Kerouac! Kerouac! Kerouac!
Speaker's Corner: Matt Villano grew up wanting to be a writer, but he lived in a town where Jack Kerouac once resided. The incessant references to the Beat legend pushed him to the edge. Then he read "On the Road."
09.05.07 | 3:12 PM ET
For years, I hated Jack Kerouac. It wasn’t his writing I despised; after recently re-reading “On the Road” for the fourth time, I’m not sure how any self-respecting travel writer—or literate human, for that matter—could take issue with the guy’s command of language.
Instead, it was Kerouac’s reputation, his status as the writer from my hometown of Northport, New York.
Sure, other writers had lived in Northport over the years—playwright Eugene O’Neill, for one, and the Pulitzer prize-winning history writer Edwin Burrows. But for local folks, no matter where you were, no matter who was speaking, any conversation about writing always came back to Kerouac.
For just about any other person, these comments would have been refreshing; a small town displaying some pride. For me, however, growing up in Northport as a budding writer with a dream to out-Liebling A.J. Liebling himself, the specter of Kerouac was an unabashed nuisance.
I first became aware of the cult of Kerouac in middle school. Mr. Barker, my seventh grade English teacher, repeatedly mentioned that the Beat writer lived in town for parts of six years spanning 1958 to 1964, that he played softball up on Scudder Avenue and that he used to get liquored up with his buddy Stanley Twardowicz at Gunther’s Tap Room.
The following year, Mrs. Rabinowitz, who taught me how to diagram sentences, reiterated these facts ad infinitum.
The brainwashing continued in high school. In ninth grade, when I cared more about writing poems than reading them, my English teacher made us read some of Kerouac’s “Northport Haikus,” which he wrote in a house that belonged to the family of a kid on our basketball team.
“Why does everyone keep talking about this Kerouac guy?” one student asked.
“Why?” my teacher responded. “Well, he was simply the best writer Northport has ever seen.”
By this point, the mere mention of Kerouac irked me. Like most teenagers, I was convinced that anything grown-ups saw as good for me was totally lame. On top of this, it bugged me that I, an aspiring writer and an only child, had to listen to everyone extol the virtues of some other guy when I really just wanted them to talk about moi.
My parents, both fans of good books, picked up on my frustration and suggested that I give Kerouac a chance by reading “On the Road.” I declined—or rather, I refused, cursed at them, ran into my room, shut the door, and blasted something from Metallica’s “Kill ‘Em All.”
Obviously, I wasn’t ready to embrace the guy.
Further Kerouac indoctrination only made matters worse. Ms. Resnicow, whom I had in 11th grade, hailed Kerouac as “a Northporter we should all emulate in our writing.” She even encouraged us to go to a special Jack Kerouac exhibit at a tiny museum downtown. I think I went to the mall.
Heading into my senior year, my hatred for Jack Kerouac had reached an apex. By then, I had covered the 1992 Democratic National Convention for the Newspapers in Education program at Newsday, and been named editor of The Rag, our high school paper. I also was on the fast track to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. I was making a name for myself, and that name sounded nothing at all like Kerouac.
Perhaps this was why small-town comments from community members pushed me over the edge.
Whether I was studying in the library or chasing girlfriends, locals stopped me to give me unsolicited feedback about my nascent career. The barbs were innocuous, and usually went something like this: “I heard you’re gonna be a writer? Following in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac, I see.”
Or this: “A Kerouac in the making!”
Sometimes, they were hopeful: “If you sharpen those skills, maybe someday you’ll be as good as Kerouac.”
Other times, the remarks were completely deflating: “You might go on to do great things, but you’ll never be like Kerouac.”
However these quips came out, the subject always was Kerouac. Jack this, Jack that. Kerouac, Kerouac, Kerouac. The dude left Northport 25 years before I even entered high school, and now, at the dawn of my own career, he continued to plague me like a bad case of acne.
Then it hit me: why not give him a shot?
I was spending a lot of time at the library, and one night just before closing, when nearly all of the other patrons had left, I snuck a copy of “On the Road” to the check-out counter. The secrecy was an attempt to minimize damages to my teenage ego—it was bad enough I was breaking down and reading this guy, but there was no way in hell I wanted anybody to catch me doing it.
Of course, the librarian had no insight into this angst.
“Always a good read,” she boasted in such a way that made clear she’d read it countless times. “You know he spent some time here in town, right?”
“Mmm-hmm,” I mumbled, imagining her crushed to death by a toppling shelf of books.
I spent that weekend locked in my bedroom, hunched over the book. I followed Sal Paradise from New York to Chicago to San Francisco and Los Angeles. I marveled as Sal and Dean Moriarty went south from Denver to Mexico City, getting into one misadventure after another. I loved how Kerouac spent entire passages describing a scene, a bar, a man, a glass. This, I thought, this was writing.
I didn’t eat. I hardly slept. When I finished the book a first time, I read it again. And again.
At some point during those fateful days in 1993, my life changed forever. Losing myself in “On the Road” finally enabled me to see why the entire town of Northport was so enamored with Jack Kerouac—in addition to being an epic local character, the guy was like Mozart with words.
More importantly, however, after experiencing strange and faraway places through someone else’s eyes, I fell in love with travel writing, and vowed that someday, I’d write a book just like this one.
That book hasn’t happened yet, but today—ironically—the man I once abhorred has become my muse.
During the past 14 years, I’ve read just about all of Kerouac’s work, and every time I head out on assignment, I try to pay attention to detail the way he did. I also think of him when I sit down to write, and attempt to emulate—in my own way—his colorful and quirky style.
I even think of Kerouac when the stories are published, invoking him in a recurrent waking fantasy. During this daydream, I envision a salty Jack slumped at the bar at Gunther’s, deconstructing my work over copious whiskey. He turns to Twardowicz or Allen Ginsberg or Jackson Pollock and declares, “This Villano kid can write.”
The other fellows mumble skeptically, and each throws back more Scotch.
“You know what?” Kerouac retorts. “I think he does Northport proud.”