This review will appear in the Journal of Latin American Studies; at least until it does, I’m reasonably certain that I can host it here.
Jorge García-Robles, At the End of the Road: Jack Kerouac in Mexico, trans. Daniel C. Schechter, (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), pp. xi + 130, $17.95pb.
The climax of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is the visit to Mexico very near to the end, with its author’s thinly-veiled stand-in living out a kind of fantasy. “Behind us lay the whole of America,” he writes, “and everything Dean and I had previously known about life, and life on the road. We had finally found the magic land at the end of the road and we never dreamed the extent of the magic.” (On the Road, 276) The magic consists of cheap drugs and prostitutes, and a spiritual space that he sees as existing in opposition to American materialism. On the Road went unpublished for five years before it made him famous, and into the Beat icon that he hated to be. In the meantime, he returned to Mexico repeatedly, and usually loved it, or at least his idea of it.
Jorge García-Robles is an expert on the Beats in Mexico; the author of a duology on Burroughs’ and Kerouac’s relationships to the country. The Burroughs half was published in translation in 2013 as The Stray Bullet: William S. Burroughs in Mexico, and this is the second half, on Kerouac, originally published in Spanish in 2000. Both volumes have had the same translator, Daniel Schechter, and both are erudite and elegant literary essays—monographs that resemble novellas—and have been rendered by Schechter in casual and readable prose that feels appropriate to their subject.
García-Robles’s central insight into Kerouac’s relationship with Mexico was that it was forged of imagination. Kerouac, argues García-Robles, “found Mexico mysterious, spiritually dense, chilling, and quite compassionate (most likely he was projecting his victim’s complex, his fears and vulnerabilities on the Mexican personality).” (38) The Beat authors were famous for their rejection of the stultifying conformism of U.S. culture, and for embracing sexual freedom, drug use, and a peripatetic life of non-conformity. To Kerouac, Mexico represented all this and more. Like many other gringo visitors, he saw in Mexico the possibility of redemption in a community that had not lost its spiritual qualities. He seems to have loved the place almost unreservedly at first. He is struck by its beauty, by its drugs and prostitutes, and by the canny policemen who don’t enforce the laws. When he arrives in Mexico City, he even quotes Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) loving the chaos of the traffic: “This is the traffic I’ve always dreamed of. Everyone goes!” (On the Road, 300) Kerouac invented a Mexico that he needed to exist, and refrained from thinking too much about the actual Mexico. Unlike others, he was not obsessed with indigenous Mexico; his “Indians” were anyone with brown skin and his “fellahin” Mexico (a term borrowed and modified from Spenger’s Decline of the West) meant to him one that remained unspoiled by materialism. He never thought about Mexico’s politics or its writers. But he wrote more than one and a half novels there, several books of poetry, and at times seemed to come close to living the way he thought it should be possible to live. García-Robles captures all this, and the scene he inhabited at 210 Orizaba in the neighborhood of Roma, through letters and excerpts from Kerouac’s published writings. (His Burroughs book benefited from interviews that were not possible to carry out in this case, and contains more original material.)
There is one curious omission in At the End of the Road. Chapter 13 of On the Road, originally published in the Paris Review “The Mexican Girl,” is perhaps its best-known chapter. There, Kerouac recounts his love affair with a Mexican woman. He meets her on a bus and begins to live with her, working as a cotton picker in California’s Central Valley until he leaves her when the weather turns cold in October. After local Okies beat a man, he takes up carrying a stick “in case they got the idea we Mexicans were fouling up their trailer camp. They thought I was a Mexican, of course; and in a way I am.” (On the Road, 98.) Granted, these events did not take place within the boundaries of the nation of Mexico, but they do seem relevant to Kerouac’s later identification with a particular idea of Mexicanness as something resembling noble vagabondage.
But never mind: this is a fine book. It will be of interest to scholars of the Beats and midcentury American literature, as well as to historians of Mexico’s exile communities, and those interested in transnational lives and ideas. It comes at a good length and a good price for classroom use.
There is the separate question of whether the Beats deserve the level of attention, or at least the level of admiration, that they are often given. A certain historical reading seems to me available that would challenge the general view of the Beats as countercultural rebels. Parts of On the Road were financed by Kerouac’s G.I. Bill checks, even though his stint in the Marines was brief and featured him beating a superior officer and being discharged as mentally unstable. After historians like Ira Katznelson (When Affirmative Action was White, W.W. Norton, 2005) and writers like Ta-Nehesi Coates have emphasized ways that the G.I. Bill contributed to racial exclusion in housing, Kerouac’s journeys seem like cultural analogues: tours of appropriation made possible by unearned and unexamined privilege. He takes writing rhythms from Harlem’s jazz culture, and loves Mexico because he can sleep with underage prostitutes for the equivalent of twelve cents. His ability to “enjoy” Mexico without thinking much about it, and without experiencing consequences, is further evidence that, however much he chafed at dominant American values, he lived a life made possible by American privilege—and white, male privilege at that. The Beat lifestyle left behind a trail of damaged lives and dead bodies, and the Beat writers seem to me to be a rare literary movement that inspired better work than the founders themselves produced. Jorge García-Robles’ books number among the works they inspired. So can I confess that I like his writing about the Beats at least as much, and probably more, than most of their work?
University of Texas at El Paso