I have always had an uneasy and uncomfortable relationship with the work of Jack Kerouac.
Even when I was what observers would have identified and described as an “impressionable” youth prone to literary fads, carrying a battered copy of “On The Road” in my limp, milky pale hand around with me, a battered copy that gained more visible prominence if it could be brandished within the promiscuous radius of half-closed, dreamy and cannabis occluded New Age girls’ eyes.
I forced Kerouac’s faux hipster psychodramas and irresponsible frat boy antics down my throat, baulking on fayre that was trying too hard to be hip. In fact, by the time I got round to reading Kerouac, his “counter-culture” edginess had long since been blunted. It now just sounded a bit naff, a bit laboured, like your dad recounting his first experimental dabbling with LSD.
The zany, kooky soul-seeking ciphers that masqueraded as characters within the densely packed pages of the Father of the Beat Generation’s prose were far too offensively self-indulgent for my tastes — most of the characters made me want to punch my own eyes out of their sockets: feckless wasters spouting pseudo-philosophy, misquoting Nietzsche and Jung to justify their own aimlessly effete dissolution and avoidance of any responsibility. It wasn’t that I suffered from a curiously misplaced puritanism, but on the contrary, I was convulsed by the realisation that, some 50 years after they were originally composed, Kerouac and his Beat fellow travellers just were not gratuitously and promiscuously rebellious as I expected them to be. The whole thing seemed like a droll parody of something much racier, much more exotically exciting but now only existed as a trace, like the lingering perfume of a hastily concealed joint in a student bedsit.
Nevertheless, I plodded and slogged my way through impenetrable bogus Buddhist bilge, hoping beyond hope that perhaps all this stuff was really arcane and abstruse and that if I read enough of it, I would discover the key to the mystery. The Rosetta Stone of Spontaneous Prose would suddenly reveal to me – spontaneously and without all the verbal algorithmic backtrack of jazz talking nonsense – the secrets Kerouac had embedded and sown so hermetically in his sentences. After all, the cool cat Cognoscenti affected a knowing familiarity with the man’s genius and most of them couldn’t even SPELL Kerouac, never mind read him. It couldn’t be that elusive, I reasoned to myself, but then I was flummoxed by the sheer inane mediocrity of the poetry, followed hard on the heels of Big Sur’s promising beginnings and absurd meanderings. I had to lay down the weapon of my intellect. I gave up on Kerouac and his hallucinatory hieroglyphs of Hip.
By sheer serendipity, I stumbled across other writers who stole my heart and then my head. Kerouac was swiftly eclipsed and consigned to the category of an “interesting” literary experiment in my life like a place you visit once out of pure curiosity and then never return. The fact that Albert Camus became my literary heartthrob (or should that be head throb?) suggests I hadn’t quite successfully exorcised the ghost of pretension, that desire to flaunt a copy of a book that was considered en vogue and cool in front of unattainable girls I wanted desperately to seduce by a pathetic intimation to my alleged intellect alone. Hey, yeah, that’s right, ladies. I read. I can read. And I read stuff that’s so in it can’t find its way out. Trouble was, most girls found the author pen pic of Camus, all smouldering Bogart like melancholic poise, Gallic and dark and handsome, more of a turn-on than my pallid and cringing mug.
In Camus, I flattered myself that I’d found a kindred spirit. I felt I’d made a communal connection with a comrade of intense suffering that could be endured stoically and transmuted into implacably wry, laconically beautiful poetic prose. More specifically, I felt an empathy with Camus’ most disturbing and almost autistic, detached protagonist, Meursault. Once I realised that I was barely anything like Meursault in temperament or personality and that it was all an elaborately conceited affectation, and the prospect of being guillotined as a life aspiration held no appeal, I focused my attention on Camus’ brief but successful career as a goalkeeper for the University of Algiers.
