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Ah, the 1950s. An amazing decade, although I have to confess that as a gearhead, I tend to think only of the 1950s as the era when cars became interesting. The 1950s birth of the hot rod, thanks to WW II vets recycling old Ford flathead V8’s by rebuilding them, tuning them up, and dropping them into stripped-down, chopped and lowered model A’s. 1953 saw the birth of an American road icon, the Chevrolet Corvette, which started life as a genteel six-cylinder touring car designed to compete with European roadsters, and lives on today as a raving monster. I’ll let you do the research on that — if I start discussing cars, I’ll probably end up transporting the blog to Barstow c.1950 and waxing poetic about the evolution of American sports cars, and we’ll all be here far longer than we want to be.
Lest we forget, however, America as we know it today was really beginning to take shape in the 1950s. The military-industrial complex, unwilling to wind down after WW II, was pushing buttons and pulling levers as fast as it could, working all angles of the Red Scare propaganda machine in order to keep on raking in the bucks. While the dominant aesthetic of the 1950s was that of smiling, happy, affluent white folks driving massive cars to smiling, happy, affluent-white-folk-hangout-type places, a lot of frustration and angst lurked beneath the surface. The decade was jam-packed with novels struggling to give voice to any vision of the era that could peel back the “shiny happy people” facade. While folks in the ‘burbs worked to keep those smiles in place, many others wandered off to discover and/or redefine themselves, and get a sense of what American culture was really all about.
To that end, my choice is relatively simple: Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (1957). Yes, it’s quite possibly one of the most over-hyped books of the second-half of the 20th century, written by a somewhat enigmatic figure who eventually withdrew from the world of hep cats and cool chicks who really found their groove making the scene in dive bars, jazz clubs, and poetry jams in all-night coffee shops. And I find it difficult to make a case for recommending the novel on any form-oriented grounds; even though Kerouac typed the whole thing out on a continuous roll of paper while wired on caffeine, the final product arrived neatly edited into digestible paragraphs cross-cut with dialogue and exposition — nothing remarkable there. But what motivates me to choose this novel is the impact it had on me as a first-time reader when I was in my late teens. At the time, I had no real interest in the Beat movement — I fancied myself one of those people who isn’t interested in anything if it can be labelled a “movement” — and I figured that anything as highly praised as On The Road could not possibly have anything to interest me. Ultimately, that was true — for the content. But what gripped me was the energy of the novel. This is a novel that never sleeps. The non-stop, caffeine-driven, hormone-addled misadventures of Sal Paradise (aka Kerouac) and Dean Moriarty (aka Neal Cassady) sucked me in and didn’t let go until I finished the book. Parts of it still rattle around in my brain, even though it’s been over 15 years since I read the entire novel. In particular, the following passage — the words of Moriarty to Paradise as they rocket across the countryside in a car with traveling salesmen –often comes to mind:
“Now you just dig them in front. They have worries, they’re counting the miles, they’re thinking about where to sleep tonight, how much money for gas, the weather, how they’ll get there — and all the time they’ll get there anyway, you see. But they need to worry and betray time with urgencies false and otherwise, purely anxious and whiny, their souls really won’t be at peace unless they can latch on to an established and proven worry and having once found it they assume facial expressions to fit and go with it, which is, you see, unhappiness, and all the time it all flies by them and they know it and that too worries them to no end.”
To me, this passage reveals the zen heartbeat of the novel, the Tao of Beat culture. “Forget the pressures of mainstream life, man, just drop out — get in touch with people, not things; discover yourself, don’t conform. Love the people around you for who they are, don’t judge them.” And yet, the book constantly undercuts this mantra by revealing Sal’s discontentment with the antics of Moriarty and others; his compulsion to hit the road and discover America at the drop of a hat conflicts with his growing sense that the bohemian lifestyle of Moriarty et al is nothing but whimsical solipsism at its best, and violent misogyny at its worst.
As for my alternate selection, I’m going to go out on a limb and select Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House (1959). I makes this selection hesitantly only because this book remains on my “must read” list, and I choose it based on the work of a friend and colleague, who has written about and researched Jackson’s body of work extensively.