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Reading Jack
Deborah Hunn

I Meet Jack

I have never read On the Road. I've started it though...

Browsing a posh bookshop off Knightsbridge (broke, autumn, 80s). In Sydney, losing the plot. (Blurred. Serial readings off the rack. Can't place it.) Then there was Hong Kong airport. Soothing a terminal anxiety. Drowning. I've always managed flight. Peering down the island of tarmac we'd wobbled like a unicyclist on a wire. I'm adventurous in principle but I like to call the shots. Shotless I'm full of shit.

En route to Paris (cruised in translation) for the purposes - misguided - of serious self-improvement. (The year of contrition - the year I went broke - the year I abandoned public relations.) First started via the window of a (now defunct) shop precisely one and a half blocks from my grandparents. (Also now defunct.) I was (only) sixteen. It was 1974. Kerouac was cool. Always will be.

Actually, I have never read more than a few fragments of his work.

What I do remember was the way Jack and Neal Cassady graced the cover in soft definition, firmly focused, black, white and grey. Neal, I must confess, posed with a penitentiary slant. Jackless he would have had the sort of face that got gassed for a minor drugstore infraction somewhere back of Unpronounceaville, Tennessee. But Jack balanced it out, radiating Gaulousie charm through Georgia green glass darkly.

Hair smoothed black without the Elvis gloss; his white grey sweatshirt and jeans snug as a second skin. A natural skin, mind. We're not talking leather boys here. No siree Bob.

There's a shadow on the wall behind these two men. Logically its Cassady's shadow or - illogically - Jack's halo, already transcendent before the fall. Back then, however, I was ill versed in either of the pro-formas attendant on celebrity accession: the spontaneous mechanics of the photo-op leading, hopefully, to the hysterics of occasionally sighted grace. So I projected a fellow traveller. Someone a little like me?

[Of course, some would say I am a woman, not a fellow. Of course, this picture was not on the 1974 Penguin Twentieth Century Classics edition.]

Whatever. It was the real thing, that's for sure. Modern classic...Seminal text...Essential reading...The beat goes on.

The Kennedy Brothers, etc.

1974 was the year of Watergate. Its ramifications were discussed extensively in my history class but despite the fact that, at that point, I still had periodic access to inside information on world affairs, I declined to comment. Keeping my own counsel had been a preferred mode of discourse since the Kennedy assassination. Bobby, that is. Los Angeles, 1968.

My father told us, driving to school. He was a journalist. Jack of all trades at the local rag -- politics, boxing, travel and gossip. Births, deaths and marriages. Grabbed the call on the way out, barking toastful queries to the news desk, hankying a Vegemite split lip. Handled the big scoops. No wall to wall CNN then. Like many of my generation I burned with curiosity for imaginary Americas I had never visited. Big Daddy gave me a hotline to heaven in a hick Aussie town. I shouted the headline he'd been tapping out on the wheel -- "Read All About It" -- in the pre class warm up.

"Oh no dear", said the teacher in smug form. "That was John Kennedy." (President Kennedy to you, ma'am.).

Clearly, I was destined to be the misunderstood prophet of my generation. From that day forward they could bodybag me for the record - but it was name, rank and serial number only. End of story!

In other words, by 1974 my resolve not to be kicked around any more had hardened into a complete - if invisible - nervous breakdown.

Born Agains (smug apostles of the new millennium, spotted on daytime talk shows, bearing a remarkable collective resemblance to the school assembly) decry our acceptance that God is dead. God is dead. So is my father. Any resemblance between these two characters is purely coincidental.

Driving Mr Hank

You may wonder why I never read the damn book properly. Blame my second year lectures on psychology, ontology, epistemology, neurology, cosmology and the various manifestations of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Selective lobotomy. Wires crossed. Filtered through subsequently processed frames of reference, so that the first shall be last. Yea verily. And so forth. Not to be taken as a negative view on my powers of recall, but rather just that. Etc. And other forms of undeveloped hyperlogical explanatory over-insistence. Memory. Could have had a proper profession in the memory business. Serious side that is. Analysis. TA, ECT, ESP even. Went for PR instead.

Then - I guess it must have been sometime in the late eighties, after I'd made a packet flogging glossy ads for travel packages to cut price, rigorously Westernised Asian destinations, I started driving old people on the side. You know - a penance I guess. Snuck off afternoons to volunteer my services, ferrying the luxuriously lodged needy of our great incontinent to be fitted up. Glasses, teeth, insurance, how to vote cards, etc.

