Looking for Jack Kerouac

The last line of the last book I’ve read in 2014 is probably my favorite last line of the year:

Breathing in the cool salty air in a place I was just starting to know, I was instantly carried back to a summer day in Indiana, playing baseball with my brother in our neighbor’s backyard:  the crack of the bat, the ball rising against the blue sky, and me already running, arm raised and reaching, so sure where it would land that I could already feel it slap against my glove.

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As with most last lines, reading the entire book gives much more insight into it’s meaning and I highly recommend reading Barbara Shoup’s novel Looking for Jack Kerouac.

The year is 1964 and Paul Carpetti stumbles upon a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road in a Greenwich Village bookstore on his Senior trip to New York City before graduating high school.  Reading the novel provides the catalyst for Paul and his friend, Duke Walczak, to embark on their own road trip from Gary, Indiana to St. Petersburg, Florida in search of the real Jack Kerouac.

Once they discover and meet Kerouac, as with anyone who is put on a proverbial pedestal, he turns out to be vastly different from their expectations.  Paul, the narrator and protagonist, understands how this could happen.  Duke, who is arrogant and idealistic, seems to think it’s Kerouac’s fault for not living up to Duke’s expectations.  Duke takes off to California leaving Paul to discover both a new family, a new understanding of himself and a new way of grappling with losses back home.

Shoup beautifully incorporates literature, baseball and coming-of-age into a wonderful little story.  Paul’s confusion over and ultimate discovery of who he is and who he might be stays in the forefront of the story.  Baseball and Kerouac, while important to the plot and Paul’s journey, play out in the background as two of several ways in which Paul is pulled forward with his life.

I’ve always thought that fictionalizing a real person is walking a fine line for an author, but Shoup walks that line very well. The book reminds me some of W. P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe.  J. D. Salinger is fictionalized in that novel which also involves baseball.

As a kid in the 1970’s, I made the road trip with my family numerous times from Dayton, Ohio to the Gulf Coast of Florida.  I have vivid memories of seeing numerous billboards along the way, one of them advertising the Weeki Wachi mermaids at Mermaid Springs.  I had a difficult time not laughing when Paul and Duke hitch a ride with one of the “mermaids” and end up at Mermaid Springs during off hours.

This novel made a great end to my reading for 2014.

Happy New Year!

“Perfection” by Mark Helprin

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I drew my first wild card for Week #9 of my Deal Me In 2014 project and chose Mark Helprin’s “Perfection” from Jay’s list at Bibliophilopolis.  He also sponsors the Deal Me In challenge.  And I chose this story because I was the one who recommended it to Jay (even though I had yet to read it, but I think – or at least hope – I disclosed that fact at the time of my recommendation).  I do need to make a note to myself, though, to check out the length of a story before I recommend it to anyone.  At 70 pages, “Perfection” pushes the limit of being considered short.  But I would say that it has the feel of a short story as opposed to a novella – and I finally got a baseball story!

Philosophy, theology, metaphysics, baseball, and the meaning of life can always be rolled up into a really good story.  Think about Kevin Costner hearing “If you build it, they will come” in Field of Dreams – definitely a religious experience (and based on the novel, Shoeless Joe, by W. P. Kinsella).  Helprin’s story may not be quite what Kinsella’s story is, but it’s enjoyable all the same.

A minor infraction of the rabbinical code involving Swiss chocolate causes Roger, an adolescent Hasidic Jewish boy, to pull the New York Yankees out of a slump:

Early in June of 1956, the summer in New York burst forth temperate and bright, the colors deep, the wind promising.  This was the beginning of the summer that was to see the culmination of a chain of events that had begun, like everything else, at the beginning of the world, but had started in a practical sense in March of the previous year, when the Saromsker Rebbe opened the wrong drawer.

Helprin skillfully brings to life a few famous people such as Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra, the latter complete with his unusual way of summing up the world.  I’ve always thought it a difficult task for an author to incorporate historical figures as fictional characters.  He also has some fun with accents and the Yiddish language.  When asked how much he weighs, Roger replies “Thirteen and three-quarter shvoigles”.  Not knowing the equivalent in pounds, he further indicates that “there are eight beyngaluchs in a shvoigle”.   Helprin’s warmth and humor remains in tact for the majority of the story.

However, a downside to the story does exist.  I’m not fond of the technique in which one of the characters gives a lecture or has a conversation where they explain the meaning of the story – just in case the readers don’t get it.  Personally, I think a good story can stand on it’s own.  And “Perfection” could definitely fall into this category without having Roger lecture the Yankees in the locker room as to the meaning of his involvement with them and the meaning of life in general.  Even so, I still got a little chuckle out of the lecture.

This story is included in Helprin’s collection Pacific and Other Stories.