Anyone interested in Nelson Algren’s opinion of Jack Kerouac would get the impression from an item I posted several years ago that he was less than enamoured of him. Which would be accurate. After all, the item — about Algren’s indelible review of Kerouac’s 1965 novel Desolation Angels — was titled “The Beats Left Algren Cold, Kerouac Especially.”As I recently discovered, however, Algren at first had some hope for Kerouac. His review of On the Road for the Chicago Sun-Times, when the novel was published, in 1957, was headlined “Kerouac Deftly Etches the ‘Go’ Generation.” (The term is a reference to John Clellon Holmes’s 1952 novel Go, which was in fact the first novel about what came to be called the Beat generation.)
Here’s Algren’s lede: “We’ve had so many Fortune magazine-colored accounts, of late, on the steel-trimmed minds and iron wills that operate the executive suites that it’s a true relief to happen upon a bookful of fools who’d rather battle a pinball machine than stake out a claim to a desk in an ad agency.” And the second graf captured the essence of the novel’s claim to fame: “Jack Kerouac speaks for the beat, sad-brown or breathless generation that came out of World War II with a huge head of steam and no rails to ride on; wailing ‘If you don’t weep for us Johnnie Ray will’ as it jitterbugged past so fast that now we aren’t certain what all the tears were for.”
Understandably, Algren’s hope was not unalloyed. He had qualms. Kerouac’s hipsters — “hep cats” in the jargon of the ’50s — “will be compared with F.Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Yes-We-Have-No Bananas’ souls,” he writes. “Yet no matter how wild the party went, Fitzgerald stayed cool.”
Kerouac races his motor even when stuck in a ditch. As if nobody dared stop driving, lest it look like he were the driven one.
Yet whether you have to keep gunning cross-country at 90 an hour or Charleston till you drop, there’s the moment when the reader feels that such cats are attitudinizing to achieve sensation while not really feeling a thing.
Algren notes even so that Kerouac “has turned out the best account of the ‘Go’ generation.” And he concludes:
Kerouac has the courage to say something, in his own fashion, about the world in which he is actually living. Moreover, he gets the thing off the ground. He flies blind; but he flies. There’s no telling what he may accomplish once he taxis in.
Go read the whole review.