Friday, November 23, 2012

My Vacation as Parallax, Pt. 8

I ran out of money in Chicago.

I had a reserve of eighty-something bucks through PayPal1 that I set to transfer to my bank account, knowing it would take three days. I left Chicago on Wednesday, the fifth day of September. I spent the day driving through Illinois and Missouri on my way to Kansas City to visit my best friend.

I mention the date because it is significant to me and to this series of essays I’ve been writing about travel.

This was the 55th anniversary of the publication of On the Road by Jack Kerouac. I am unashamed to embrace my pretension on this point: I love On the Road. It was one of the three most formative reading experiences of my life.2 The books I’ve loved most have always been about travel, ever since I was a child.

On the Road, on the off chance you’ve never bothered to read it, is a semi-autobiographical story of a young man who craves newness, novelty. He craves meaning. Kerouac disguises himself in the character of Sal Paradise who makes the wild friendship of another young man, an artist and writer named Dean Moriarty (a thinly veiled version of Neal Cassady, a writer who died in Mexico after passing out drunk near train tracks... not with a bang but a whimper). They undertake an amphetamine-fueled trip cross-country and back. And back again.

The plot of On the Road isn’t what’s important- or really even all that interesting- about the book. On the Road is about a road trip in the same way that Moby Dick is a book about a whale. The plot is there to distract you from noticing that you’re learning about the way people act, the way people change.

I read On the Road in the summer between high school and college. I then spent the next few years3 thinking about leaving whatever thing I was doing and grabbing a crazy person to go on a long trip and take a lot of drugs.

I see myself in these characters. For good reasons and bad reasons, self-effacing and self-deprecating. I am much like the sharks that terrify me so. It would seem I need constant motion.

I commented recently to my dear friend Brad that travel is in all of my stories. I realized that the book I’m writing is a road story.4 I told Brad that when I think about it a lot of my songs are about travel. Brad wisely said, “That’s largely your personal narrative. You’re always moving somewhere.”

Brad’s right. He’s identified a pattern that I overlooked in my own life. I’m always coming from somewhere and on my way somewhere. The act of settling seems to be a burden to me.

Like Salvatore Paradise in On the Road, I am ever dissatisfied. And it isn’t mere restlessness. It is darker than that. When I arrive at whichever destination I discover that what I was looking for has moved on. My friends may still be there but they’re busy with lives that they’ve been building while I was away, burning through my options.

Before I left Chicago on Wednesday I cleaned the car of the empty water bottles and sunflower seed packages and other detritus attendant with a road trip. I was fortunate to discover a CD wedged beneath the driver’s seat. “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” by Kanye West was a happily received Christmas gift from my wife several years ago. I blasted that music from Springfield to the Mississippi River. One song in particular fascinated me on this drive. “Runaway” describes a man who loves deeply but self-sabotages routinely. The song seems to come from the perfect median between id and superego, without the mitigation of the pesky ego.5

This song, and a surprising number of other songs by Kanye West, opens a window into my own behavior. The narrator in the song and I have in common the fear-based impulse to get out of a good situation early, hopefully before it goes bad- to get out before it is boring.
Boredom is the greatest sin.
There is no insult to life that is greater than finding it dull. That is the moral lesson of On the Road. The same goes for “Runaway”.
I crossed the famous river in the afternoon and couldn’t help myself. I left the highway to slow-roll through Hannibal, Missouri.
You must know the significance of Hannibal. This once was the home of a young man named Samuel Clemens. He moved there at the age of four. Hannibal was the role model for the town of St. Petersburg in the books The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
I’ve been to Hannibal a few times. I love it. Its Twain-iness in spots is exactly as charming and as opportunistic as you’d expect. They can’t have an ice cream shop, it has to be Becky Thatcher’s Olde Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor or something to that effect. Huck’s Candy Shoppe. Indian Joe’s Olde Indian Emporium6.
On Hill Street in Hannibal is the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum. It is a house and Samuel Clemens lived in that house for nine years of his youth from age 9 to age 18 or so. The house is decorated with fascinating looking objects from the era of Clemens’ boyhood that DID NOT NECESSARILY BELONG TO TWAIN AND WE NEVER REALLY SAID THEY DID. For a small fee you may wander through the house not touching these objects that didn’t belong to the famous writer or his family.
A sign on the fence next to Mark Twain’s possible childhood home says something to the effect of: “Authentic Replica of Whitewashed Fence in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” And you may, if inclined, take pictures of yourself and your family in front of this real thing that is like a thing that ONLY EXISTS IN THE IMAGINATION. And they do not charge you for this privilege.
God, I love things like this.
Places like this are where metatext becomes ACTUAL TEXT. Awesome.
Mr. Clemens would love it, too, I’d bet. But he’d love it the way I love seeing commercials for Golden Corral. He’d revel in how heartily he shook his head, how aghast he could feel at the obviousness of it.

