I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty,
he father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.
(This story is not true but that desire makes it and amounts, in its way, to the man who stood at the cave, and called the dead man out, and is dedicated to my brother Jeppe, who is that dead man, and whom I would call out, if I could, but these words are all I have, and have no power to do such as this and so he remains dead, and thus, so too, in my way, do I, though only metaphorically speaking of course, but what good are words if not for calling back to us the dead, and righting the wrongs of the world?)
Mon frère, mon semblable
On Rivers & Roads &
the American Way & My Own Brother Lost
Mon frère, mon semblable
On Rivers & Roads &
the American Way & My Own Brother Lost
In those days, and they seemed like to stretch on forever, though they lasted but two years, we —that is, my brother Jeppe and I (Almos)— lived in a house, beat up & filthy, but seeming, by virtue of its tall, narrow & upright walls, its stained glass windows, and its faded red brick, to be aiming for some better impression, and putting me in mind, as I remember it, of some boy in rags from some long-lost age, called to account for his sins —think Huck Finn or the young Neal Cassady— hair spit-slicked & shining, thin boy-body held tall and with back straight, arms at his sides, and with chin out, he’s hoping to make up in stature and poise for whatever deficiencies in clothing and hygiene, and these no fault of his own but rather of his own downtrodden father, and an abandoned (or free) boy’s wandering ways, and this house wherein lived Jeppe and I (Almos) attached to one just like it, and that to another, and that to another, and so on down the block, and the lot of these uncared for and shabby houses looking much like dusty drunks at a Sunday parade, leaning together for warmth, or support, or comfort, or all three, but meaning, for those who lived inside their walls, the bleeding of lives, of secrets, the parties, the fights, the Sunday sexing, passing along from wall to wall to wall, and we, Jeppe and I, and our three housemates, the youngest on that block, and on that account viewed with some suspicion by the others, of proud Portuguese stock, and all related, though this is but my own supposition, since mostly our neighbours remained out of sight, and we not just the youngest but also the last on that block, next to the alley, a view of which we had from the windows on that side, and to that side our eyes so turned that we could pretend the others did not exist, which in effect they didn’t, since we were young, and who were they anyway, the world was ours, and our goals consisted primarily in getting drunk, and high, and laid, which my brother Jeppe did with some frequency, and so too my roommates, but I the lone dissenter, not from any moral compunctions, but merely from a different object in life, this being to pursue some sort of university degree that might allow me to support myself while I wrote. I had been told —by Jeppe, as well as others— that before I wrote, I had to live, but Jeppe did enough of that for the two of us, so I left it to him to have the adventures, and me to remain sober enough to detail them.
At that time, I worked at a grocery store stocking shelves, while Jeppe had got work miraculously enough with a large bookstore, or that is —even better— at their warehouse, and daily he would bring me what he’d pilfered so that I could add to my growing library, book upon shiny book stacked like bricks against my wall, each one bringing some bit of much needed substance to my all too insubstantial dream. And so it was that one night Jeppe burst into my room and threw himself onto my bed, and me, and his beer-sour breath blasting my face, he shouted in my ear that here was the only book I needed to read and pressed a slender book with an orange spine onto my breast, slapping it with his palm a few times, an old wizened Priest bequeathing his more cherished bible on his acolyte. The book was On the Road.
He rolled off of me and slid his arms behind his head. I was naked beneath the covers and felt resentful of the liberties taken by older brothers, who will always see it the other way around, since the world was all theirs before you arrived, and any bit of space acceded you, considered by them a gift for which you are expected to be eternally grateful, and for which you are eternally beholden. I saw that he meant to lie there beside me until I had read the book through, sleeping through the night next to me if that’s what it took, so that he could be there for the moment I finished, and so witness the moment of my baptism, and so relive his own. I wasn’t having any of it, however. I had to get up in two hours for work.
I told him to fuck off and shoved him from the bed. He fell with a thud on the floor and there he lay until I thought he might stay the night but didn’t care so long as he remained silent and left me to sleep but of course I should have known he was merely plotting his next move, which had to involve me reading the book, and missing work, or he was not the older brother. When a few minutes later he silently slipped out of the room I thought that was it done and turned over cursing the now less than two hours I had left for sleep. But he came back, of course, with a bottle —scotch, of course— this bit of incentive hugged to his chest, and he hopped up on the bed, thrust a glass into my hand and before I could say no, he poured, one glass for me, one glass for himself, and one glass for his ghosts, and they were legion, arising out of the corpses on the bloody battlegrounds of his childhood bedroom strewn, and I took him in, my brother, and it came as something of a shock, to see the blushing earnestness of his soul, there shining in his eyes, and he looking out, and I had a vision of brothers, and of who they were, and what they meant, or could mean, to which I meant to come back to later, but so much came in between, and I soon forgot it, and I had, as well, a vision of him, of my brother, Jeppe, of who he was, inside himself, and it came as something of a shock for me, the younger brother, to discover that the older one had given him some thought, and here was set upon making up for some gross bit of negligence, some shocking deficiency in his upbringing, introducing him to a book —a book!— he said would change his life.
