Forty years ago, Jack Kerouac spent three weeks typing one tranced-out paragraph about some car trips with his priapic speed-freak pal Neal Cassady. The paragraph comprised 120,000 words on a single sheet of paper more than 100 feet long. Rolled up, the manuscript resembled a salami. He called it On the Road.
Legend has it that the book was a first draft and an instant hit. In fact, it wasn't published until Sept. 5, 1957, some six years after his original vision, and though he hotly denied it Kerouac painstakingly revised his holy scroll. By a fluke (the regular critic was on vacation) a substitute New York Times reviewer hailed On the Road's publication as ''a historic occasion.'' The book made the best-seller list, the Beat Generation became a buzzword, and Neal and Jack-style buddies popped up on TV (Route 66, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis) and in highbrow magazines. John Updike's New Yorker parody, ''On the Sidewalk,'' caricatured the duo as bratty kids on scooters. But he also admits they inspired him to write Rabbit, Run.
The pair put the ''id'' back in ''kid'' at precisely the right cultural moment. Kerouac was, after all, the one who had turned on reporter Al Aronowitz, who allegedly turned the Beatles on to marijuana. Jack and Neal had started a party that got out of hand.
Kerouac eventually gave up drugs and devoted his life to Falstaff beer. He ended up in his mom's house with the lights off and the shades drawn, watching The Galloping Gourmet, railing against hippies and ''educated Marxist Negroes,'' literally rotting at the core. He died of a stomach hemorrhage in 1969 at 47, looking 60. But his murky work was shot through with erratic lightning. On the CD The Jack Kerouac Collection and the videos Kerouac: The Movie and What Happened to Kerouac? you can hear him at his best, chanting prose that yearns to be music. Once, asked to define the word beat, he answered, ''tattered and radiant.'' For a while, he was.
Sept. 5, 1957
Moviegoers flocked to see Doris Day and John Raitt (Bonnie's dad) in The Pajama Game. Debbie Reynolds' ''Tammy'' was America's favorite pop tune. Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders topped the nonfiction book lists. And couch potatoes tuned in to The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show.