An intrepid British writer takes to the road in search of the Beats.
Poet, essayist, documentarian, filmmaker, editor and novelist Sinclair (Ghost Milk: Recent Adventures among the Future Ruins of London on the Eve of the Olympics, 2012, etc.) first read the Beats in the 1960s, when he was a teenager in Dublin. Later, he discovered “how tribal and interconnected the American countercultural scene actually was: everybody met everybody….They feuded, fought, formed intense friendships, sulked for generations.” To understand the texture and force of the Beats’ community, Sinclair embarked on a journey, following in the peripatetic and woozy footsteps of Malcolm Lowry, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and assorted other writers and their friends, lovers, publishers and acolytes. With an eye for the telling vignette and a deft talent for the “rapid-sketched” portrait, Sinclair counters what he calls “Beat Generation revivalism [that] threatens to turn the whole circus into another Bloomsbury Group.” In the seaside city of Gloucester, Mass., he picked up the trail of poet Charles Olson, a large man with an overpowering presence and “a rumbling voice thick with smoke, sweat dripping, black eyebrows emphatic.” Ginsberg emerges as a kind of Ancient Mariner, “with his glittering eye, his gleaming cranium and shamanic red silk shirt,” responding to questions with well-rehearsed anecdotes involving Olson, Burroughs, and even Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “in broad-brim jungle hat, is an audition for the granddad of Indiana Jones.” Although drugs, alcohol and sex were the vices of choice for all the Beats, Sinclair notes a difference between those in New York (“peppery, competitive”) and the “cooler cats” in California, who were drawn to Buddhism. “What mattered most to the Beats,” Sinclair writes, “was the intensity of visionary experience.”
Melding reportage and memoir, this gossipy, idiosyncratic cultural history offers a fresh, unvarnished look at an eccentric, brash and dynamic cast of literary rebels.