And so I drank glass after glass after glass, and so I read, and rode, along with Jack-as-Sal, on the back of that truck, along endless American highways down into deep dark American rivers and into endless American dreams, all through that lonely night, and cold December in the walls, and my brother’s ghosts out there in the streets, run wild like dogs howling, though Jeppe for once beside me safe, and I say my brother’s ghosts because I had none, but was not the madman my brother was, who burned, who ran the night down, leapt on its back, he’d make it render unto him the secrets that it knew, but really what did I know of him, my brother, but all this, my words, but my suppositions, the expected position taken by the coward-in-living, the sitter-on-the fence, but let’s say anyway, let’s agree, that Jeppe was some son of Cain, and by some fire-breathing chimera of his own creation hounded, to the edge of the world so driven, and since he could not settle, could not find that settling in place, he’d rather be liberated from his flesh, and so fly unfettered, free, or so if we judge his objective by the means taken, but not that night, that night he had come to some sort of rest, and his face in sleep returned to some semblance of childhood peace & bliss, and I watched him there, as he slept, and I thought of brothers, and what a thing it was to be a brother, to have a brother, but he there in his, and me here in mine, our bodies between us, though surely he inside me, as surely as December in those walls that night, but I was too young yet to know the what, the why, the anything much, and thought we had yet years to go, but the feeling I had —ephemeral, elemental— of supreme contentment, and containment, as years ago when the two of us but big-headed, small-bodied boys sailing through dreamy night in dad’s golden boat, his ’69 Chrysler, forever after to be spoken of in hushed tones, and we in back seat silent, Jeppe on one side, I on the other, windows down to let in the cooling night air, and how the moonsilvered mystery of Midwest fields drew our youngeager souls upwards, kept us awake, as our minds sought in vain to equal that great expanse, to fill it with all the magic of our young imaginings, for with Dad at the helm, and with this old boat our trusted vessel, we could dare such as this, would come to no harm, but could contemplate the darkness, and a power greater than even the light, or so it seemed, we were in the presence of some truth we could not fathom, but that came to us in the form of fantastic monsters, fabulous red-eyed beasts, a tribe of fearsome Grendels, and we the brothers Beowulf charged with their destruction and the liberation of the world, and so we flew, and so we flew, safe & sound, car and soul aligned, my brother and I, just as I flew that night reading, aided in part by the scotch burning in belly and soul, and my brother profoundly snoring in the bed beside me, but I must confess, I did not love the book —not then— but it seemed to me a sad journey, it had gone on too long, and what could I make of the writer’s forlorn muse, at novel’s end, ragged in a motheaten coat, beat, that greatest of drivers denied the wheel of the greatest of cars, the Cadillac, the back window from which Jack-as-Sal sadly waves, he’s abandoned his friend, his brother-in-spirit, his muse, after 3.000 miles, abandoned him, but maybe he deserved it, but then Jack-as-Sal was not the first, but this just one of many such going all the way back, back to the mother, back to the hobo father, the one lost, the one sought, the one never found, as all fathers are lost, and never found, at some point or another, and only some years later would I realize that Neal is brother to Huck, yet another boy let on his own to become wise in the ways of the world, to live to witness and to testify, to all manners of degradation, these rogues, these holy fools but the cowards’ proxies, the keepers of the secret souls of the spoiled sons of civilization —those double-crossing Toms— who play but leave their beat brothers to pay the price, though sure enough they’ll toss a few coins their way, there’s half the price of the ticket, before bidding a hasty retreat back to the sunny kitchens of some Aunt Sally, where you will find them some years later, at some drunken red-eyed dawn to their misty-eyed dreams lost, all that they might have been and all that they might have done if they had been free, free like Huck, or free like Neal, if only they had heeded that call to adventure, had treated it as other than a game, had taken in earnest to the highway or the river, followed it all down to the very end, what might they have found, what might they have known, had they but greeted the world like Huck, like Neal, like a boy is meant to be, unclothed, that is — in both the figurative and literal sense of that word — if only if only if only — if only their mantra rising like holy smoke rising with intoxicating pungency of spent spirit rising, and all of it burning, his childhood dreams, gone, his childhood Huck, gone, and N.C., secret hero, blessed cocksman, gone, and here his holy apparition rising, rising, and again, the grimy grinning beatified, again — from dark land with dark word returned — and that word is wow! And all is become again, and all is restored again, and the bar has let out, and look here they come that holy tribe, the altar boys to Joy, and the word is wow! And wow that star on the prairie drooping and shedding her sparkler dims, and wow the night dark and deep as dream and all of America there held and the benevolent fairy moon in the great good Nebraska sky blessing the boys in the truck, among them the young Jack-as-Sal, with a curse, with a vision of the real America from which they’ll never recover, but in this their church they will congregate, they’ll say their prayers, they’ll drink their wine, and the grinning priests up front will give thanks , wishing all that is good in the world upon them, and in the back by some sacred need driven one of the brethren will rise, will stand, but peeing into the wind is never a good idea, unless for the fit of bonhomie that follows, the roaring cheers of fellowship, and that burning light inside them, that is America, as it was, as it was meant to be, that is it, the wow, the dream of Dean, or Neal, or Huck, the one Jack-as-Sal chases, from east to west, from north to west, the raw smell of flesh, and of rivers, or democracy, that is, and he will spend the rest of his life chasing it, having found it but once, on the back of that truck, and so cursed forever to remember, to dream, to drink, to forget.
