The path that Kerouac travelled during his counter-cultural bible, On The Road, has been well-worn by fans, filmmakers and critics from the 1960s onwards. Having never really caught the buzz myself (I appreciate Kerouac as a writer, but not as an idol), I approached Webb-Pullman’s Looking for Kerouac with trepidation. What I found was a sensuous, honest and engrossing work that looks for far more than insight into Kerouac’s road trip.
The work (I hesitate to classify it as a novel, memoir or travelogue) begins with Mercedes sketching out biographical details about Kerouac, observing people in airport queues in Canberra, and making fleeting references to her last visit to America: her honeymoon with her now ex-husband, Kevin. The three strands of the narrative, Mercedes’ current trip, her honeymoon, and the details of Kerouac’s life, are woven throughout the piece. Web-Pullman effortlessly takes the reader in and out of her own life as well as imagining Kerouac in the same places, as she looks onto the neon of chain hotels, endless trains and the melancholy of travel that she shares with the Beat poet. Web-Pullman’s background as a respected Kiwi poet shines through in her deft use of language, and skill in engaging the reader.
As the work develops, Mercedes seems driven to make sense of, rather than worship, Kerouac. How did he deal with his sexual longings? Did he seek comfort in young men when he was beaten at bars? The sexual bohemianism and its emotional impact is a theme that blossoms in both Mercedes’ former relationship with Kevin and her understanding of Kerouac. Instead of embracing a nostalgic take on liberation and progressive ideals, we read of the abandoned wives and, eventually, an abandoned Kerouac that Neal Cassidy leaves in his wake.
These melancholy moments of reflection are mixed with the immediacy of Mercedes’ journey. Readers share Mercedes’ stiffness and fatigue after prolonged train rides, and her curiosity about fellow travellers. Often we are given the information Mercedes elicits from small-talk and fleeting friendships. We see America through giddy women at a train buffet cart and startled teenagers struggling for food far from home. Every taxi driver is from somewhere other than America, so Mercedes asks each one of them about food in their home country: Mercedes’ curiosity, humour and attention to the humanity around her is infectious and juxtaposes with the abstractions of bohemianism and freedom that Kerouac is often seen to represent.
As the reader slowly learns, Mercedes’ tumultuous honeymoon shares a lot of the sexual and hallucinogenic thrills of On the Road. Kevin’s charisma, instability and sexual appetite invite the reader to compare him to Kerouac. The resonance of Mercedes’ loneliness on her honeymoon serves as a counterpoint to Kerouac’s own drifting that, without any sense of moralising or dogmatism, of deep loss at the end of a hedonistic appetite. Overall, Looking for Kerouac offers an immersive snapshot of the American landscape, and is a testament to Web-Pullman’s poetic talents.
Looking for Kerouac, by Mercedes Webb-Pullman, is available in paperback and e-book format.