October 28, 2012

Off the Rails


It was six or seven years ago now. I was standing on Seventh Avenue having a smoke outside the NY Press offices. I was no longer allowed to smoke inside (at least when other people were around). It was late autumn and so the weather was cool and overcast. I was in my typical trench and fedora, wanting nothing more than to be left alone with my vices. Things in the office were spiraling deeper into the ugly every day, and it was becoming clearer I no longer belonged there. But then the obvious question became, what the fuck else was I going to do?

            Two young men in what I guessed to be their early twenties stopped in front of me. That wasn’t good. Strangers on Seventh who stopped when I was smoking never had anything good to offer. They wanted to tell me about God, or damn me to hell for dirtying their air with my evil filthy smoke, or they wanted to sell me stolen jewelry. One of the two men was holding a large video camera. That wasn’t good, either. In fact it was a sign of something seriously bad. I’d take the god people over the camera.

            “Hi!” one of them said. “Do you mind if we ask you a question?”

            I groaned quietly, but agreed.

            “Have you ever read On the Road?”

            I cut my eyes and frowned. Goddamn kids. What the hell was this about? “Of course I have.”

            They looked at each other and grinned with what seemed relief. “We’ve been stopping people in Manhattan all week, and you’re the first person we’ve found who’s read it.”

            I frowned again. “That’s because you’ve been stopping people in Manhattan.”

            The one who’d been doing all the talking was suddenly very eager. “Would you mind telling us what you think about it? Just give us a few quick impressions? And would you mind if we filmed you?”

            Oh Jesus Christ—that’s their little game. Probably doing this for some damn class project to get them out of actually reading the book.

            It had been a bad day in a bad week in a stretch of a couple of bad months. I was feeling helpless, the sky was closing in on me wherever I went, and I saw this crap here as simply par for the course. Might as well do it. It beat going back into that fucking office and dealing with that paranoid moron of an editor. If I was a smart man, I would have asked them what this was all about first. Then when they told me I would have ducked back into the office, burning smoke still in hand, and hid under my desk for the rest of the day. But I’m not a smart man.

            The other kid—a beefy, round-faced sort with a scruffy beard, hoisted the camera to his shoulder while the first one clipped a microphone on me. He stepped back, gave me a few brief instructions about what it was they were looking for, and then the kid with the beard started rolling.

            This is where I need to explain things beyond it simply being a bad day (though that fed into it). At the time, Jack Kerouac remained one of those writers I had been trying to like for a very long time. I knew he was excellent—there was no denying that. Several friends held on to him tightly and maintained that On the Road was perhaps the greatest novel about America ever written. I knew there was something there, something solid and worthwhile—I just hadn’t found it yet. I’d read On the Road five or six times. I’d read quite a few of his other novels too, as well as some of the poetry. I’d tried, but for some reason it wasn’t clicking with me the way it was supposed to. There was no reason for that—everything was there. I dug the Beats, I knew the history, I understood and embraced the ethos. But damn it, Kerouac didn’t click.

            It had happened with several other writers in the past. I knew there was something there for me, but it didn’t click at first. And the click is a very tangible, almost physical thing. I remember vividly when it happened with Celine and Pynchon. I’d return to a book for the fifth time maybe, years after my first try. Older, more experienced, more widely-read, and then—boom. Everything would fall together and this book that had frustrated or disappointed or flummoxed me when I was seventeen would suddenly become everything I knew it was. I just needed to give myself more time to catch it.

            This sort of thing still happens to this day (though now I’m dependent on audio versions). A handful of years ago it finally happened with Kerouac. I tapped into the rhythm and the music of On the Road and suddenly everything everyone had been telling me for so long made perfect sense and all my unconscious resistance fell away. Yes it was a great and important book, and now I knew why.

            Well, standing there on Seventh Avenue, it hadn’t happened yet with me and Kerouac, and so this is what I told these kids, in terms that were a bit harsher than I might have used had I not been in the middle of a lousy stretch. I kept trying to like Kerouac, but just couldn’t yet.

            (Not helping things was an audio version of On the Road I heard read by a very drunk-sounding David Carradine who seemed to be reading the book for the first time himself and kept mispronouncing words.)

            They stopped filming after a few minutes and thanked me. Then they whipped out the release form. As I signed it, I finally—finally!—asked what this was all about, anyway, still thinking it was some damn class project

            “Have you ever heard of Walter Salles? the first kid asked.

            “Nope,” I told him as I handed him the release form, which he tucked away in his satchel.

            “Well, have you ever seen The Motorcycle Diaries?”

            I shook my head again. “Read the book. Didn’t like that one, either. Didn’t bother with the picture.”

            The kid seemed undaunted by my ignorance. After all, he’d been roaming Manhattan all week, so he must’ve been used to ignorance by then. “Walter directed The Motorcycle Diaries, and now he’s making a film version of On the Road.

            Something went chilly deep in my guts. “Oh.”

            “We’re filming these man-on-the-street interviews for him, because he wants to intersperse them throughout the film.”

            My guts got colder and my voice got quieter. What the hell had I just done? “Oh.”

            “So we’d really like to thank you for your contribution.”

            I don’t know if I said anything or nodded or simply stared at them. In a moment they were all packed up and moving down the sidewalk. I’d been duped again. I had to stop agreeing to shit. I reached for another cigarette. This was not what I needed to think about.

            The only comfort I could find was that people had been trying to make On the Road for over thirty years. There were always rumors about which director was about to give it a try. Francis Ford Coppola held a huge casting call in New York back in the nineties, even. But every attempt to film that little book had failed. In all likelihood this one would fail, too.

            But what if it didn’t? What if this guy actually made the damn film? Yeah, swell—then there sits my ugly face on the screen, the one asshole up there badmouthing goddamn On the Road. Not that what I told them wasn’t honest for that moment, but Christ, right? Who’s this dick to trash Kerouac? Some dick, that’s who. Yeah, guess it wouldn’t be the first time I’d be the big asshole in the room.

            Not that I cared what anyone else thought of me, but I didn’t think for myself that I’d yet done anything that would justify snottily dismissing Jack Kerouac. Truman Capote did, but Truman Capote could.

            Well, shit. I’d tripped into the septic tank again.

            I mostly tried to forget about it. Still, though, every few months for the next three or four years I got online and did some poking around to see if I could find any indication that anything was happening with the film. I found nothing, and eventually stopped looking, relieved that it had apparently faced the same fate met by every other attempt to film it. When I finally had that revelation and made my allegiance with Kerouac, I thought back to that scene on the sidewalk and was even more relieved the fucking film had collapsed.

            All was well. And I should know better than to think that, ever.

            A couple of days ago I heard that Walter Salles’ “much-anticipated” film version of On the Road was finally coming to theaters. I felt that same cold dripping into my guts again, and it wasn’t anticipation. Not simply for that potential cameo, but because I’d come to love that book, I had my own movie version in my head, and didn’t need no hotshot director making a hash of it and feeding the illiterates just to make a quick buck. There’s no such thing as a great film version of a great book. Bad books, yes (The Godfather, The Exorcist, Jaws), but not great ones. And with a novel as poetic and introspective as On the Road, I wouldn’t count on this being the rare exception.

            Besides, that whole “man on the street” idea is just really fucking awful. But that was seven years ago. All I could hope is that he’s since decided to drop it.

            Not like I’m going to see the damn movie to find out. As far as I’m concerned, from this point on it simply does not exist. It’s the best response, considering I never got paid.


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