A pop-culture trifle that tries too hard to make its already accessible subject au courant among the 20-somethings.
New York Times style reporter Leland (Hip: The History, 2004) clearly has good intentions in this celebration of the inventor of middle-class white cool (or was that Sinatra?) and good instincts in pointing out the ironies hidden in Jack Kerouac’s invention. But it does not do to strive for hipness when discussing such weighty matters, and Leland’s prose often falls into a kind of chattiness that would have driven its subject to mad repudiations: “The big kahuna for any god-aspiring novelist is the question of death”; “On the Road is often blamed for America’s ongoing goatee problem, but the book is in fact clean-shaven. Kerouac disdained chin spinach, especially on white dudes.” Leland’s subject has been dead for nearly 40 years, the book that made him famous half a century old now, and the ironies mount: Kerouac was conservative, racist, closeted and a champion of Falwellian family values who “managed a lasting female relationship only with his mother, who supported his writing even as she disapproved of the lives he wrote about.” He was a wild celebrant of drugs and booze, hung out with Ginsberg and Burroughs, yet voted for Goldwater. So what are the life lessons to be drawn from the man and his book? Leland offers “Sal’s 7 Habits of Highly Beat People,” the Sal in question being of course Kerouac’s alterego: “Stay on schedule (Tip: don’t let jobs get in the way),” “Sell in, not out,” and so on; but too little of his book supports his thesis that On the Road is about how to live.
A harmless enough entertainment, but vaporous and rather frivolous—an attempt, one suspects, to ride the crest of an anniversary wave that has yet to take shape.