Wednesday, October 3, 2007

David Brooks & Jack Kerouac

Though I only agree with him maybe half the time, David Brooks is one my favorite NYT columnists. If his background isn't actually in sociology, he certainly cites a fair share of sociological observations in his columns. That's why yesterday's column, "Sal Paradise at 50," caught my eye and added a bit more to my own observations concerning Jack Kerouac and "On the Road" 50 years later.

Brooks argues that most of the re-analysis of Kerouac and his tome today is depressingly negative in comparison to the original reviews of the book, and that the earlier reviews were written "before the great geriatric [Baby Boomer] pall settled over the world, before it became illegal to be cheerful."

I also noticed the "dark, foreboding, broken dreams, failed plans" tone to many of the reviews and wondered if these critics were remembering the right book. As Brooks notes, "according to these and other essays, “On the Road” is the book you want to read if you find Sylvia Plath too upbeat."

Part of this is a function of age, of course. As the generation that came of age with "Road" as its mantra, Baby Boomers are understandably nostalgic for their youth, yet seem to be casting their memories in the haze of mid-life crises:

"Reading through the anniversary commemorations, you feel the gravitational pull of the great Boomer Narcissus. All cultural artifacts have to be interpreted through whatever experiences the Baby Boomer generation is going through at that moment.

"So a book formerly known for its youthful exuberance now becomes a book of gloomy middle-aged disillusion. (In 20 years, “The Cat in the Hat” will be read as a commentary on unreliable home health care workers.)"

LOL. I'll start prepping my kids now.

I'm no Boomer, so I don't "get" the entire nostalgia trip regarding the book (I didn't read "On the Road" until 1994). But what I worry about, and I think Brooks does too, is that today's youth, the Millennial generation, may not be "getting" Kerouac (and his alter ego Sal Paradise) either.

"If Sal Paradise were alive today, he’d be a product of the new rules. He’d be a grad student with an interest in power yoga, on the road to the M.L.A. convention with a documentary about a politically engaged Manitoban dance troupe that he hopes will win a MacArthur grant. He’d be driving a Prius, going a conscientious 55, wearing a seat belt and calling Mom from the Comfort Inns."

Or jabbering constantly on your cellphone and checking in with Facebook while on the road. In fact, feeling and behaving the way the characters did in the book ("stupid, reckless...delightful, moronic, and happiest when they are chasing girls or urinating from a swerving flatbed truck while going 70 miles an hour,") would probably get you locked up or worse.

I'd be willing to wager today's Sal Paradise would probably be rushed to the hospital, diagnosed with some kind of pathology or psychosomatic disorder, then heavily medicated with psychotropic drugs designed to ensure conformity.

The good news, though, and I concur with Brooks' prediction, is that this new ethos won't last. "Someday some hypermanic kid will produce a moronically maxed-out adventure odyssey that will spark the overdue rebellion among all the over-pressured SAT grinds, and us grumpy midlife critics will get to witness a new Kerouac, and the greatest pent-up young-life crisis in the history of the world."

We "grumpy" Gen Xer's had David Foster Wallace. Who have you got?

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