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The Book Report

Years ago, Bohemians used to sit around in smoky living rooms by the light of candles jammed into Chianti bottles talking about the novels they would write but never did.

Now, they sit around in bars or all-night one-arm joints still talking about the novels they are going to write. The only difference is that now they are writing them and, even more surprising, publishers are bringing them out.

After reading one of these novels, “On the Road” (Viking: $3.95) by Jack Kerouac, who is being hailed by some eastern reviewers as a new Thomas Wolfe, I am convinced that the older ways of Bohemia were better. Call me reactionary.

The novel (if by any stretch of definition this can be called a novel) has gone into its third printing, which merely proves that there is a fairly substantial group of readers today who care nothing at all for such trivial matters as plot, characterization, style and story.

Mr. Kerouac may one day be a good writer, but that day will come when he stops riding around in a compulsive search for “material” and settles down to learn some of the first things about the craft.

“On the Road” covers a lot of mileage, introduces a scrapbook full of “characters,” has some fairly valid fragments of setting and locale; the only trouble is that for all its travel, it goes nowhere.

Between 1947 and 1950, Mr. Kerouac bummed around the country and may have taken some notes on his journey. These notes have been crammed together without selection or structure to form a pointless odyssey. This semifictionalized, nightmare road map has been published as a novel.

The central character is an odd-ball, would-be writer named Sal Paradise who has divorced his wife and is now in search of truth, love, meaning and understanding. Between studying on the GI bill and working at odd jobs, he plays a kind of cross-country blind man’s buff with an equally neurotic young Lothario, an ex-reform school inmate named Dean Moriarty, who is fond of women, fast cars, marijuana, hot jazz and Nietzsche in roughly that order.

Why Paradise pursues this miserable little car thief is never quite made clear. I think it has something to do with sitting down and having a heart-to-heart talk. The talk never quite comes off, which is incidentally true of the book.

In the course of is journeys crisscrossing the United States, Sal manages to meet as gamy a collection of drug addicts, loose women, poseurs, thieves and nuts as you could ever find on Skid Row. They drink, carouse, try anything once, steal, listen to jazz, talk all night and separate with all the emotion of a paramecium splitting up.

Mr. Kerouac calls this “The Beat Generation,” but a much more accurate description would be “The Deadbeat Generation.” I don’t know whether such people really exist, but if they do, he has thoroughly failed to make them believable.

They talk in a peculiar combination of jive slang and intellectual banter: “Hell, man, I know very well you didn’t come to me only to want to become a writer, and after all what do I really know about it except you’ve got to stick to it with the energy of a benny addict.”

They dress like bums, although no self-respecting bum would want anything to do with them. Life is a big party, a crazy brawl -- and good-by.

There is possibly a story here, for these people suffer from an expression of the soul. But the man who tells it will have to make a story out of it, will have to make his characters come alive. Mr. Kerouac deals with zombies.

This story appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 4, 1957.


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