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Beatitude by Larry Closs

Besides all the circumstantial similarities, I thought that Jay actually looked a little like Kerouac, the Kerouac who stared from the black-and-white photographs on the covers of his various books. Same dark hair. Same strong handsome face. Some sad soulful eyes. But there was something that went beyond the physical resemblance. Something that sprang from somewhere inside, something sensed but not seen. A tenderness.

I was very flattered to be asked by Lori from TNBBC to take part in this book tour. For one it feels good to support indie writing, but also the main subject matter of Beatitude happens to concern the ‘Beat’ poets, which is a period I do have a certain fascination with. Particularly now, as the novelty and estrangement of the Beats has faded, so their reassessment in present-day is proving to be quite interesting. Already I’ve reviewed two contrasting examples of this here on the site – Huncke by Rick Mullin and Sideways: Travels With Kafka, Hunter S. and Kerouac by Patrick O’Neill

Author Larry Closs has larger ambitions beyond simply reassessing these works. His character Harry Charity is described at one point in the book as being someone who thinks too much and indeed the story of Beatitude itself charts not only his fascination with the life of Jack Kerouac – the meaning behind his writing, the people in his life, even the kinds of typewriters he used to furiously pound out his intensely personal vision – but how he allows this near-obsession to become intertwined with his own feelings for someone he loves dearly. He pores over footnotes from the biographies of his literary heroes just as avidly as he does the stolen moments he shares with the kindly Jay. The opening scene of Harry and Jay witnessing the unveiling of a preserved work of Kerouac is comparable to pilgrims visiting a shrine. If both men share this strong devotion to the writing of Kerouac, is it not possible that this passion could translate into love for one another?

Harry works as an editor for a successful New York magazine, lives in his Upper West Side apartment with his cat Flannery and in the wake of successive occasions of heartbreak refuses to socialize with colleagues and friends. Life alone is manageable. Then he meets a new member of the design team, Jay, and following an awkward promise to join him at a party – much to the surprise of the other co-workers in the office – Harry finds himself falling for his new found friend. Their shared interest in Kerouac encourages his feelings and the two fall into an easy pattern of reminiscing about the Beats, exchanging trivia and discussing their own artistic ambitions. When Jay’s relationship with his girlfriend hits a bump, Harry dares to hope that something more lies behind the couple’s problems.

The marginalization of the Beats and their descriptions of fluid sexuality in a time when discussions of sex acts themselves were taboo – cf the Howl obscenity trial – was no doubt an aspect of their notoriety. But Harry at one point advances another theory as to what made the Beats special, arguing in a clever title-drop moment that ‘beatitude’ is what Kerouac thought was the real meaning behind the word used to describe him and his peers. “To be Beat was to be in love with life, to exist in a state of beatitude, to exist in a state of unconditional bliss.” While he knows this information, applying its wisdom to his own life takes Harry much longer. His infatuation with Jay is soon paralleled with a previous doomed love affair, revealing why Harry is so emotionally wounded when we first meet him. As he slowly but surely warms to life once more, discovering the means to not only express his feelings but his thoughts in an artistic fashion, Beatitude becomes a richer and more hopeful story about moving on.

Intimate and moving, and with its 90’s setting presenting the tail-end of the Beat generation’s presence on the public stage, Larry Closs has written an intriguing fable about people can sometimes become confused by the intensity of their passions.

Please continue to the next stage of this blog tour to Mandy of Mandythebookworm’s Blog to read Larry Closs’ article Two Roads Diverged: How the Beats did and didn’t inspire Beatitude.

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Head west across the Delaware. You’ll see

a sign that reads: America Starts Here!

It rambles on to Sacramento, free

and brave, but takes a little detour near

Columbus to avoid Chicago – Ski

the Poconos! and Have Another Beer –

the billboards foliating fore and aft,

and every Huckleberry has his raft.

There’s something very communal, but also cloying, about poetry reading nights. I used to attend a weekly session in Dublin’s The Stag’s Head with quickly scribbled verse, that when I wasn’t on the bad side of the organiser (long story) would win me a free pint of red ale.

If writing for booze doesn’t sum up the college poetry scene that I was involved in, I cannot think of a better description.

I say cloying because much of what was performed in that basement bar area was fairly mediocre, but we all clapped loudly, especially if a newcomer was standing before us for the first time. By the same token the atmosphere was kindly, supportive, I was rarely aware of any competitive bickering and having attended a few book launches for well-known published Irish poets – refreshingly free of affectation.

Rick Mullin’s poem evokes the spirit of an open mic poetry evening, with its cantos divided up between different performers on a stage eulogising the life of Herbert Huncke. We visit the life of the (in)famous Beat poet, meet the famous literary figures and New York artistic scenes that he became swept up in. There are sustained riffs on the work of William Burroughs, an associate of his, as well as a style of writing credited to Thomas Pynchon (a man who enjoys inverting history in eye-popping ways).

In that regard Huncke’s life is used as a model for the influences and historical forces of America itself. The Beat poets raged against and satirised the American Dream. ‘Manifest Destiny’, has escaped the dreamers and they were left at the bottom staring upward. No wonder a paranoaic, conspiratorial tone entered their writings. The firebrand language of Paine, the revolutionary promise of George Washington, abducted and besmirched by the new ruling classes of America. Rick Mullin has the twinned symbols of corruption, Mickey Mouse and Rudy Giuliani, haunt the poem’s cantos, reappearing throughout the life of Huncke himself.

And a kid’s been trailing him all afternoon.

A schoolboy in a Catholic uniform

whose head looks like a carnival balloon

that’s prematurely balding. Not the norm

for even Catholic tikes. Well, pretty soon

the child is offering a light. Reform

school etiquette – the contrasts are uncanny.

“So, what’s your name, kid?” ‘Rudy Giuliani.”

Amusingly he also announces –

And drop the politics, for Jesus sake.

It mixes with the arts the way that rock

gets on with scissors – scissors tends to break.

We skip and jump from War of Independence to America’s jazz era and then forward again briefly to dwell upon a post-9/11 New York, but for the most part no vision of the future is offered. Huncke is absorbed into the canon of American letters, this beatnik junkie become a symbol for an idea of the nation, or perhaps just 42nd Street, that has been lost. Ginsberg and Burroughs are ghosts now too, though Mullin dedicates some verses to memory of Joan Vollmer. Her murder an accident. Burroughs saved from a Mexican jail thanks to family influence. It is worth remembering that these heroes (Mullin rejects the term – ‘There’s a hand we over-play’) were for the most part educated, middle-class and privileged. Their free-form verse often indulged in esoterica, a rebellion not so much against their class, but their elders. Yet today all mysteries can be solved with a trip online –

And so I went. To Wikipedia

to bone up on the luminary thief

and prostitute…whose online media

runs viral with a hypertext relief

that lights full paragraphs.

In a sense Mullin’s poem can be seen as an attempt to restore that mystery, the fugue of names, places and associations intended to pique an interest that can be so dismissively sated by a simple hyperlink. For that he should be commended. He also captures the feel of a poetry performance. To see Mullin’s words be read rather than read them strikes me as the preferable condition to receive them in.

So mission accomplished. I would know more about the man Huncke, as well as look forward to a less biographical work by Mullin himself.

With thanks to Seven Towers Publishers for my copy of this edition.

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