Those who like to evince to others that they possess a sophisticated and aesthetic appreciation of football and literature, that they have as fine a palate for the reciprocal blend of the Stilo and the six-yard box, the pen and the post, the folio and the field as they do for gargling a recherche fine wine, never stint in citing Camus as an exemplar. It’s degenerated into something of a hackneyed old cliché, taking its place in a pantheon that in football is somewhat overpopulated with such lazy clichés. But Camus did play in goal, fulfilling, in football poetry, the almost too apposite and perfect metaphor for his philosophy of estrangement, the idea that the solitary guardian should try, against all odds, to preserve the morality and the dignity of the whole society. Moreover, Camus was not averse to quoting the Beautiful Game and his first-hand experiences of its vicissitudes in philosophical terms via his writings: he attributed the unpredictability of the ball pinging around on the pitch and the players attempts to get that ball under control as providing Camus with a template for living his life. People were as capricious as the football.
I also played in goal as a youth. I relentlessly devoured, regurgitated and devoured again, all of Camus’ books when I wasn’t trying to keep clean sheets and predict the essentially unpredictable slyness of the football. Unlike Camus, I wasn’t notably good at it. And, unlike Camus, I didn’t bid adieu to the game because I was riddled with tuberculosis.
My premature departure from my fragile place between the goalposts (or, to be less sensitive and without false pathos, football’s brutal rejection of my non-abilities) meant that I spent an increasing amount of time at home instead of the football training enclosure. That time had to be filled somehow and, given that I had read Camus to within an inch of his slicked-back hair and had tested the limits of my boredom to verbatim memory of vast chunks of text, I required fresh material to bridge the gaping literary chasm that I was confronted with. Unless they were faux leather-bound copies of Reader’s Digest abridged anthologies, books were at a vanishingly thin premium in my parent’s household. And that gruel was far too thin and malnourishing for my lexicographical appetite.
My love of football had not been silenced and the longing the game stirred in my heart had not been stilled. There was something that as yet still needed to be expatiated within me. I was already sampling the bitter foretaste of what Eduardo Galeano called the melancholy the football lover experiences when the match ends, a feeling he compared to what the French with typical morbid elan call “The Little Death”: namely, the bewilderment spasm of confused and nihilistic ennui that strikes at the soul of the lover after sex.
I, however, was still a naïve virgin at that time so I was only dimly conscious of such adult-tinged exotica. And yet, I could empathise with the Argentine player who revered football so passionately he wore the first pair of boots his mother bought for him while he slumbered in his bed. I had been exposed as a charlatan when it came to my non-existent football talent, but I considered myself to be hopelessly conjoined to the game of football, if not in the practical joy of playing the sport, but obsessed with the ethos of the game, the idealised ritual and theology and lore of it.
I was infected by the idea of football. I understood as I feverishly dreamed of football, as I schemed in the parlance of football, why Italian football fanatics – the Ultras – were known as the Tifosi. Football certainly was an all-consuming and insatiable typhus. The Platonic purification of the game elided reality to some extent. I was ravenous to read anything and everything I could about football. My world did not revolve around the sun but circumvented another ball of fire.
To my chagrin, the local library was as devoid and scarce of books about football as Cliftonhill was of fans on a Saturday afternoon. My football fixation was not handed down from my father like a valuable family heirloom, in the conventional baton passing ceremony from one generation to the next because my father had no interest in football. He vaguely kept a complacent eye on the Dunfermline Athletic results if, in the very rare event of him noticing, they happened to be playing well. But my dad was a boxing enthusiast, an incongruous concession to sporting devotion for such a placid and conscientiously non-violent man. I never got boxing. The noble pugilistic art eluded me. I could detect nothing noble in two lumpen brutes hammering the living daylights out of each other. And the welter of blood, so gratuitously and wantonly spilled, scared me. The atavistic and visceral goading of the spectators reminded me of accounts of public executions I had read. Such sanguinary feral baseness made me feel queasy and recalled my own primordial and petty capability for violence.
