Road trip pow­ered by sober­ing per­spec­tive

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Daniel Her­born

Drink­ing nearly de­stroyed Len­nox Ni­chol­son. “I’d ploughed through jobs, re­la­tion­ships, hous­ing sit­u­a­tions, op­por­tu­ni­ties, friend­ships,” the Mel­bourne-based writer ad­mits, “the whole time think­ing this kind of liv­ing would surely, even­tu­ally, give me in­sight into the hu­man con­di­tion — enough so I could write down some­thing mean­ing­ful.”

But no such in­sight fol­lowed, just a house­mate who had to check every morn­ing that Ni­chol­son, blacked out on the car­pet, wasn’t dead be­fore he headed to work. Fi­nally, he cleaned up with the help of Al­co­holics Anony­mous and its 12-step pro­gram and en­rolled in a TAFE writ­ing pro­gram.

Hear­ing of an AA meet­ing in At­lanta to cel­e­brate the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s 80th an­niver­sary, Ni­chol­son de­cides to make the pil­grim­age and to com­bine the jour­ney with a road trip re­trac­ing some of Jack Ker­ouac’s On the Road.

He did not think of read­ing the book dur­ing his wasted years, but later found it gave him an “un­easy feel­ing”, cel­e­brat­ing as it does a life­style from which he had turned away.

The clas­sic of beat lit­er­a­ture has a com­pli- cated le­gacy and Ni­chol­son seeks to view it through the lens of Ker­ouac’s al­co­holism, which fu­els the manic coun­try-hop­ping. Ni­chol­son’s jour­ney will be a sober and much con­densed ver­sion of Ker­ouac’s, and in­clude meet-ups with friendly AA mem­bers and lo­cal AA meet­ings along the way.

Much of On the Wagon is con­cerned with up­end­ing the ro­man­tic myth of the artist us­ing sub­stances to tap into some vault of cre­ative ge­nius. Ni­chol­son doesn’t buy it. “For every suc­cess­ful cre­ative artist, I can take you to a lo­cal pub and show you a drunken, drug-fu­elled, un­man­age­able mess who can’t get any cre­ative work done be­cause they’re al­ways wasted.”

Sim­i­larly, he notes that the oftre­peated story of Ker­ouac fran­ti­cally typ­ing the orig­i­nal On the Road man­u­script in just three Ben­zedrine-fu­elled weeks is mis­lead­ing as af­ter that orig­i­nal frenzy, Ker­ouac rewrote and edited ob­ses­sively. Far from be­ing some sa­vant tap­ping into hal­lu­cino­genic vi­sions to write, Ni­chol­son notes, Ker­ouac was ac­tu­ally some­thing far less fash­ion­able but more prac­ti­cal: a dis­ci­plined, hard-work­ing writer.

Still, Ker­ouac knew how to have a wild old time on a road trip and his stolen car odyssey is a con­trast to the sen­si­ble rented car jour­ney made by Ni­chol­son. Some­times strangers sur­prise the lat­ter with warmth and hos­pi­tal­ity, but a lot of the time the road trip fails to pro­vide the colour he seeks.

Watch­ing a cer­e­mony be­fore an AA meet­ing, Ni­chol­son la­ments that it “never comes alive for me”, while a meet­ing in Chicago also falls flat as a source of ma­te­rial: “The guys here aren’t in­ter­ested or in­ter­est­ing, and it’s a to­tal waste of time.”

The hip­pie out­posts also meet his dis­ap­proval. In Colorado, the le­galised mar­i­juana in­dus­try is de­liv­er­ing some pros­per­ity, but on v visit­ing a weed bar there, the au­thor finds him­self “a bit dis­ap­pointed to see that it’s just like a reg­u­lar bar”. Sur­vey­ing young va­grants in the beat mecca of San Fran­cisco, he muses, “per­haps they’re in­spired by their Beat pre­de­ces­sors to find some kind of pearl in a tran­sient life­style. It must be second na­ture to lo­cals, b but Jimmy and I are hat­ing it.” Trav­el­ling com­pan­ion Jimmy, a pho­tog­ra­pher and fel­low AA mem­ber, doesn’t seem to be en­joy­ing him­self much, an­grily re­treat­ing to his ho­tel when he sees drunken rev­ellers in the street cel­e­brat­ing a Chicago Black­hawks Stan­ley Cup win. He re­mains a tac­i­turn fig­ure, seem­ingly only happy when buy­ing white T-shirts and drink­ing Star­bucks cof­fee.

Here is a man so prone to ir­ri­ta­tion that even mov­ing around irks him: “Jimmy ad­mits he hates walk­ing, phys­i­cally hav­ing to put one foot in front of the other.”

On the Wagon works bet­ter when of­fer­ing in­sight into the prin­ci­ples that un­der­pin the amaz­ingly suc­cess­ful AA pro­gram, and when un­der­tak­ing a con­vinc­ing re­con­sid­er­a­tion of the Ker­ouac myth, rather than as a road trip in its own right.

It touches on a tru­ism about Ker­ouac’s work: few books seem to read so dif­fer­ently when ap­proached with a bit of life ex­pe­ri­ence. On the Road is fa­mously adored by wide-eyed young­sters who lap up its ragged en­ergy, po­etic he­do­nism and love of the open road. But many who come to it later, or re-read it, find the pro­tag­o­nists self-ab­sorbed and are sur­prised by how ut­terly des­per­ate the end­less move­ment feels. Sal and Dean al­ways be­lieve the ul­ti­mate “kicks” are in the next town, or with the next girl, but at a cer­tain point the high-spir­ited wan­der­lust starts to feel like run­ning away from some­thing.

Still, it’s hard not to re­tain some fond­ness for the free­wheel­ing, ec­static en­ergy of Ker­ouac and co, as fake or un­sus­tain­able as it was. There’s a vivid­ness there, a re­bel­lious charisma. As pain­ful as Ker­ouac and his beloved “mad ones” may have been in per­son, they still shine on the page. is a free­lance critic.

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