But I did not know anything of Jack, his life, his fate, then, but only that the book seemed sad to me, the journey had gone on too long, and nothing in the end came of it, though of course nothing ever could, that much I knew as I read it, felt keen sadness for what must surely come, for what would come of Dean (I didn’t know of Jack’s muse then) because what could come but that he’d find his father but in himself, for the world has no place for such as him, and I was near to weeping when I closed the book, for I recognized my brother Jeppe in Dean, and the book brought me close to recognizing what I had until then avoided — namely, that unless he or the world changed . . . but here I stopped, afraid to voice the inevitability for fear of giving word, and so life, to curse. And when my brother woke, anxious to hear what I had thought, to witness my conversion to his religion, I could not but confess to my ambivalence, I could not love the book as he did (I did not want to encourage his dangerous tendencies to excess for he would burn out, he would), I had not been all that impressed, and what is it about us, why do we do it, are we such low, such despicable animals, that when called to love, to embrace, to sweetly caress to confirm whatever dreams, whatever visions, hold us buoyant and bobbing in this great drowning sea of life, but I must now admit that I took more than just some small bit of pleasure from taking the contrary view, and nearly convinced myself I hated the book when I saw the eager earnest look Jeppe gave me, like he was some small big-headed boy come to beg a sweet at the back door of the shop, and that sweet the only one he’s like to have in all of his life, and so I broke Jeppe’s all too breakable heart, he’d been counting on me so much. And then, adding cruelty on top of cruelty, I told him that the book, like the journey it details, had gone on too long, I’d grown tired of it halfway through.
Like a Church Elder looks upon the recalcitrant, so my brother looked at me, and tugged the book from out of my hands — slowly, gently, as though to treat it in any other fashion would do it offense. And I regretted it instantly that moment of lowdownness on my part, but what could I do? Oh, what could I do? I was drunk and exhausted and the realization that I was now out of a job and would have to find another was slowly settling in so that I wanted nothing more than to climb into bed, pull the covers over my head, and forget all. Which Jeppe seemed happy enough to let me do. He left my room without a word, closing the door quietly behind him, another sign of his state of mind for usually, if he did not slam it unthinkingly, he left it open altogether.
So it was that I first became acquainted with the book that for one reason or another has sought me out again and again over the years, returning with obstinate regularity, in undergrad, then again in grad school, then offering itself up as the subject for my PhD. Thesis, and each time it has felt like my brother has come knocking at my door, to fix upon me once again his face, and on it the forlorn look of a boy betrayed, the endless horizon of his hope foreclosed, which explains my ambivalence, and finally, my love (only fully understood after my most recent reading, undertaken one month ago in preparation for writing this article) for this slight work of such strangely lasting power.