There I met this old guy (maybe played by a Henry Fonda or a Charlton Heston if we'd filmed it: you know, pillar of the global community type, crusty but trustable to flog big budget morals and Kodaks) who, as the cliché would have it, changed my life. Miracle on Goanna Avenue! His thing was he just liked being driven round and round. No destination. One day we drove and talked in circles (he talked, I drove) for a few hours. He liked to double stitch his anecdotes, then kinda weave around -- doing the old Alzheimer shuffle you might call it -- and finally re connect all the threads whilst unwittingly unpicking them. I guess his wife had customarily been responsible for organising the personal items. Separate the socks and frocks and darn em.

Let's get something straight here. This man was an autocrat. An ex suit wearer, one time golf club president and bearer of the standard prejudices. But salt of the earth mind you, wouldn't hurt a fly. Die to protect your rights in a crunch. Also your honour. Let me plead mitigating circumstances in my testimonial for the victim. She asked for it, but then she got it didn't she. Fair enough. Natural justice. And so forth.

Cunningly (for of course, he was the ghost of Christmas past) he steered our course to the old shop with the Kerouac window I'd cruised as a kid. Despite the fact that it had been demolished and then - ode to recycling - regurgitated as an officeplex cafe with al fresco parking meters, we nevertheless gazed nostalgically back through all those wasted years at the blessed Jack.

"Kerouac" said Grandpa daddy Hank. "Terrific read. He was about my age you know? I always regretted not taking off after the war. Leaving you children and your mother before we'd all ever met." Surreptitious old fox, slipping me into his life, casual, like a hand in his pocket, till it almost started to feel natural. "You'd have managed without me. His age after it was over, and your grandmother needed me to pay the mortgage and justify her not taking off in '42. Had the abortion. Not mine. Of course I never knew. She took care of that. Glad nobody ever told me. That I'll never know. Still I had to stay because she made the sacrifice - for me. Man of honour. Could have been contented. Terrific read. Kerouac."

Dare I say the obvious? There was Jack - a smog bound puppy shaking off the NYC blues and glimpsing a rainbow bowl from the corner of an already worldly eye. Suddenly golden, grinning goodbye and gambling westward. And there was his contemporary. Hank or Chuck or Duke whatever the hell his name was. Dead as Julius Caesar with batteries that last and last and last, illustrating by the cracked mirror of his visage a graphic identikit of the "you too are mortal" caution without being charged. You know -- it's that defining moment in life's journey when a trio of metaphorical backing singers should have be clicking their fingers and chanting "Hit the Road Jack" in my general vicinity, and (don'tcha you know it) instead, out of the mouths of imaginary babes and elderly shucksters, comes:

"Don't you feel your biological clock ticking?"

I drove the old bugger half way into the desert after that. Sort of Wild West theme Fonda woulda thrived on dontcha know. In his Easy Rider phase. Or was that the son? Same difference. Anyway, he loved it. Cowering in the back seat and crapping on about some pair of Levis he'd bought (a likely story) from a yank sailor in '45. About "I should have taken off then, and incidentally, my girl, we're not going to be back in time for dinner which is served at five thirty precisely by the headmistress, who stuck by me in the depression, so I couldn't possibly leave her...although what happened to her since I can't remember..."

My Brilliant Career

I lost my job (for failing to turn up to a promo we were doing that evening for some Bali family package and get rich quick by flogging crap to your friends and relatives conference motivation trip) and narrowly escaped charges situated somewhere between soliciting and kidnapping. I studied some more — contemplating the new vogue of blasphemous assaults on the trinity of sex/gender/desire while losing my allotted place in the queue at the checkout.

Somehow I was happier without theories. Then I travelled for a while (the Paris gig, etc.) but somehow I kept arriving home before I started. Inevitably I put aside my childish refusal to impart my special knowledge to others (a phase I was going through, or so it said on the wrapper) not to mention my cynical exploitation of my peers (as we said in the P.R. game - "a peer is something you walk on") and with the aid of the burgeoning highway of the Net, I became a travel writer, specialising in American holidays and writing knowledgeably, and with an eye for the offbeat, on the many places of interest I have never visited. My last volume dealt with Denver. My next destination is San Francisco.

My secret pleasure? For years I've read On The Road surreptitiously. I read bits. In all the bookshops in all the towns in all the worlds I've ever been in. Don't buy.

Never owned a copy of the damn thing in my life. Just browse it. Down that opening line.


