs all the way through Kerouac's novel, from beginning to end, and girls (and sex) run through it, and alcohol and marijuana, too. All those elements return for one final send-up in the Mexico section, bigger and better than before. The Mexico section is in keeping with the spirit of the book as a whole. It also takes a new direction, literally South, not East/ West, as the narrator Sal Paradise himself observes. And in Mexico, Paradise finally feels as though he has arrived in paradise and at last in a land of near-perfect freedom. All through "On the Road," Paradise has a keen sense that freedom in America has swiftly come to an end. Shades of the prison house seem everywhere around him, and it freaks him out to see that loss of liberty in an America fixated on big cars and superhighways. The police are everywhere in "On the Road," closing in on him and on a way of life that's fast disappearing. Time and again, Paradise and his on-again, off-again traveling companion Dean Moriarity find themselves stopped by the police, taken to the station house, booked and force to pay a fine. It's an America where Habeas Corpus doesn't exist. Even when the police and the prison house aren't physically there, he feels their palpable presence. America has come to be, Paradise recognizes, a nation that's fenced-in. He makes this wise observation about half way through the book, as he's crossing the country from East to West, and stops in Louisiana. "I wanted to sit on the muddy bank and dig the Mississippi River; instead of that I had to look at it with my nose against a wirefence," he writes angrily and dejectedly. Fencing-in the Mississippi! It seems criminal.
Almost everywhere he goes, from New York to Denver to Los Angeles and San Francisco, he finds a fence closing him out, closing others inside. The only way to escape the American fence is to escape to Mexico. There he finds the police are benign. He smokes marijuana without fear of arrest and incarceration, and he goes to a whorehouse under the watchful eye of the Mexican police. Perhaps this is as much fantasy as reality, and yet it does accurately reflect a Mexico I know - a Mexico in which you feelfreer than in the U.S.A., and where Big Brother isn't watching you constantly.
In Mexico, Paradise and Moriarty feeling cooler than ever before - though the days and nights are literally hotter. They slow down in Mexico and don't care about speed anymore. In Mexico they have freedom from American bureaucracy and law, and freedom to become at one with the "fellahin" -the downtrodden of the world, as Kerouac calls them - who are fenced out of the American dream, which has turned into the American nightmare. Ofcourse, Paradise returns to the U.S.A at the end of "On the Road," but Kerouac went back to Mexico and to Morocco, too, to connect to the fellahin and to a sense of freedom he did not have in the land of his birth.
All through the novel, there's music on car radios, in bars, on thejukebox, and so "On the Road" is an Odyssey with a soundtrack that runs all that way through it and that you can hear from beginning to end. It's a great multi-media novel in which the main characters are media dexterous, and you know that they'd be at home in the present age of the Ipod and the Internet. After listening to jazz - Dizzy Gillespie, LesterYoung, George Shearing, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington - and to Beethoven's opera Fidelio, too, Paradise and Moriarity listen to Mexican mambo and go wild. Paradise's description of the music makes you feel you're there and can hear it and dance to it."All those tremendous numbers," he writes, are "like the sounds you expect to hear on the last day of the world." He adds, "the mambo beat isthe conga beat from Congo, the river of Africa and the world; it's really the world beat." The world beat!
Reading the Mexican section of "On the Road," you realize the prophetic force of the novel, and Kerouac as a prophetic writer. On the Road predicts the end of the world, and the rebirth of the world, too. It's as timely now as ever before. It predicts Kerouac's own death, and his rebirth as an immortal author.
I came home from Mexico, having delivered the contraband I'd carried South, and reread the last sections of the novel. I closed the book with a sense that it ought to be read not so much as a document of the 1950s, or as a reflection of that era. But as a novel of the future, of tomorrow, of history that has not yet been written, of roads not yet traveled and of what lies ahead for each and every one of us.It is not a perfect novel, of course. No such work exists anywhere. Ifeel that it bogs down, falls apart, in Part Three, perhaps the gloomiest part of the novel. The journey to Mexico revives the book and its main characters, saves them from the self-pity in which they begin to wallow.I suppose that Puritanical professors, and judgmental post-modernist, neo-Marxist, recycled feminists might disapprove of the Mexican section since Paradise and Moriarty go to a whorehouse and have sex with prostitutes. But it's lyrically written and it's infused with compassion,sweetness and beauty. Paradise and Moriarity connect with the Mexican prostitutes as equals and treat them with respect. The goddess is alive for Sal Paradise, and she lives in a house of prostitution in a small Mexican town. I, too, have seen her and admired her radiance and glory. Paradise gazes at a "little dark girl" in the whorehouse and sees "her unimpeachable dignity." Moriarity gazes at her, too, then bows his head,and Paradise exclaims, "for she was the queen." And so she was and still is.