How could I have missed it! I’ve read it some 20 or so times since that first disappointed reading, each time with a different object, and each time extracting something other than the main force of the book, but here it came —finally— call it an epiphany, call it my brother come round, his sad laughing spirit there in the room, and how is it that older brothers over time to younger brothers turn, but Sal’s mad dash from one end of myth to the other, and Jack on his typewriter not far behind, chasing the fevered frenzied quicksilver madness of his muse with such heartbreaking earnestness, his desire both to live as Cassady, to know life so freely, and to write the place where the two of them might be and grow old together, but this not to be, for it could not be, and how could you not see, Ti Jean, the inevitable sad end, yours in a drunken rant, his on some lonely railway track, and the two of you lost forever, as gone as that time, and hope as soft and elusive as a faithless lover’s breath, but betrayal as inevitable as Tom’s of his playpal Huck, and Huck, the pure spirit of America, not yet gone mad, willing to entertain all sorts of madness, if coming from those who lived in proper houses, wore shoes, and had education, for they he considered well mad generally, and so their mad behaviour to be expected, and Tom’s imagination like to be considerably better than his, by virtue of his education and station in life and the backing of all of civilized society, however strangely seeming, and so Huck would swallow his compunctions, and torture poor Jim, his true soul’s mate, who went along as Huck did, the two of them but marginalized figures in America’s story, told by and starring the middle class Toms, but Tom reborn in the body of some working class son of French Canadian immigrants in some Massachusetts town, none other than Ti Jean, haunted as I am by the death of a brother, and that brother Huck Finn, sweet, sainted Huck, the lost democratic soul of America, a boy’s mad unfettered spirit, he’d live life as naked and pure as into it he came, and is there any character so heartbreaking in his innocence, and over the whole of the novel a shadow falls, and so for this reader those strange-seeming final pages, not strange, not at all, but rather sadly inevitable, for Huck is too good, too pure, and so, the world being what it is —or America (as the world was then becoming, though they did not, could not know it then) being what it is— lost, and Huck cannot be found, or saved, for he is found and saved already, though lost from the start, and this the paradox of the American dream, its true heart, and the dreamers, the writers, the virtuous sinners, Kerouac’s mad ones, beat ones, these the keepers of this particular flame, and so it was, how could Jack resist, when out of the west came his jailkid shrouded in mystery, sweet talking in his mad sexy careening cadences, drawing him out, down again, to spend his days with the boys under the bridge, and how he felt it then, the weight of his filth, the corrupting soul-squeeze of the tedious intellectualness of the eastern tribes, how it stirred up, how it roused, his longing for release, and flight, for the west, that mythical land, the only land, commensurate to a boy’s capacity for wonder, yes, he would, he would fling himself headlong into the face of it, chase after this Natural Tailor of Natural Joy, in this gesture, a yea-saying overburst of American joy, pursue his muse, his Neal, his Dean, his Cody, his visionquest, from one end of the great continent to the other, for seven years he would, like some Odysseus lost, but no Penelope the Circumspect back home waiting, and this the point, for from her deadly domesticity he was in flight, she’d close him round in a circle of sweet care and comfort, and squeeze, and squeeze, the soul right out of him —ah, but it was fame did that, time did that, the impossibility of ever finding Dean, of ever being Dean, the slow seeping poison of his epiphany— Jack, my brother, and Dean my brother, and Jeppe my brother, all of them betrayed, as all of them betray, the brothers left behind to call in vain outside their windows, we were promised a party, forever a party, or at the very least salvation, some holy moment of grace, or transfiguration, our heroes blazing on high, revealed, and the world rejoicing, but instead we got what was there all along, and we felt it all along, and it’s the secret to our desperation —or, at least, to this reader as he read— the wish for something other than a tragic end, but the alternative yet to be imagined, for what is the fate of Hucks and Deans and Jacks —and my own Jeppe— in America, where does America find place for those mad ones, but in the beat spirit of those brought low, and isn’t this the point? To create the yearning wherein lies the direction, the possibility for redemption, salvation, for some better world than this, a place for lost fathers and lost brothers, a place where my brother & I, Huck & Jim (no, not Tom, for Tom is the problem — for this is not a fiction, my friends, though neither is it true), Sal & Dean, Jack & Neal, can grow old together?
And so there it is the revelation at last, after all those years, and all those readings, and this, the most sober of them all, as these years have made me, and my brother Jeppe somewhere out there, where he always was, where he’ll always be, along with the grandfather I never met, the two of them sharing a seat with the crackheads and the drunks —these forlorn rags— who on occasion take up brief residence, not beneath a bridge in this case, but rather a shelter of sorts made to accommodate the garbage bins of the condos next door, and this hardly constituting a shelter, the walls and roof offering but pitiful protection, the roof being made of wood lattice and so open to the elements, and the walls completely open, and so these adult Hucks completely exposed, at the mercy of the skies and the eyes of those watching in the rooms up above, and chased from the place, finally, by a bit of opera blasted, not that we wish them ill, I suppose, but that we do not want them there to bear witness to our failed dreams for freedom, or eternal youth, or for our brothers to come down, just one more time, please, just one more time, just one more time, just one more time…