Friday, September 21, 2007

Reading Kerouac in Denver

What do you read to the audience when the evening's biggest draw has been dead for almost forty years?

On the evening of September 20th, The Tattered Cover, an independent bookstore on 16th and Wynkoop in downtown Denver, hosted a reading and discussion featuring John Leland, author of Hip: The History and most recently Why Kerouac Matters, and me, the representative for The Original Scroll publication of On the Road.

When I was a faculty member at Dickinson College, I attended department-sponsored readings of the very-much-living Ian McEwan and Tobias Wolf that had smaller audiences than all the Kerouac events I have participated in since becoming connected to this project. From this, I have learned a few lessons.

First, the very name Kerouac can fill a room, can convince three hundred people to walk for three hours in calf-high snow through downtown Denver to see the location where Neal Cassady's father swapped haircuts for baked goods. Second, when you are the emissary from the Kingdom of Kerouac, you should keep your mouth shut and let his words do the talking. Even better? Let the audience do the talking.

People attend literary readings for any number of reasons: to be in the presence of a favorite author, to be read to, to have a book signed so you can flip it on eBay, to get in out of the cold. But moreover, people want to ask questions, want to offer their opinions, want to interact with others who care about the same things that they themselves care about.

Bakhtin praises the novel for functioning as a site of heteroglossia, a myriad of interwoven voices that occur simultaneously and uproot the theories of those who find the novel to be the juggernaut of normative ideology. The novel speaks, and its name is Legion. Kerouac was adept at writing narratives that give voice to the voiceless; in his work, the heterogenous articulation that is society speaks in its multiple voices. Kerouac's work is cacophony, is a John-Cage-like requiem, and for this reason so many hear themselves in those pages. When we ask questions after the reading, we speak a non-vocalized declarative below the interrogative utterance; we say, I am here with you.

As a person lucky enough to be asked about Kerouac—and for that asking to occur in fabulous rooms filled with people who care at least as deeply as I do about the work—I try to remember that the question is in (the largest?) part a request to be allowed to speak one's mind about Kerouac's work. And so the dogma of academia, the posturing that says I must answer definitively and leave no doubt, has to be wrestled into the back seat so that I might ask, What do you think? You tell me.

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