I have just finished reading Jack Kerouac's Lonesome Traveler and I have to say it blew me away. I came to Kerouac sort of accidentally when I picked up On The Road for a long train journey home. Now I am devoted.
Written in rhythmic poetry really, Lonesome Traveler is a collection of eight shorts – Piers of the Homeless Night; Mexico Fellaheen; The Railroad Earth; Slobs of the Kitchen Sea; New York Scenes; Alone on a Mountaintop; Big Trip to Europe; The Vanishing Hobo – that detail scenes from the author's own travels. Purely autobiographical, the book follows Kerouac as he roams America, Mexico, Morocco and Europe taking in vivid colours and sights and sounds and smells. The writing is detailed and philosophical, but somehow shallow as well. That is Kerouac's talent: to present the nonchalant protagonist who shows us everything with such precision and thought nonetheless.
Kerouac strove to develop a new style of writing, which he called spontaneous prose – perhaps the most fluid, and at the same time metric, manifestation of beat poetry. It is incredibly beautiful.
"The earth is an Indian thing – I squatted on it, rolled thick sticks of marijuana on sod floors of stick huts not far from Mazatlan near the opium centre of the world and we sprinkled opium in our masterjoints – we had black heels. We talked about the Revolution."
His personal (and relaxed) use of grammer is evocative of the jazz he immersed himself in: one more figure in the lost, beat generation swirling around in the waves produced by the dirty bebop sax. That's not to mention the drugs, drinks and sex. People pass by in a frenzied blur, and then without warning Kerouac presents a careful observation of a single person.
"He had that wonderfully depraved look not only of the dedicated feverish European Waiter alcoholic but something ratty and sly – wild, he peered at no one, was aloof in the hall like an aristocrat of some own interior silence and reason to say nothing..."
Kerouac takes us to wonderful isolation in a hut at the summit of a mountain and then throws us into the busy streets of New York, and makes us watch all kinds of caricatures pass by.
This book is the ultimate example of travel writing. We all feel poetic when we watch strangers lounging opposite us on the rusted deck of a filthy cargo boat, or see an indigenous villager whose culture we cannot translate. I long to make such discoveries again, myself. But until then – brilliant literature.