I had no familial foundation for football. I discovered the game as a pioneering fugitive from the Queensbury Rules. Such an independent relationship to football also meant that I had to draw on a tradition of my own devising. My football hinterland had to be very provisional, yet for all that, incredibly rich and multifaceted. I needed a tangible football imagination to sustain my lack of a football heritage. I compensated for my dearth of a childhood steeped in the football rites of passage, the cultural acclimatisation of pie and Bovril, the clicking of the turn-style, the scarf soiled by the sacrosanct handing down from father to son, the numb thrill of pins and needles in the feet after standing on an unforgiving stone terracing in the howling wind and rain, watching the congenitally acquired team lose. Again.
All of that was a vicarious history for me. I nibbled at and begged for the crumbs of that baptism of sacred football inheritance. I cut and pasted, pilfered, gems and tidbits of arcane football legacy from friends’ memories and recollections, stitching them together in a new fabric of my own creation. At the core of all this was a desperate and anxious desire, a compulsion, to share in an authentic culture of football. My friends had all been saturated in the stench and indoctrinating catechism of the game from an early age. They were weaned on a diet of Bovril and stories of past football triumphs and tragedies at their father’s knee. I could not let them down. My reciprocal heritage must be exchanged. That would be the only Holy Communion I ever knew.
I was a magpie and I embroidered, by proxy, a simulacrum of a football paradise. I turned my vivid and fecund imagination to the fabulous construction of a parallel football universe that only existed in my own head. I revelled in the meticulous tabulation and magical conjuring up of extensive football leagues, football pyramids, composed of individual players, all equipped with their own attributes and skills, their own deficiencies and character defects. I had a variegated roll call of names, a veritable Book of Life. I lost myself in a virtual world before there were virtual worlds readily available at the touch of a button and on tap; I designed team badges and crests, mottos and kit colours (Home, Away and Third!); I embellished vast stadiums out of thin air and each team had their own venue, imagined in painstaking complexity and detail. I laboured over match day programmes, lovingly produced on A4 sheets. I compiled season-long fixture lists and relied, just as in the real game, on chance – precipitated by the roll of a dice – to determine the results. League tables were excitedly calculated, drawn up and scrutinised. Match reports were furiously scrawled, filed just in time before phantom deadlines for entirely made-up newspapers. The Christmas I received the gift of a typewriter, I was overjoyed: now I could mimic the Vidi-printer, by clacking out sporadic and juddering reams of printed results! The fact my brother got a Mega Drive games console that year perturbed me not one iota, but, in retrospect, a shrewd observer might have thought me rather odd.
One day, in my dad’s spare room, I found an old tape recorder that had a very rudimentary and primitive microphone attached to it. I then started to record entirely fictitious commentaries of crunch fixtures, hamming it up with my best David Francey impersonation. The most elaborate and intensely beautiful commentary I ever recited was for a knife-edge and brutal encounter between the Premier League leaders, Kingsgate and their closest and bitterest rivals Port Allan. The post-match interviews following Port Allan’s unexpected and narrow 0-1 victory (Port’s superannuated but sprightly veteran marksman, John McTavish, powering home a bullet header from 7 yards 15 minutes before time), which I ventriloquised, were hastily curtailed when my mum interrupted me and warned me there was a special place people ended up if they persisted in talking to themselves. I didn’t care. My alternative football Utopia was more alive and present to me than any pale imitation the so-called “real” world could offer. I had found my place of solace that was so very radically out of place with the world.
I practiced my alchemy of fantasy football in the belief and conviction that it was an entirely singular, weird, slightly insane, idiosyncratic quirk. And then, as I was groping around my parents’ house looking for something to read, pleading to be spared another cut-and-shut Reader’s Digest literary abortion, I was unexpectedly reunited with Jack Kerouac.
To this day, I am mystified as to why my mother harboured a dog-eared and malodorous copy of Maggie Cassidy. She couldn’t explain how it had got itself wedged in the wicker newspaper rack, either, but solidly and incongruously wedged there it was. I remember not wanting to reach out and pick it up. I did not want to be seduced by what I considered to be the spell of abject futility Kerouac summoned in his readers. Still frozen, my hand suspended between a new edition of a Reader’s Digest abridgement and Maggie Cassidy, I eventually compelled myself, with physical exertion, to lean towards the paper rack and half gratefully, half timidly, pounce upon the book, like I imagined a starving man might gingerly catch a deadly scorpion if it was the only genuine sustenance around for miles. The texture of the crumpled, mangled book cover felt almost like an illicit substance in my cold, clammy hands. It was with a gut quivering and bowel wobbling trepidation that I steadied my breath and slowly, almost reverently, peeled the pages open to the first chapter and began to read.
