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Hollow Highways Revisited

September 14, 2011 27 comments

On the Holloway Road by Andrew Blackman. 2009. 202 pages.

The curse of our generation is that everything’s been tried before. Drink, drugs, God, sex, meditation, masturbation, crystals, mushrooms, peyote, shamanism, communism, consumerism, tai chi, feng shui, kung fu, flower power and TV shopping. It’s obvious to anyone that out little road trip here is nothing more than a tired repetition of an age-old formula. But have you got any better ideas, Jack? Have you thought of something that nobody else in the world before you has thought of?

As regular readers might have noticed, I’m in a “classics revisited” mood these days. After the excellent 1280 âmes, the awful Madman Bovary and before the fantastic Wide Sargasso Sea, I read Andrew Blackman’s debut novel, On the Holloway Road. It’s an assumed adaptation of the mythic On the Road by Jack Kerouac in modern Britain. I was curious to discover what he had done with such a pitch, a slippery slope, in my opinion. As I had re-read On the Road last year and reviewed here, it was recent enough for me to see the links between the books.

Jack lives in London with his mother after his father died. He’s in his twenties or maybe early thirties and has decided to become a writer. While he struggles with his first novel, he meets Neil Black during one of his errands on the Holloway Road. They embark in his Figaro for a road trip to the extreme North of Great Britain. They have with them the audio book of On the Road, read by Matt Dillon. It’s a first person narrative, we only have Jack’s version of the events, he might be an unreliable narrator.

I’ve noticed that road trips in Britain consist in driving in the wild North. (cf The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim) Jack muses: “It’s a landscape of possibilities, where for a while you feel as if you can breathe air that hasn’t recently passed through someone else’s lungs”. Does going beyond the Wall of Hadrian still symbolize something? Incidentally, I wondered what it would be in France and I couldn’t figure it out. Such road trips would be more on foot, on the way to Santiago de Compostella or in the Massif Central, with a donkey on Stevenson’s footsteps. But back to the book.

In French we say “coup de foudre” (literally “flash of lightening”) for “love at first sight”. I prefer the French expression because it can be used for many situations, including friendship and doesn’t have necessarily a romantic meaning. Jack has a “coup de foudre” for the buoyant Neil. They are like fire and ice. Neil is weird, unpredictable, prone to verbal logorrhea and incoherent theories about life and freedom. Jack is quieter, respectful of rules and principles, desperately reasonable. Jack is fascinated by Neil, their relationship is based on rather blind adoration and even if Jack is aware that it is toxic for him, he can’t walk away from Neal. He’s like a drug to him.

I got a sensation that was strange to me at the time but would soon become familiar: that Neil was doing enough living for the two of us, and there was nothing left for me to do but watch.

I wasn’t fond of Neil (I wasn’t fond of Dean either btw) but I sure felt sorry for Jack. Being myself rather shy and quiet, I understand perfectly why he’s so attracted by the extroverted Neil. Still, I wonder if there isn’t a hint of homosexuality between the two.

All along their trip, we realize that their dream of American wilderness and of carefree behaviors such as Sal and Dean’s cannot happen in today’s Britain. The environment makes it hard to break the rules. Attempts at driving wild are cut short by traffic cameras and automatic flashes. Soon Jack is afraid to lose all his points on his driving license. When Neil throws away some trash on the highway, they are quickly arrested by the police and get a fine: someone had reported it. When they want to be hired on a drill platform, they learn you need qualifications and a special security training and that two good arms and a will to work aren’t enough.

For those who haven’t read On the Road or don’t remember it, the characters of the book are Sal and Dean, respectively Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy in real life. When I thought about the two sets of characters, I saw butterflies. Sal and Dean are day butterflies, the colorful ones who fly playfully from one flower to another under a sunny sky. They have a vivid and joyful way to fly, as if they were enjoying their short time on Earth and trying to make the best out of it. They’re jazz, light, fun, sad, full of life. On the contrary, I saw Jack and Neil as night butterflies. They’re grey, hollow, and live in a dark world and their pool of light is made of electric bulbs. When they fly, it’s only to bump into that artificial light they take for the sun and burn their fragile wings. Their freedom is sad and limited. It’s limited by their time and by their country, the cops, the camera, the rules and the absence of vast wilderness. They’re electronic music, mechanic, repetitive and inhuman. Their goal in itself draws the difference between them. While Sal and Dean drive to the sunny California, Jack and Neil drive to the windy and cold island of Barra.

On the Holloway Road left me singing Send A Picture of Mother by Johnny Cash. It’s a sad song about a man whose friend just got liberated from prison and who knows he’s himself  in jail for life. It stayed with me as a bridge between today’s Britain and 1950s America. After all, isn’t it what this book is all about?

 

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