20. Jack Kerouac – Vanity of Duluoz (1968)

As I continue with my Kerouac reading I’m struck by the closeness of these two writers. In terms of personality, I always assumed Ginsberg to be the lynchpin bringing these very different characters together. The more I read, the more I see Kerouac and Burroughs as the real odd couple, with Ginsberg as more of a hanger-on.

Although perhaps that’s only in retrospect. Vanity of Duluoz, Kerouac’s final novel, was written in the terminal stages of alcoholism. For all I like the style – the booze has made him tougher, less metaphysical, and yet also more sentimental – one can’t help but wonder what scores are being settled here.

Ginsberg comes across here as a bit of a perv, to say the least. In a memorable passage, Kerouac describes his first meeting with Ginsberg and how he immediately struck him as a sex-fiend. The kind of guy who wants the whole world to be one big hot tub party so he can swim around under the water touching everybody’s legs.

Gregory Corso got a similar treatment in Desolation Angels, presented as a sponger with a very thin skin.

Burroughs, by contrast, comes across as a still-mystical, still-enigmatic, Baudelaire-type figure. Part of a Midwestern group of natty-suited homosexuals, “the most evil and intelligent bunch a bastards and shits in America”.

Mention is given to Burroughs reading Spengler, but also Shakespeare and Pope. The writing of “Twilights Last Gleamings” is summarised, and the David Kammerer/Lucian Carr murder is gone through again in detail (an event already informing Kerouac’s The Town and the City (1950), Burroughs’ Junkie (1953) and the unpublished Kerouac/Burroughs collaboration And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks (1945)).

There’s even a nice reversal where, instead of Kerouac admiring those he meets, the first meeting between Burroughs and Kerouac sees Burroughs as the one doing the admiring. He’d heard Kerouac was a sailor and, Kerouac suspected, wanted him to come across as “some heavy truth guy”; a real, authentic character.

Kerouac plays along, but only just. He’s caught between wanting to mirror Burroughs’ idea of him and wanting to upset his expectations. A kind of persona-play that Burroughs himself exhibits throughout his life.

I suspect there’s some deep sympathy at play here. Kerouac is one of the few writers who portrays a Burroughs with emotions. Most, coming to him post-Naked Lunch, present us with a monolithic entity. A concrete man, cats his only weakness.  Burroughs played up to this, but clearly Kerouac remembers him before all that. Before he became “a shadow hovering over western literature”.

These mentions only come towards the end, however. The majority of the book is taken up with Kerouac’s high school and college experiences, particularly his brief career as in college football.

He writes about these games with such love and affection that, in spite of not really understanding American football, I was hooked on every play. He writes of his own strengths and weaknesses with a strategic understanding that only a real pro player could have. A wisdom about his own body and its capacities.

When he throws all this away to travel around, work as a “grease monkey”, and join the merchant navy, I certainly found myself getting frustrated with him. The same listlessness put me off On the Road when I read it a decade ago. Rightly, here at the end of his life, Kerouac recognises this as vanity – and excess of pride – and yet, he still tries to convince us that regular life is “a cage”, “a prison”, “slavery”; all the while drinking himself to death on his mum’s couch.

But that’s what writers are for, right? To try these things out. See if they work. Being Kerouac clearly didn’t work out for Kerouac, but it certainly worked out for literature.

His prose is a pleasant mix of punchiness and ramble. He controls the pace of reading better than any writer I know. Kerouac is undoubtedly a master, perhaps the master, of the mid-century roman a clef.

That this form typified literary writing of this era was something I didn’t appreciate before undertaking this project. Kerouac, Wolfe, Miller, Genet, Welch, shadows of Hemingway, spectres of the Bowleses… The Burroughs Syllabus is full of these semiautobiographers; and yet Burroughs never practiced it.

Burroughs was perhaps conscious of how, even at its most brutally honest, roman a clef writing was nevertheless a construction. He was too interested in language and form to rely on honesty and authenticity. Especially as this was not his style in life, either.

There are passages in Vanity of Duluoz, for example, that might make useful additions to my own Burroughs studies, only the roman a clef form places them in doubt. Burroughs writes a correction to Desolation Angels in The Adding Machine, for instance, that portrays things quite differently. How far is Vanity from the truth?

The first of these sections features David Kammerer hanging a cat. The “no-good pederast […] put Hubbard’s tie around its neck and hung it from a lamp”. Kerouac admits he was not present for this scene and only heard about it later.

A scene combining hanging and cats. This resonates hugely with Burroughs’ later fixations. Perhaps this was a foundational scene, from which these horrors in-part derive? Or, more likely, this is a later construction of Burroughs’s. Perhaps a dream vision, a false memory, or another condensation, placing Kammerer among the damned ones of Burroughs’ metaphysical universe. A quintessential “shit”.

The next scene is more believable, being ostensibly a quotation from one of Kerouac’s journals of the time. He quotes the phrase “nothing is true, everything is allowed” and attributes it to Nietzsche; part of a reading list, including notes for further consideration.

I need to reread my Nietzsche and see if this really is in there. It doesn’t feel exactly right – he’s usually more ambiguous than that – but perhaps? Either way, this places the famous phrase, Burroughs’ mantra – “nothing is true, everything is permitted” – back in the 1940s, being used by Burroughs’ circle long before he supposedly discovered it in Betty Bouthoul’s novel about Hassan i Sabbah.

Maybe this is Kerouac misremembering and fabricating notes. The fabrication doesn’t feel like him though. Misremembering, yes, but not lying.

We can therefore see a subterranean connection here between Burroughs adoption of Hassan i Sabbah as a personal mascot and his Columbia years reading Nietzsche and Spengler. As with the cat incident, however, and all of Kerouac’s work for that matter, there is an inevitably danger that we’re confusing myth for facts.

Not that Burroughs would necessarily have recognised a difference between the two.