Tuesday, December 23, 2014

“The Last Of The Beats”- Frank Jackman’s In Search Of Todo el Mundo-A Critical Review

Book Review by Professor V.E. Grant, Chair, Creative Writing Workshop-Racine    

In Search Of Todo el Mundo, Frank Jackman, Black Dog Press, Boston, 2014     

In Search of Todo el Mundo (hereafter Todo) is Mr. Frank Jackman’s first longer work since he received some acclaim several years ago for his compilation, Ancient dreams, Dreamed, including from this reviewer who saw in that effort a turning away from his earlier, there is no other way to put it, self-indulgent jabs at the world in his prior short story compilations. More than that move away from self-indulgence though was a turn toward a, for a lack of a better expression, more karmic sense of the universe, a more spirited work which broke some new ground in reflecting on the condition of humankind in the last third of the 20th century among those who had come of age in the generation before mine, what he called the generation of ’68, those who came of age in the 1950s post-World War II baby boom. A generation whose reflections we will now be inundated with as that generation takes stock of itself and its follies now that it will have more time on its hands and access to more self-publishing outlets. Unfortunately Mr. Jackman has reverted back to that former incessant self-indulgence in this short tale of his addictions, mainly but not exclusively drugs, back in the 1980s when he went to Todo on the Central California coast in a failed bid to “dry out” thinly veiled and explored through his main character, Josh Breslin, in this short work.  (A work which he has called a sketch, although it reads more like a short novella and probably could have been judiciously trimmed to a longish short story). Perhaps it is the distaste that I have for the current seemingly endless wave of post-addiction cautionary tales that the reading public favors if the best-seller charts are any indication which has colored my take on the work but this one that could have been left in Mr. Jackman bottom drawer until he had some other trimmed short stories with which to surround it.                

The eminent cultural critic, Stanley White, a man who has imparted  many very important insights about the writers of the so-called “beat” generation which surfaced in the 1950s and to avoid any additional generation-naming Mr. Jackman’s subsequent “generation of ’68” put the problem, put my problem with the book, in perspective when he wrote in the introduction the following:       

“It is always hard to fathom at this remove, a remove now of well over fifty years, what effect writers and poets like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, William Burroughs and the lesser lights associated with publicizing that cultural phenomenon, known collectively as the “beat” generation (Jack’s coined word meaning beaten down, beaten around, from hunger beat, from unsated wanting habits beat, from Zen-like karma angel-dream beatitude beat all meshed in one and hence all misunderstood by a rush to judgment world) had on the subsequent generations other than the obvious romance of the road that most young people associate with that term.  And hard as well to fathom the effect characters created by and lives led by the beats such as attractive-repulsive fugitive figures like William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, his various wives and mistresses, and the winos and wistfuls who populated the Route 66, or whatever route, roads and the way that mass culture was shaped for a period by such personalities. In a sense the answer to that question will determine whether this nifty little work by Frank Jackman will have a shelf-life or will be submerged by an onslaught of more pressing and expressive post-modern literary movements.”

I had asked that very question myself long ago about those who influenced my own youth, a youth influenced by those writers two generations before mine, the hard shell, no nonsense razor-like writings of Ernest Hemingway in his best novels and short stories, the flight of metaphoric language by F. Scott Fitzgerald, all bow down before Jay Gatsby, in describing the ebb and flow of the Jazz Age, the rugged cross adventures portrayed by John Steinbeck in his classic tales of American uprooted-ness The Grapes Of Wrath and down in the depths skid row Cannery Row, and, of course, Thomas Wolfe and his sagas of a nation turning in on itself and which came up short of the promised land once that damn frontier stopped at ocean’s edge.

I grew up not doubting in the least the influence those writers exercised on me including my exercise books filled with little pieces “cribbed” from their handsome books. But I also had an uneasy feeling then that Mr. Jackman must have had when he wanted to extend the life of the beat generation beyond its “sell by” date. I found that it was not accidental, if somewhat mystifying, that he fashioned himself in Todo (through that main and only non-stick character Josh Breslin the other characters being mere foils for his jabs) as he put it in in one of his earlier  short sketches “the last of the beats,” much as I had in my youth fancied myself as the “lasts of the modernist realist school writers” (although unlike Mr. Jackman I never made that declaration in any published work putting such words in the mouth of some character that I created in order for future doctoral students to be able to titter at and to make erudite remarks and endless footnotes about). Such are our vanities, and our debts.

