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Lonesome Traveller is, quite literally, a mixed bag. It's a collection of short pieces based mainly, as the title would suggest, around Kerouac's travels. Most of the pieces were written after the publication of On the Road - the book that made Kerouac a household name - and were first published as magazine pieces, and these are probably the worst pieces in the collection - they feel a little too tossed-off, perfunctory. It's clear Kerouac didn't take as much care with these as he did with his own novels. This isn't to say that they are bad, per se, but that the quality of actual prose is far below what Kerouac achieves in some of his better-known works.
Two pieces, however, make this a must-buy for any serious Kerouac fan - "October in the Railroad Earth" and "The Vanishing American Hobo." The first piece is an account of Kerouac's time working as a railroad brakeman and shows of his mastery of prose as well as anything else he's written. It was written at the height of his powers, circa 1954, shortly after he'd completed his masterpiece, Visions of Cody, and, as they say, is worth the price of admission alone.
"The Vanishing American Hobo," on the other hand, is a powerful essay about the disappearance of innocence from American life - in particular, how police surveillance and general public suspicion and paranoia are putting an end not only to the poetic idea of the "hobo," but also the actual reality of the hobo. ("Having nothing to do in the middle of the night with everybody gone to sleep cops pick on the first human being they see walking - they pick on lovers on the beach even - it's one line of crime and nine of boredom.") It's an important essay mainly because of its prophetic nature, and, with its political undertones, is unlike anything else Kerouac wrote.
"There's something strange going on," Kerouac says. "You can't even be alone anymore in the primitive wilderness, there's always a helicopter comes and snoops around, you need camouflage.... In evil roads behind gas tanks where murderous dogs snarl from behind wire fences, cruisers suddenly leap out like getaway cars but from a crime more secret, more baneful than words can tell."
As the last piece in the book, which has up til now been an account mainly of freedom and independence, it is perhaps a downbeat ending, full of sadness for innocence lost, but no less truthful for that:
"Watch out," Kerouac says. "The woods are full of wardens."
Lonesome Traveler was the first Kerouac novel I read when I was 16. I had read that David Bowie's favourite book was 'On The Road' by the same author and so I intended to get this but the store only had this in, so I bought it not knowing what to expect really, except that I knew it would be something mind blowing if the author was one of Bowie's idols.
The description on the back cover was highly relevant to me: it said the book was a study of Kerouac's working life and his wanderings across the world as he is trying to make a living and find spiritual inspiration. As a sixteen year old just starting out in the working world and looking for some kind of freedom too, I was attracted by what Kerouac had to say.
The novel begins with an unusual list of facts about the authors' life. It is soon apparant that the facts are not like those written in a CV, though when under the line: MARRIED Kerouac writes: "Nah" and lists his SPECIAL INTEREST as "Girls". There is a lot of humour and quirkiness in this section, and it really helps to introduce the author, what his previous literary works are and also explains a lot about his character. It is for this reason that I would suggest that any new, young reader to Kerouac find this book first, as I did and not go straight into the cautiously edited 'On The Road' as most people do.
The main section of the book begins as if it is a poem:
HERE DOWN ON DARK EARTH
before we all go to Heaven....
then it kicks in with a description of our author knocking around on a cold, foggy waterfront waiting for a ship to come in.
Kerouac's writing style is rich and evocative. He writes in a style he called 'spontaneous prose' which means just writing what you feel and not changing a word of it. So the words are often muddled, a stream of consciousness that is sometimes vulgar, sometimes magical.
Each chapter covers a different time in Kerouac's life and sees him travelling either physically or mentally to a different place.
There is always a strong interest in spirituality and also the urges of his generation to break out of the conformity of the era and embrace new ways of living and of having fun.
The last chapter in the book, which is subtitled: The Vanishing American Hobo sees Kerouac discuss his feeling on tramps, wanderers and homeless people whom he thought may have a mystic knowledge earned by their lack of need to worry about worldy possessions. The last line of the novel really sums up a lot about the whole novel, about Kerouac's entire body of work actually, as the phrase embodies a feeling of paranoia, of wanting to break free, of wanting to embrace nature and spirituality but being denied by situation or self. The line is: 'The woods are full of wardens'.
A brilliant book that really taught me a lot about myself and inspired me to seek spiritual wisdom. I loved it so much that I've since read everything else Kerouac has ever written!
Published by Penguin Books