I pretty much burnt out on beatniks and their writings long ago. They’re mostly a young man’s fancy, as in, what can seem adventurous, romantic and yes, even cool on the page in one’s youth might become much less so in later adulthood. At least that’s been my experience, as exemplified by re-reading Jack Kerouac’s iconic ”On the Road” in my 40s and mainly feeling sorry for characters who had once seemed so daring to me as a teen. And by now, other than young pretenders, the “Beat Generation” is at a minimum geriatric and otherwise mostly deceased. It’s no accident that there has long been a Beat Museum in San Francisco’s fabled North Beach, where they first flourished, and Beat-themed t-shirts, bumper stickers, and the like nearby at City Lights Books, which was their cerebral center in the city.
This is not to be wholly negative - far from it. City Lights Books is an international treasure, the Beat Museum is a great place to visit, and I owe Beat writers an incalculable debt of gratitude. I don’t recall exactly how I stumbled upon Jack Kerouac’s books as a kid but they, along with those of Richard Brautigan, Ken Kesey, and a few other literary icons of the time opened my mind and senses to a much broader world than I experienced directly in my beautiful little Orange County, California town, and to nonmaterialistic values and a love of nature and adventure. Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums” in particular was my first exposure to exotic mountaineering, literary, erotic, and even Buddhist perspectives. Its lead character-in-disguise Gary Snyder became my favorite living poet. From there it was a tiny step to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” the explosive little chapbook (with one poem, “America,” dated the very day I was being born) that has sold a million copies and bred as many imitators. And I still am grateful to have discovered other Beat authors like Lew Welch, Bob Kaufman, Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Even when I didn’t quite understand them, I knew there was something good and full of life going on there. They also turned me on to jazz, igniting a lifetime love affair. And “Beatniks are out to make it rich” is my favorite line from the troubadour Donovan’s famous song “Season of the Witch,” too.
But I stopped reading books about the Beats years ago, partly as, with age, I started to see them as more tragic than romantic. Clearly some of the leading figures weren’t exactly joys to be around, being macho, sexist, alcoholic absent partners and parents - Kerouac, infamously, was eventually “disembodied” (as his colleague Gregory Corso aptly put it) by booze, Neal Cassidy’s death on railroad tracks in Mexico was basically pathetic, Lew Welch was a tragic suicide, and so on. And there are just so very many books about them and every little micro-event or tangential character or obscure reference in their lives and works that it has long and too often become a tedious exercise reading yet more about them. It’s an industry unto itself, and as with the beat writers themselves, only a few books about them really stand the test of time.
One of those is “American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation,” by Jonah Raskin, a veteran/now retired professor at Sonoma State University and otherwise widely published author (and fellow AVA scribe). He’s a scholar and knows his stuff. He also has a brand new book out titled “Beat Blues: San Francisco 1955,” published by coolgrove press in Brooklyn. It’s not another biography or study, but a novel. I’m not going to really review it here, as I know the author – a hallowed critics’ code intended to ensure objectivity but now outdated as so many now ignore it. But I’m certainly going to read it, and look forward to that, especially as the author gifted me with a signed copy. I’d read it in any event though, as it focuses not only on some characters who have fascinated me at least earlier in my life, but also as it’s set in my home town.
Here’s what the publishers say about the book: “Part road novel and part reality-inspired fiction, Beat Blues: San Francisco, 1955, explores a time and a place when and where the American counterculture was born, southern racism was exposed, and the Cold War began to thaw with the publication of Ginsberg’s Howl, Kerouac’s On the Road, Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind, Bob Kaufman’s Abomunist Manifesto and the magazine Beatitude. Raskin’s Beat Blues takes readers behind the scenes at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore and publishing company and into subterranean San Francisco, where bohemians, artists and hipsters dig jazz greats and rub shoulders with saxophonist Lester Young, Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir.”
So I’m in. At a recent appearance by Raskin, he read some excerpts from the book and talked a bit about how he came to write it and what he was trying to do with it. “I started off writing for myself, as there is no guarantee anybody else is ever going to see the finished work,” he said. “Beat Blues is meant to be a story of love starting in New York City and moving to San Francisco in 1955, and the subtitle is precisely what the book is about, as the Beats really were born in 1955 in San Francisco, even though they were largely New York people then. I call them hipsters and cool cats as that’s what they were before the term 'beatnik' came about. Allen Ginsberg was largely responsible for that.”
“In making the book a novel, I put words into the mouths of all these famous characters, which was a risk but one I felt worth trying. The book is really about the creation of this literature, as there are scenes where Ginsberg is writing 'Howl,' Kerouac is writing 'On The Road,' and so on. But it’s also about the creation of music. For instance there’s a scene at a famous club in the Tenderloin called the Black Hawk, as there’s lots about jazz in 'On The Road' – they listen to it from jukeboxes in bars on the radio, and live in clubs. There’s the birth of rock and roll in there too.”
Raskin utilized the services of a private investigator – his brother – to obtain some previously unavailable information, such as police and coroner’s reports, about the tragic figure Natalie Jackson, who appeared in “The Dharma Bums” but remained mysterious to this day.
There is another character, an older man, who seems to be spying on the Beats in the uptight paranoid era in which the novel is set. “Ginsberg created a mythical evil figure called Moloch in his 'Howl,' a representation of all he disliked and distrusted in the world, so I put that in as a possibility too,” Raskin said.
He also brings the civil rights movement into the story. “One of the climaxes of the book is when, offstage, a teenager named Emmett Till is lynched. That enters into the story even though Kerouac and Ginsberg never met any leaders of the civil rights movement. I used other characters to bring them together. I hope readers will grapple with fiction vs. history here, and sense some of the ferment in society then.”
So, again, I’m looking forward to digging into this novel, seeing the legendary writers who influenced me for better or worse as a young reader from a wholly new perspective. And even though Kerouac pronounced “Frisco” no longer really “happening” as far back as 1959, if I’m truly ambitious about it, I just might head down to his favorite fabled bar Vesuvio, right across Jack Kerouac Alley from City Lights, or Caffe Trieste just up the block on Grant, or both, and see if a bit of Anchor Stream beer and/or espresso might render the experience all the more authentic. It’s never too late to really dig something, man.