Road trip powered by sobering perspective
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.