I first read that line in 1974 but I still find it enticing, laced with seductive possibilities, simultaneously firm and supple like (any blue water diver knows) a good springboard should be. It says - "Hey! You!" And I (caught in a freeze frame of recognition) say: "Yep?"

In the early days I managed to accumulate a chapter through surreptitious re- reading. But I kept forgetting my place. Always had to start again. Thank god! I've never yet lost interest.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Smoking is not allowed. Anywhere. Smoking was my first love. So-called "hard" drugs I can take or leave. It's parting company with the "easy" ones (the ones that sediment themselves into the mechanics of the body - smoking, reading, wanking, and its oh so superior sibling, that sneaky little bastard, lurve) that's what's damn nearly killed me.

I was smoking when I first met Jack. Marginal notes, with reference to this brief encounter: Deviance and passion. Sex and desire. I have to confess I don't remember much sex (well, any) but I do remember smoke as a ubiquitous and solitary signifier for an erotic shadow of other whose precise location unfailingly escaped me even though - I knew, turning around - it would silent partner me forever. The desire wasn't for Jack. Not precisely. Although he was in there somewhere. A filter? Some possibility of language, a style of being he offered for naming the unnameable whose presence I sensed as I surreptitiously sipped a cigarette, sliding onto the hot roof on those violet nights before Christmas when my true love said to me..."fool, take away the lady"...Cat burglar style.

The best thing about smoking is the match spurting to life. In the palm of your hand. Frankly, the rest can be a bit of a drag.

Of course I'm not going to read it. It might be dull, obnoxious, soporific, alienating, offensive, uninspired. It might end. Or become impossible. After he says hey you and I say yep I might look round and discover he's addressing the guy behind me? What then my love?

Let Me Confess:

Let me confess. I did actually once briefly own a copy of On the Road. It was London - the posh bookstore - in the post student depression days. I think it meant a lot to me then, more than any other time of my life, because I was homesick, skint, and eking out a pitiful existence on the sofa of an allegedly rich and undeniably distant cousin. I sort of poured over it in the hope it might pour into me yes all compounded by the snooty looks one of the store diva's kept spinning yes in my direction yes so I did it yes...

Strike a pose and, perhaps, a conversation?

Naturally the store diva couldn't have given a crap. Next morning, running my finger down the spine, I noticed a slight tendency to curvature. It would get worse if I read the bloody thing so, despite it being as soft as silk, despite the disenchantment of another grey and gloveless day, despite the whispered endearments of warmth under the covers, I resolved myself to the sacrifice. No refunds, of course, and their acceptance of voluntary surrender was best characterised as incredulous.

Soiled goods!

I protest - I only looked!

Snuck it in. Fitted snugly back onto the shelf. I'm sure its better off with someone else. On the whole we're happier living apart. People drone on endlessly about "closure" these days, but there's something to be said for tragic separations and irreconcilable differences.

Closure eyes and I'll kiss you, tomorrow I'll miss you.

My mother, as I recollect, never much liked pop but she used to hum that one.

I suppose now your thinking: "Well, Chester - the mother's finally come into it. It stood out a mile off." Revelations. Closure and disclosure seen happily hand in hand walking down the Boulevard of sighs in search of Dr Spock.

"Fess up!!!", you say.

I wake up inside a dream. The doors of the dream are sealed. I'm trapped. I find my interlocutor's bleached blonde hair tumbling forward over the sunset of a truck-stop table. Her Mayballine curled lashes defiantly reverse to form a grid-lock between us. Hank's daughter. Beware! She's a commie and cheer leader rolled into one!

"Never!" I gulp down my fifteen seconds of fame and slam it back on the table nonchalantly for another shot. "You can't pin me down." (Was she taping this? Hell I'm not paranoid, but you need protection these days. Stealthily, I reached for my Raybans.)

She saw through the trick immediately.

"So? You are hiding something. Fess up pardner."

She's wearing her cowboy hat now, but the pom poms are concealed in her hip flask. I'm panicking. Sooner or later I'm bound to be thirsty.

Either way, her heart belongs to Daddy, and she's got revenge written all over her. Hipster? Swinger more likely! Confound it Moriarty! That girl's dangerous. Next thing you know this story will be degenerating into pulp fiction. I'm outta here!

I vault through the nearest open window and hit the road running.

"Nothing" my heart pounding out each syllable to drown the off-key rendition of some Phil Spectre standard she's belting out to reproach my homeward bounding. A set of lights is winking orange - time to flirt with death! "Nothing! No thing! Noooo thinnnng." I cruise through them. "Nuuuuthing. Zippo! Zilch! End of story."

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