I just finished Jack Kerouac’s great novel — one generally acknowledged to be based on his own cross-country travels, done with his friend Neal Cassady. As I read it, I realized that Kerouac and I could hardly be more different. If I were to write an autobiographical novel, a much more likely title would be “Staying Home.”
I would have written, “I was not surprised that getting ready to leave was monumentally difficult, and it felt overwhelming and worrisome. The world was a scary place — with ticks everywhere. I was even nervous in my own backyard. So it was much more comfortable just to stay in bed.”
Kerouac’s book is generally considered to be one of the most important works of the “beat” generation, which originally stood for “beaten,” but then began to be used in the sense of “beatific” or “upbeat.” Staying Home will look at what happened as the optimism of the 1950s and ’60s faded, and people realized that the only safe place was their own bedroom; perhaps if you were really adventurous, you might go into the kitchen.
When I look at how I feel today vs. how Kerouac apparently felt during his road trips in the late 1940s, I have to keep in mind that when he was doing all that traveling, he was in his mid-20s, whereas I am now over 70. Perhaps if he had lived into his 70s — he died of alcoholism at 47 — he might have come to the same conclusion I did: Nothing beats the feel of your slippers on your own floor or carpet.
Even Paul Simon, on the road with Art Garfunkel in the mid-1960s, saw where he ultimately wanted to be, when he wrote, “And ev’ry stranger’s face I see reminds me that I long to be, homeward bound.” When you are home, there’s no need for that longing. True, if you don’t have HBO, you are going to have to go outside to your mailbox to get the videos of “Game of Thrones,” but if it’s a nice day, that’s not so bad.
Now don’t think that when I was in my 20s I was content to stay home. Just at the age Kerouac was when he was constantly making road trips between New York, Denver and San Francisco, I made quite a road trip myself, and I did it alone. In a matter of less than a week I went from New York City to Knoxville, Tennessee, and then back to New York – with stopovers in Lexington, Kentucky and Roanoke, Virginia. The car I drove was probably much newer than some of the vehicles Cassady and Kerouac used, but for my whole trip one of my tires kept leaking air, and I had to keep filling it. Who says I wasn’t a daring young man?
Here are a few more quotes from On the Road, and what I might write in my book:
Kerouac: “I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future.”
Sherman: “I was halfway across my house, at the dividing line between the kitchen of my gustatory indulgences and the bedroom of my somnolent pleasures.
Kerouac: “‘I just won’t sleep,’ I decided. There were so many other interesting things to do.”
Sherman: “‘I’m going to bed an hour earlier than usual,’ I decided. Now that Jon Stewart has retired from his show, I can’t think of anything more interesting than my pillow right now.”
Kerouac: “Ah, it was a fine night, a warm night, a wine-drinking night, a moony night, and a night to hug your girl and talk and spit and be heavengoing.”
Sherman: “Well, it was an okay night, a cold night, a warm milk-drinking night, a cloudy night and a night to say good-night to your wife and sleep and snore and get ready for your teeth-cleaning the next morning.”
Kerouac: “A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world.”
Sherman: “A pain stabbed my heart, and I thought, ‘Oy, I hope it’s just heartburn.’”
But in reality, were Kerouac and I so very different? Okay, he was a terrific football player in high school, which earned him a scholarship to Columbia (he turned down offers from Notre Dame and Boston College), whereas my big sport was chess. And he spent some time in the Merchant Marine, whereas I was nervous on the Staten Island ferry. And, yes, he traveled all over the place, hanging out with a group of wild people, while I mostly stayed in one place hanging out with academic people. But he did spend some time living in Queens, where I spent my teenage years, and he liked San Francisco. So do I — though Staying Home will show that even the splendor of the SF hills and the Bay can’t match the beauty of your favorite blanket.