|Henry Miller in Big Sur|
Writers love this disease. If they don't have it themselves, they tell the story of it. So many great stories are based on the love of moving right along. Talking to my good friend and official demi-god The Mighty Hercules lately about road novels, I was inspired to revisit one of my favorites, Henry Miller's The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. It is my favorite thing of Miller's and one road novel that really stays with me. The basic overview of the book is simple: Miller comes back to the States as an expat, escaping war in Europe. He is disgusted by much of what he sees, but he finds positive aspects of America while he travels. It isn't a story of growth or acceptance. Like all great road novels, it's about the journey for the sake of the journey. Miller tells of his travels because that is what is happening.
I've been reading a lot of these books lately. I find myself relishing novels by Kerouac, Miller, lesser known gems like I See By My Outfit by Peter Beagle. I think they make sense to me now in a way that they didn't before, as I've traveled more, spent nearly five years overseas, and felt more restricted by life circumstances. I loved these books when I first read them at 19 and 20. I appreciate them now. Back then they represented possibilities, potential futures that myself and my friends could live. Now they mean something more complex and strange- the sense of community and isolation that I have as a (Oh My) basically middle aged man. (Wait is 35 middle aged? I guess not... but close?)
America is such a country of potential. It is frustrating because the greatness that lurks everywhere. The geographical perfection, the powerful ambition and drive... these are balanced by the greed and pathological individualism that infects us. Having spent time in a other countries always makes Americans conscious of this contrast in identity. It's a personality disorder on a nationwide scale. We are what we pretend to be, and what we have chosen to be. We are the past and the future. Reading stories of our past back to Whitman and Emerson, it seems like this has always been the case. We've always been a nation of confused identity. Or at least our writers and scholars have thought so.
Living currently in small town America, I have a desire to go to cities, to see more of the urban America. A part of me, logically or not, always sees urban America as the authentic experience of being the United States. Funnily enough, most Americans I talk to don't think this, but many foreign visitors do. They see America as big city because of their own media and preconceptions, I suppose. I'm not sure why I do. But there it is.
The road novels I love mostly talk about small town America. They love the cities intensely, or hate them with equal passion. But they talk more about rural and small town America. I wonder if it that is because, like me, they see it as strange and confusing. Or because they see the real essence of the American experience there, and wish to explore it. Kerouac is especially hilarious in this regard, since he sings the praises of these little towns that he spends hours visiting, and then complains about the cities that he settles in for years.
Kerouac eventually went home, to his small town New England past. He resigned himself to unhappily finishing his years with the familiar. I can't imagine doing that, personally. It's actually a deep-seated fear of mine. When I was young, I was firmly convinced (like every young man reading Kerouac and listening to punk rock, I'm sure) that my life was destined to be lived out penniless and free, drifting from place to place, without a home. Of course that is silly- and mostly untrue. (Well, I'm penniless enough. And I do tend to drift. But I take a lot of home with me.)
But in all of the nonsensical romanticism and flowery prose of the myth, there is a glimmer of reality hidden. I'm still desperate to find that authentic identity of my country, and myself. I still pull up roots and change what I can to see the United States from a new angle, to approach the problem of our national disorder from a new perspective. I'm interested in it, perhaps above everything else in my life. I want to understand it. Reading those novels about travel, traveling myself for so much of my life... these are ways to find those stories again, and gain some comprehension. Until I get that... Well, I'll be restless. Ready to move.