I'm reading “Vanity of Duluoz,” finally. I bought the book in the mid '90's at the famous Powell's in Portland. I was in Portland to visit a friend, a writer, famous, you've probably heard of him. You might say that this writer friend has made a great success of his powerful admiration for Jack Kerouac, the “Duluoz” whose vanity is autobiographically charted in the book. My friend took Kerouac's conversational naturalism thing and really ran with it.
I'd started reading the book twice before, never getting far. The beginning is full of football exploits and swimming up and down the river, and nothing annoys me more than the recounting of a happy, athletic adolescence. On last year's pilgrimage to my life I came across it and packed it for the return, thinking that it might be worth another try. It was (is).
For me, Kerouac is a maddening figure. Sure he's a wonderfully entertaining stylist, and justifiably praised as an innovator, but ambition and synthetic enthusiasm blow off of him in waves, like the sun discharging heat and light. I'll cheerfully acknowledge his importance, and his talent, but I find a desperate quality in it all, a desperation to be successful, to be thought great and cool. Well, as the man said, “your honor, whom amongst us is perfect?”
It's okay, I'm on board, I agree that he's great, and all of us today who strive to write any damn thing at all owe him a debt of gratitude for giving us permission to write in our own voices instead of cleaving to an approved ideal. Did Frank Sinatra do that for singers? I don't know enough about that; maybe I could look it up.
The other day, halfway through the book, I was motivated to write 1,200 words about my feelings, the feelings that the book was dredging up in me. It all had very little to do with the book itself, or even Jack Kerouac, it was much more about the friend in Portland. When I was finished, I typed along the top, in all caps, “UNPRINTABLE, UNKIND AND UNFAIR.” I'm a bitter, resentful man at the sub-atomic level, and evidently my quantum self had been boiling at the perceived (by me) state of this friendship for years without my really thinking about it.
Reading Kerouac scratched open an old would, and I didn't like what oozed out. But through writing about it, and a little bit of subsequent de-briefing, something happened: I got over it. I had blown the whole thing up out of proportion, and when the light hit it I just got over it.
So now I'm free to finish the book, with great enjoyment I might add. The football parts are over, and as it goes on Jack includes a lot of modest, self-aware appraisals of his faults, yes, he could see them too. And I'm free to love my friend in Portland as of old, having discarded the resentments that my own faults had allowed to develop.
So, it's been a good week, wouldn't you agree?