But in the writer’s world there is a need to move on and not keep on re-packaging the same old material which in the end is what Mr. Jackman had left us with, faded beat-ery. Faded beat-ery owning a huge debt to Jack Kerouac’s lightweight alcohol addiction book, Big Sur. I often wondered about the purpose of that incessant sameness, that incessant re-packaging of some small beat ideas while reading this work and had been surprised when I read in Literary Age that Mr. Jackman had said in an interview that to be candid he thought the “beats” had become “old-fashioned” by the time he began to appreciate their virtuous writings. Join the club brother, join the club but why the continual re-hash and the failure to move on if you had enough insight to know that these days nothing but nostalgia publications and workshops lean on the major “beats” works, and less so the other lesser lights. (Although I do not intend this remark to bolster my argument very rarely these days does the writing institute I am associated with and other workshops with which I am familiar accept applicants who claim their muse is say Jack Kerouac or William Burroughs unless they have some stronger credentials, very much stronger credentials, going for them.)  

That tension between the “old-fashioned” beat epiphany and the jail break- out that their writings represented to those who came of age in the post-World War II period is more than evident in this work, this admittedly Mr. Jackman’s most ambitious work to date that pays at least fleeting homage to the beats who enchanted his youth. One can see almost from the first pages that he is satisfied with some vapid post-beat anthologizing, some pallid re-rerun of the Kerouac/Cassady/Ginsberg/Burroughs gas-fueled, pedal- floored, thumb-stuck out bologna sandwich, coffee and bennies run across cultural America in the immediate post-World War II period. Strangely satisfied to my mind for the simple reason that he was not formed by the Great Depression and the sloughing through World War II that formed the pool for their social facts, formed their generation, and the same hard fact that had precluded me from totally understanding what drove those writers two generations before me like Hemingway to prostration and Fitzgerald to the bottle in the aftermath of the glow of the gilded Jazz Age back in the 1920s.

Frankly though I have felt more alienated from the beats, mainly from their manic antics, and from their fudgy flinging of language as the be all and end all of literary life at the expense of coherent narrative, who were in the cohort a generation before mine than the Jazz Age writers since I had worked the more traditional avenues of writerliness in the 1980s being much closer to the “other” 1950s New York writers like Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Jim Jones, and Bill Styron.    

And I feel that same sensation, that same sense of off-key alienation from the direct heat of the beats in Mr. Jackman’s efforts. For one thing his sketch has more interior dialogue than anything the explosive self-publicizing beats ever tried to do. Of course addiction writing, either under a powerful opiate like that which sustained old Sam Coleridge searching for some modern Xanadu or post-addiction writing which is in favor in this confessional age complete with a happy ending and plenty of cautionary tale which actually withers into the maudlin has a long and cherished history so that Mr. Jackman has tapped into a well-versed literary genre. With this difference that he offers this short sketch from the perspective of some thirty years after the events and sensations described in the narrative so his claim to some studied spontaneity which was a hallmark of the beats runs dry. He, on the facts known to me about his life from his biographical information, was not looking for any particular Xanadu (on the contrary he was just looking for his next eight-ball), and he emphatically was not providing us with some cautionary tale. So while Mr. Jackman owes much to the “beat” rhythm, the “beat” pacing of the drama he has failed to move on past that, tellingly, as he told a reporter for the Boston Globe once in a review of his beat-etched short stories he did not believe that he was breaking new ground, was not doing an exercise in spontaneous writing (which he did not believe was either possible or a good thing since every writer likes to tinker with what he or she has written and if they did not then the damn editors and copyists would when they grabbed  hold of any manuscript).              

But enough of  searching Searching For Todo el Mundo for its niche in the literary pantheon because what is good, what is exquisite if I may use that old-fashioned word, what is essential in the sketch although it cannot save it is that shift of voice and person that floats through the eighty some pages. Use of such literary devices has not been unheard of but they are rarely used now especially in a short piece where it is hard enough to develop a character and a narrative never mind switching up voice and person. Yet the piece would disastrously fall apart if there were no such shifts. Mr. Jackman in an interview with Jerry Gomes of radio station WMEX mentioned that he had originally tried to tell this story strictly from the vantage point of the main character Josh’s experience in the 1980s when he went to Jack K.s cabin in the canyon at Todo el Mundo to dry out from his rather severe addiction to cocaine, nose candy he called it then, although there are a plethora of names out in the junkie world for it that the reader may be more familiar with. He told Mr. Gomes that he was unsuccessful in that effort since he did not have the advantage of writing the sketch under the influence of drugs and that his remembrances of the events back then needed to be fortified by the introduction of Josh’s (his) friend Sam Lowell’s recollections.

At first reading I thought that having Sam introduce the drug problem, put the problem in the distant past only to be dragged up again in later years after they had reconnected with each other would work. When I started reading though, once I got past the first pages where Sam set the story up, basically from the point where Josh in all his desperate struggles to get through from one day to the next takes over the story line there is a sense of incompleteness, a falling off of the power of the sketch to convey that sense of isolation, physical, mental, and social that was driving Josh crazy back then and which made it a very close thing that he would ever survive the experience if Sam had not set us up for what was to  follow. Although I was glad that Josh in the end grabbed that rainy day ride out of the canyon I felt empty of any emotion that he did not get the “cure” on that trip. Or that thirty years later Mr. Jackman thought he would be able to stir us about the experience. Too bad.          

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