TOP 500 REVIEWERTOP 1000 REVIEWERon 24 March 2015
Kerouac's "Lonesome Traveler" (1960)is a collection of eight travel essays, several of which had been published earlier. Kerouac offers insights into the collection in his introduction. He states that he "always considered writing my duty on earth. Also the preachment of universal kindness, which hysterical critics have failed to notice beneath frenetic activity of my true-story novels about the 'beat'generation. -- Am actually not 'beat' but strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic." The essays in "Lonesome Traveler" support Kerouac's comments about his work, which has frequently been misinterpreted or sensationalized. The subject of the collection Kerouac aptly describes as "railroad work, sea work, mysticism, mountain work, lasciviousness, solepsism, self-indulgence, bullfights, drugs, churches, art museums, streets of cities, a mishmosh of life as lived by an independent educated penniless rake going nowhere."
I read much of this book sitting alone in a park on a Saturday afternoon, and it was a fitting companion to my own reflections. There is an intimacy of tone in Kerouac's book that made me feel at times that I was with him and sharing his experiences. Kerouac's spontaneous prose, with its long, strangly, and rhhythmic sentences is an erratic instrument indeed. But when it works, it is moving.
There is a continuity in these essays as Kerouac takes his reader back and forth across the United States, to Mexico, and to North Africa and Europe. Kerouac's vision tends to be highly particularized and specific. He is at his best in describing a lonely room in a San Francisco apartment, a night walk on a pier awaiting a ship, and evening's drinking with a friend and, especially, the sights and places of 'beat' New York City. Many of the scenes in the book show Kerouac sedentary -- in a cheap room or in a fire lookout on Desolation Peak -- while others show a fascination with travel, with ships and the sea and even more with railroads.
The first essay "Piers of the Homeless Night" shows Kerouac wandering on a dock in San Pedro in what becomes a failed effort at securing employment on a ship. "Mexico Fellaheen" describes the trip to Mexico he took immediately thereafter, with scenes in a drug den, a bullfight, and a church. "The Railroad Earth" is a lengthy chapter in which Kerouac details his experience working as a brakeman, and how "railroading gets in yr blood", as a character says at the end. In "Slobs of the Kitchen Sea" Kerouac describes his experience working on a ship -- before he gets fired. "New York Scenes" includes the finest writing in the collection, as Kerouac takes his reader on an intimate tour of the New York City he clearly knows and loves. "Alone on a Mountaintop" is a reflective chapter about the summer Kerouac spent as a watchman on Desolation Peak. The "Big Trip to Europe" includes William Burroughs as a character and describes Kerouac's experiences in Tangiers, with women, in Paris, with art museums, and in England, with hostile police. The final essay, "The Vanishing American Hobo" is a nostalgic tribute to those wanderers, such as Kerouac himself, who once graced the American and the world landscape.
Besides the descriptive writing, there is a sense of mystical pantheism in this book. Kerouac's thought is notoriously difficult to describe. The book is replete with religious metaphor, both Buddhist and Christian. For all the vagaries of his life, Kerouac the writer has something to teach. The book teaches of the need to accept and love one's experiences and to let go --- expanding upon what Kerouac himself says in his introduction. Life is to be loved and cherished, regardless of one's circumstances.
Thus, at the end of "Mexico Fellaheen", following a visit to a church, Kerouac observes: "I bow to all this, kneel at my pew entryway, and go out, taking one last look at St. Antoine de Padue (St. Anthony) Santo Antonio de Padua. -- Everything is perfect on the street again, the world is permeated with roses of happiness all the time, but none of us know it. The happiness consists in realizing that it is all a great strange dream."
Kerouac offers a great deal of reflection in the essay "Alone on a Mountaintop." Sitting in the fire observation tower, he comes to realize that "no matter where I am, whether in a little room full of thought, or in this endless universe of stars and mountains, it's all in my mind. There's no need for solitude. So love life for what it is, and form no preconceptions whatever in your mind." As he leaves his summer in the fire tower, Kerouac states that he "turned and blessed Desolation Peak and the little pagoda on top and thanked them for the shelter and the lesson I'd been taught."
There is much in journeying with Kerouac in this book that can inspire still.