- Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover
- Top Five Books
- 465 pp
- Reviewed by Barry Wightman
- May 17, 2013
In their chronicle of the Beat masters, the authors stamp their narrative with a compelling you-were-there novelistic style.
Poet Kenneth Rexroth wrote in 1957, after the vanguard of the Beat Generation (Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road) had ignited angel-headed hipsters from coast to coast, “What will happen afterwards I don’t know, but for the next 10 years or so we are going to have to cope with the youth we, my generation, put through the atom smasher.”
In 1972 the Rolling Stones, about to begin a larger-than-life, chaotic, full-blown rock-and-roll road trip across America, released what became one of their most important records, “Exile on Main Street.” A mythic American landscape unreels in the music, loud and profane, a love letter to the land. One tune, “Rip This Joint,” actually refers to nine locations in three minutes, points on Mick Jagger’s and Keith Richard’s romantic mental maps of the U.S.A. Buffalo, D.C., Tampa, Little Rock (“… and I’m fit to drop/ Ah, let it rock!”). The Stones’ entourage on that infamous airborne tour included a polite, unobtrusive older gentleman from Switzerland, Robert Frank, a photographer and filmmaker. Frank’s strange and dark photographs adorned much of the cover of “Exile.” In 1956, he had published a collection of photographs of an America few had seen in the placid postwar 1950s, The Americans. Jack Kerouac wrote the book’s introduction, declaring that “Robert Frank ... sucked a sad poem right out of America and onto film … to Robert Frank, I now give this message: You got eyes.”
Rexroth was right. Something happened. And Frank’s presence in ’72, on that 727 with the lascivious lolling tongue on the tail, continued the Beats’ atom-smashing legacy beyond all expectations. Its DNA is here with us today. And Mania, a marvelous, cunningly written night journey through the back alleys, bars, mental institutions and jazz joints of ’40s and ’50s urban America, is hypnotic and addicting like a Charlie Parker solo, a Keith Richards riff or a button of peyote. To Ronald Collins and David Skover, I give this message: You got eyes. And ears.
Not a simple historical survey of the life and times of the founding members of the Beats — Kerouac, Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Lucien Carr, Neal Cassady, Carl Solomon — Mania is a narrative, a tale with the distinct tang of you-were-there nonfiction as fiction. Novelistic. Not unlike Kerouac’s fictional nonfiction. It’s a gamble, but Collins and Skover pull it off with bebop style. Here’s their depiction of Lucien Carr’s showing up at William S. Burroughs’ New York City apartment door after killing an acquaintance just before dawn:
“‘I just killed the old man.’
Burroughs was shocked. ‘What?’ Could it be true? Had Lucien snapped?
Before Bill could say more, Lucien told his story and handed him the blood-stained pack of Lucky Strikes that had been in Kammerer’s pocket.
‘Have the last cigarette.’
Strange. Burroughs paused. Then, with his trademark nasal sneer, he spoke. ‘So this is how Dave Kammerer ends.’”
One might complain, raise an eyebrow with this technique; quoting historical conversations is risky business, asking a lot of buy-in by the reader. Did Burroughs really say that? But Collins and Skover go to great lengths to back up their scholarship with extensive endnotes, meticulously citing sources. Though I’d quibble with the layout of the notes — they’re a bit labyrinthine and there are no note numbers in the text, making for a bit of confusion — the end result is clear. The authors know what they’re doing.
Riffing on the styles of their subjects, Collins and Skover take further risks. Allen Ginsberg enters the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute:
“How does a doctor … repair the mind of a man who was damaged
by a deranged mother?
Who grew to hate his father?
Who was insecure, yet had an inflated sense of self?
Who abused drugs?
Who lusted for fanatical men?
Who cavorted with junkies, criminals, and whores?
Who had mystical experiences?
Who confused fact with fiction?
Who in the asylum befriended its craziest patient?
Who loved life’s darkest sides?
And who wasn’t quite sure if he preferred normalcy to madness?”
The Biblical cadences of Ginsberg’s epic poem of midcentury American disillusion, “Howl,” get the point across: Ginsberg had issues. Clever? Yes. Effective? I think so. But it’s not overused. This isn’t your father’s survey of 19th-Century Romantic Poetry.
Further evidence. Here, we’re talking Kerouac:
“CLACK, CLACK, CLACK, clack clack, clackclackclakcclackclakc, clack- clackclackclack. Ding. Zzzzziiiipppp.
I first met Neal not long after my father died … I had just gotten over a
Click, click, clack, clack, clack, clack, clack …
serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about except that it really had some —”
Yes, typewriters. Kerouac said, “My heart resides in a typewriter, and I don’t have a heart unless there’s a typewriter somewhere nearby …” Thankfully, the typographic clacks and clicks don’t go on long, but we get the point—Kerouac poured himself into writing. And Truman Capote’s barbed remark, “That’s not writing, it’s typing,” doesn’t matter anymore. But Kerouac’s writing does.
Like any good narrative, Mania’s pace picks up as the tale reaches its centerpiece — the writing and publication of “Howl.” “Part III, The Poem & Prosecution,” on its own, is a bravura piece of journalism. Again, the book’s you-are-there feel is gripping:
“Allen typed typed typed typed typed. He filled seven pages of single-spaced strophes, rejecting inapt words or inferior phrases …
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness starving hysterical naked …
Winding down to the end, he knew he had done it. He had breached the dam that obstructed his poetic imagination. And with the fury of a Hebraic prophet, he had railed on behalf of the madmen and madwomen in his life ... a gesture of wild solidarity … a sort of heart’s trumpet call.”
Sweetly optimistic, fervent and steadfast in its commitment to the idea and ideals of America, Mania sings and blows true to a subterranean literary tradition. Proof positive that sometimes, a generational atom smasher isn’t all bad.
Barry Wightman’s novel Pepperland, a revolutionary, technology rock-’n-roll love story, is now available from Running Meter Press, an imprint of Big Earth Publishing. He is fiction editor of Hunger Mountain, a literary journal of the arts in Montpelier, Vt. He’s a corporate-marketing guy and a contributing essayist to WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio, and he leads a rather vintage rock-’n-roll band. http://www.barrywightman.com/