Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bryson on Blaise

Over at the Underground Bookclub, Michael Bryson considers Clark Blaise's Selected Essays. The whole post can be found here. Here's an excerpt:

If I had to pick one essay as the best, I'd choose: "Kerouac in Black and White." It's the only essay I've read about Kerouac that starts from the point of view of the end years of Kerouac's life. The lonely, angry, reactionary, and as Blaise makes clear, the overtly racist years, though it is a racism consistent and persistent throughout Kerouac's career. Kerouac engaged, explored and wrote about "the other" consistently and persistently, but the exploration didn't lead to reconciliation; it led to entrenched alienation and the ultimate failure of Vanity of Duluoz (1968).

Amazon provides the opening sentence:

All right, wifey, maybe I'm a big pain in the you-know-what but after I've given you a recitation of the troubles I had to go through to make good in America between 1935 and more or less now, 1967, and although I also know everybody in the world's had his own troubles, you'll understand that my particular form of anguish came from being too sensitive to all the lunkheads I had to deal with just so I could get to be a high school football star, a college student pouring coffee and washing dishes and scrimmaging till dark and reading Homer's lliad in three days all at the same time, and God help me, a WRITER whose very 'success', far from being a happy triumph as of old, was the sign of doom Himself.

Blaise provides the context:

An impotent, alcoholic, ruined, middle-aged, mill-town Franco-American living in Lowell, and finally in St. Petersburg with his jealously protective, corrosively ignorant and loudly bigoted mother, or with a wife he alternately loved and hated while tying to divorce, is not a candidate for progressive opinions on race, class, or sexual politics. Forget Kerouac in his youth, the beautiful boy with his breathless tales of breaking away from canadien catholicism nightmared in Doctor Sax or tapestried in Visions of Gerard; forget the trips he took us on, like swatted rubber balls on their widest orbit in On the Road and The Dharma Bums and Mexico City Blues before they crashed back to the paddle that propelled them. That was then; this later, much later.

Which Blaise later expands:

Race, in the normal American black/white sense, was never a reality for Kerouac, never part of his early personal history -- only a metaphor for freedom, or temptation. He carried his blinkered childhood within him like a malignant unborn twin,and a white, Catholic, lost, pure French empire was part of that childhood. But for the likelihood of Indian blood, which he (like most French-Canadians) embraced, Kerouac was pur laine, a proud, full-blooded, full-culture French Canadian: ("Go back,"he wanted to call to his Breton fishermen ancestors,"ils vous I . jouent un tour." That is, America's going to play a trick on you.) Against the backdrop of the Church, and his own monochromatic background, "Negroes" offered only occasions for sex, drugs and music. And since those are also occasions for merging identities, they specifically challenge the corrosive dreams of racial and religious purity. Gerald Nicosia, in Memory Babe, mentions that Jack would have married Mardou Fox, the heroine of The Subterreaneans, if she'd been white. A strange inhibition for a Beat. "Purity" rose up early, and late consumed him, his vulture-twin pouncing on a helpless host.

You can start to see here that in Kerouac, Blaise has a precursor: a French Canadian border-crosser who struggled with multiple identities and modernity ... but who failed (found in the end only bitterness and collapse), whereas Blaise survived and tells us things Kerouac never could.

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