You see, Twain was a prophet. And I don’t mean that in the Delphic Oracle kind of way, I mean that in the Jeremiah of the Old Testament kind of way. He took a look at the behaviors and practices of the culture around him and he recognized the danger our habits created and he felt compelled to try to change the path. He tried to use classic satire to make cartoonish balloon animal shaped warning signs. Like Swift, he hoped that if he held up a garish mirror his contemporaries would see their mistakes and clean off the clown makeup before it was too late.
But he knew they wouldn’t.
In one of Twain’s last writings, The War Prayer, Twain describes a religious service. War is beginning. The minister prays to commission the patriotic soldiers of the land to go with god into battle and be victorious. A mysterious stranger takes the podium from the minister and explains to the people there that the Almighty has heard the prayer that was spoken but also the unspoken prayer. He says God has sent him to put that unspoken prayer into words. It is brutal.
Twain tried to publish the piece and it was rejected. He told his friend Dan Beard that he wouldn’t publish it. He said that he had told the whole truth in it and only dead men could speak a truth like that. That was in 1905. It was finally published in 1923, well after his death.
Twain had a way of looking at multiple sides of a problem. He had compassion for even those with whom he disagreed. But he was no sucker, no sissy.
That’s a commonality between the three artists I encountered on my drive that day. Jack Kerouac, Kanye West, and Mark Twain each display a passion for life. Each wanted to have it both ways, but knew better than to think they could. Now, these three men couldn’t be much different. One from the Southern Gentry, one from a working-class half-Quebecois Catholic family, one a poor black kid from Chicago. But each transcended those roots to become symbols to people looking for symbols. People like me. People who choose to believe there is deeper meaning in the messages that people send. Signal is more than sign, right?! It must be.
And yeah, I’m building Kanye up a lot here by putting him in this lineup, I know it. So what? You know who he is, don’t you? Yes. Everybody does, even people who have never voluntarily listened to a second of hip-hop. And that is his own doing. He’s a vital artist, even if he can be a douche-bag. And Twain and Kerouac burned bridges, too. Both of them were followed by controversy. The main difference being that Twain was charming. Kerouac and West stepped on toes and defended themselves by refusing to apologize.7
There are few artists who succeed. And fewer still who appear fearless in their attempts to create something new after they’ve achieved acclaim. Fewer still who shove the newness of their work brazenly into the maws of their critics. These three are among those elite, to my mind.
In On the Road Kerouac says “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who never say a commonplace thing.”
I believe that all three of these artists would sign on to that sentiment. And I believe that sentiment applies quite well to each of them. And I think they’d each agree with me about that.
I left the town of Twain’s childhood and the river that was his inspiration. I drove toward the sun for a few more hours. I was going to see the least commonplace person I know. She wasn’t going to do any drugs with me, nor would she leave behind her job and apartment and responsibilities to drive to the next ocean west of us. But she’d know exactly why I wanted to. And she’d buy me a tattoo instead. That’s good enough.

1 I’m not really sure why it takes 3 days for PayPal to transfer money to my bank account. I guess this fancy online payment service has to use terrestrial couriers to bring the cash from their online accounts to my brick and mortar bank location. Oddly, when somebody buys music from me online the money comes out of their account IMMEDIATELY. Not so with getting that money to my account. PayPal frequently has fourteen American dollars that belong to me tied up in super-important high-risk investments, I have to assume. Do I complain to PayPal? No. They have been known to temporarily suspend the account of whiners. By simple fiat. They have the temperament of a petulant child. As do I. But they have the power in this relationship. Who else would I use? They have my money, so they win this contest.
2 The other two are also stories of traveling. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig and Melville’s Moby Dick.
3 By “the next few years” I simply mean “all of the years since”.
4 This was unplanned. I had an idea for a story about a man and looking back over the almost finished story I see that each chapter has a different tale of traveling. Many things about this project have lined up by happy accident. It will make me seem so much smarter than I am.
5 Wouldn’t it be awesome if Freud and Kanye were contemporaries?! Oh, the possibilities!
6 Does not exist.
7 SUPER tempted to try to make a case for some weird linear reincarnation thing right here. Clemens died in 1910, Kerouac was born in 1922. Kerouac died in 1969, West was born in ’77. Each created prolifically and each was embraced and rejected by their fans. Each created a persona to shield them from their own creative work. I love each of them. There’s a lot at work here.


  1. Damnit, Marty. Now I'm going to have to start rereading Mark Twain.

  2. Marty. Favorite entry. But I have an affinity for both Twain and Kerouac. And sometimes I like Kanye West -- don't tell anyone... It'll ruin my image. I feel like your 8 part blog puts the reader right on the "road trip" with you. Very deep. Now, come back and make me a latte.

  3. This is my favourite of yours so far, too! Also thanks for the link to the War Prayer, I've never read that one and it is fantastic.
    Now I'm dying to read the book you're writing!

    Best of luck back in Chicago, and seriously, let me know the next time you are in Kansas City!
    - Kelsey