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The Road by Jack London

October 15, 2011 17 comments

The Road by Jack London. 1907.

In The Road, Jack London relates his years as a hobo in America and Canada in the years 1894-1895. The book comes more than 10 years after the journey and there is a good chance that it is constructed for readers and written to be appealing. London had notebooks during those years, we can expect they helped him with the details. I really enjoyed reading this book, it’s full of buoyant life and a precious testimony on the USA in that time. Each chapter deals with a particular theme and I was surprised several times. For example, I thought it was easier to relay on begging than today. People would give him food when he begs, sometimes even inviting him in their homes. However, when he tells his life with other tramps, charity could become more a question of good sense than of good heart:

We [85 tramps] took up a collection and sent a telegram to the authorities of that town. The text of the message was that eighty-five healthy, hungry hoboes would arrive about noon and that it would be a good idea to have dinner ready for them. The authorities of Grand Island had two courses open to them. They could feed us, or they could throw us in jail. In the latter event they’d have to feed us anyway, and they decided wisely that one meal would be the cheaper way.

I will always marvel at the organization of these hobos on one side and at the decision-making process based on profitability on the other side. This is how I see America: able to forget about principles when it’s cheaper to surrender. I was also astonished by the tale of the two thousand tramp army led by General Kelly and its odyssey on the Des Moines River or the violence he encounters sometimes.

The chapter about how to “hold her down” i.e. travel on trains without a ticket is incredible. He relates how hobos are chased by train drivers and employees. He explains all the strategies he used to go on and off the trains and not get caught. All this was extremely dangerous and he traveled in awful conditions soaked up by rain or frozen by a fierce cold.

His description of his stay in a Canadian prison is appalling. He pictures very well the balance of power between the prisoners, the fishy business among the prisoners and with the guards, the corruption, the violence. Eat before you are eaten. Oh, we were wolves, believe me—just like the fellows who do business in Wall Street. You can’t keep the Socialist out of London for long!

The last chapter is about the “bulls”, the cops. The French translator chose to translate the word literally (les taureaux), probably to keep the impressive image of the English. In French, the two animals used to call the cops are vache (cow) or, the most used, poulet (chicken). I know, I know, for an American, calling a policeman a bull or a chicken doesn’t convey the same image at all. From what I see now that I’m looking for the original text of the quotes I’ve chosen, the French translation is exceptional. It manages to keep the originality and the freshness of London’s tone and adapt it to the French. For example, when London says the bulls is horstile, it’s translated by « les taureaux sont diabominables », diabominable being a portmanteau word made of “diable” (devil) and “abominable” (awful).

The Road fascinated Jack Kerouac. On the Road comes from that fascination but it’s already tainted. Although Kerouac’s book is the image of freedom for generation of readers, the book of pure freedom is The Road. London doesn’t search for anything, he just can’t stay long at the same place and wants to be free.

Every once in a while, in newspapers, magazines, and biographical dictionaries, I run upon sketches of my life, wherein, delicately phrased, I learn that it was in order to study sociology that I became a tramp. This is very nice and thoughtful of the biographers, but it is inaccurate. I became a tramp—well, because of the life that was in me, of the wanderlust in my blood that would not let me rest. Sociology was merely incidental; it came afterward, in the same manner that a wet skin follows a ducking. I went on “The Road” because I couldn’t keep away from it; because I hadn’t the price of the railroad fare in my jeans; because I was so made that I couldn’t work all my life on “one same shift”; because—well, just because it was easier to than not to.

THAT is why the book oozes freedom and a lot more than Kerouac’s On the Road. In London, there aren’t any drugs or alcohol or sex, no artificial paradises. He doesn’t need anything, he just wants to live from hand to mouth like a real hobo. There’s no spiritual quest and thus no expectation and no disappointment. Any book walking in the same shoes can only be a pale copy. Nothing compares to London’s appetite for a no-string life. When I was reading, I had in mind the beautiful images of the film I’m not there by Todd Haynes, the bits with the little black hobo.

PS: If you’re interested, you can have a look at my review of On The Holloway Road by Andrew Blackman, based upon On the Road by Jack Kerouac, itself based on The Road by Jack London. La boucle est bouclée, that’s what we say in French in such cases.

Hollow Highways Revisited

September 14, 2011 26 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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