A couple of hours later, I let the book flop from my hands. The book had been a revelation to me. But not in the usual way. The quality of Kerouac’s prose had not captivated me and the story was a milquetoast muddle, drowning in a sentimental vat of saccharine, homespun bilge. However, Kerouac had opened up his soul in this book more than in any other. He had bared his naked vulnerability by meditating on the premature and clearly devastating death of his brother Gerard and how he had struggled throughout his life to come to terms with that pulverizing loss. That desolating sadness haunted the best sections of the novel. Moreover, Kerouac revealed to me his childish glee in simple, seemingly modest things. Such as spending an unfeasible amount of time dreaming up fake sporting events and extending the fantasy to a whole sophisticated sporting theology, complete with paraphernalia and sacred texts. Unbeknown to me, I had a comrade in daydreaming in a fraternity of fantasy. I would have to cut Kerouac a hell of a lot of slack from now on.
But Kerouac and I were playing shadow sports in different ballparks.
Kerouac sought solace and comfort from the travails of a world that had left him bereft and emotionally scarred in an idealised realm of sport. The sport that Kerouac found the most reassurance in was baseball. But he also allowed the carefree spontaneity and joy of play to help heal the wounds that Gerard’s death had inflicted on his psyche. It was the appreciation of the playful nature that could be gleaned, like a precious jewel, from baseball – and, indeed, all sport – that gave Kerouac a sense of life. It enabled him to recover life, to find, once more, a reason in his heart for living. The epiphany that Kerouac enjoyed was the acceptance that one had to surrender to joy as a child would, to feast unquestioningly and without suspicion – that is, blessed with innocence – on joy, to indulge in play with a freedom and an irreverent and uncomplicated vivacity.
It is this unchained joie de vivre that I both admire and mourn in Maggie Cassidy. I admire Kerouac for being unafraid to reveal his injured soul to the world, for being courageous enough to trust in his own inner belief that one must nurture and feed your innate child. However, I also mourn that it seems Kerouac only discovered this profound awareness as a consequence of his brother’s death, affecting him like the after-shock of a spiritual earthquake.
Kerouac had created a game of fantasy baseball. He had a touching simplicity in fashioning individual team cards and rosters. The teams were adorned with names and logos. The majority of the teams were named after a city or locale in America and appended with an alliterative flourish that Kerouac garnered from automobile models of the era (For example, the Pittsburgh Plymouths and the Philadelphia Pontiacs). Copies of Kerouac’s hand-crafted posters for his teams have survived. Players were invented from scratch, as were the statistics of the nebulous contests made flesh as Kerouac scrolled them in his mind’s eye.
I can be moved to tears when I think about Kerouac persisting with his custom-made and intensely private games of baseball as his life unravelled and he struggled to cope with being an adult. A man so enraptured and convinced, deep down, of the purity and goodness of innocence. A man who knew that innocence could only be experienced if one were to embrace the transparency of childhood. I can imagine him retreating from a world of pain and disillusioned despair as his writing, despite crowning him with success, paradoxically brought him personal loss and a taste for alcohol and Benzedrine that ultimately consumed him. It is easy to ridicule Kerouac, or to accuse him of abnegating his adult responsibilities for so enthusiastically fleeing the world and returning to his refuge, his cocoon, his womb. Playing fantasy baseball was his means of perpetuating an eternal childhood. But, more than that, it was an ever-renewed and happy memorial to Gerard. When Kerouac played his fantasy baseball, he was erasing the sadness of Gerard’s death with the joy of living. He was resurrecting Gerard with every game.
We must imagine Kerouac happy.