Thursday, January 09, 2014
'Looking for Kerouac' - review by Maggie Rainey-Smith
by Mercedes Webb-Pullman
Published by Hammer & Anvil Books 2013 $4.99 (US)
I first heard Mercedes Webb-Pullman reading her work at the Ballroom Cafe in Newtown. She was reading poetry on that occasion and I was drawn to her work because of the 'gritty' content. The sort of poetry that touches a nerve, rather than lulls with its beauty. Recently, I read her EBook, 'Looking for Kerouac' on my Kindle on a long-haul flight and it held me fully engaged for much of my journey. (And as I'm not the world's happiest airline passenger and need distraction, I was most grateful).
Webb-Pullman has embarked on a month-long tour of the USA to "see some of the places where Kerouac and his friends... - lived and played, to intersect with their movements around the country, see parts of what they saw with my own eyes.". At the same time, she is remembering an earlier and more emotionally traumatic journey in the 80's on her honeymoon.
I reviewed 'The Slap' by Christos Tsoilkas a couple of years back. A book that I loved. And at the time I was working in Poppy's Bookshop in Petone. I was blithely recommending the book to customers when someone mentioned it might not be everyone's cup of tea... you know, the sex. I have to admit some of my book club friends felt the same and I have to confess I was so engrossed in the story, I didn't notice the sex. Well, that's what I say.
And, so as I now embark on a recommendation of 'Looking for Kerouac', let me put first a disclaimer. There is sex. It is raw, gritty and highly personal. I was confronted. I was, I'll confess a teeny bit shocked. My shock had more to do with my personal view of the author and how I view her in the now - a fiercely independent, intelligent, interesting woman. The journey with her second husband in the 80's reveals a much less secure individual, but how brave and interesting to write about this.
But forget all of the personal and you can even perhaps forget Kerouac - although he is the title of the book and perhaps the inspiration. The best bits for me of this personal memoir are the outstanding descriptions of America - the journey from city to suburb, the evocative images, and poetic observations. I compare it to 'Stranger on a Train' by Jenny Diski, although it doesn't have the same sense of menace that Diski managed to develop when she took a detour and got off the train. But it has many similarities in the way Webb-Pullman is drawn to the under-class, the less visible, the less obvious and therefore the more interesting - this is no Disney trip.
The other thing is, you don't have to be a Kerouac fan to like this book. I'm not a particular Kerouac fan as I haven't read 'On the Road', (although I love some of Ginsberg's poetry). I sort of missed that moment in the sixties and in retrospect find some of Kerouac and his contemporaries lives, wanting, in regard to their treatment of women. Webb-Pullman interrogates a little the less than happy lives of the women who were part of the Beat generation. But yes, if you are a Kerouac fan then you will be rewarded perhaps even more, by all the references throughout. I was more intrigued by the references to her ex husband Kevin, than to Kerouac, throughout the journey.
My only criticism of this memoir is the longish 'found poem' at the end. Webb-Pullman has taken prose from Kerouac's 'On the Road' and turned found lines into a poem. I felt this was too indulgent and that might be because I am not well up on Kerouac and didn't have the patience. It may well be a very good long poem, but I felt the author had tested my commitment just a fraction. I loved the memoir, but I didn't really care about the poem. Kerouac fans might well feel very different.
If you are looking for a compelling, interesting, and gritty travel memoir, then I highly recommend 'Looking for Kerouac'.
About the reviewer:
Maggie Rainey-Smith is a Wellington writer and regular reviewer on Beattie's Book Blog. She is also Chair of the Wellington branch of the NZ Society of Authors.