Dan Verger and May Delano share a loft in New York City, but the passion that brought them together has turned brittle and sour, much like the boozy parties and late-night discussions that so thrilled them a few years ago. The brightest lights of their circle have moved on—visionary poet David Stofksy to a job in advertising, novelist Gene Pasternak to Mexico—and Dan and May eventually decide to do the same, abandoning each other to return to their respective hometowns.
On the Connecticut seashore, Dan contemplates the trip to Europe that he has always promised himself, but finds his dissipated habits hard to break. Killing time with Old Man Molineaux, the charismatic town drunk, Dan recognizes what his life might look like in 30 years. Meanwhile, May returns to Louisiana and is surprised to discover Paul Hobbes, a New York friend, playing piano in a bar on the African American side of town. At a wild, drug-fueled party in a dilapidated antebellum mansion, May comes face-to-face with the complicated racial dynamics of the Beat movement.
Artful and authentic, melancholy yet tender, Get Home Free pays tribute to a generation that, in daring to break with the patterns of the past, profoundly influenced the future of American culture.
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About the Author
John Clellon Holmes (1926–1988) was an American novelist, essayist, and poet. He is best remembered for Go (1952), a roman à clef chronicling his experiences with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady in New York City in the 1940s. Published five years before On the Road and distinguished by its emotional honesty, its meticulous attention to detail, and its lyrical evocation of the restlessness that defined post–World War II Manhattan, Go is widely considered to be the first Beat novel and one of the finest. Kerouac coined the term “beat generation” in a conversation with Holmes, who in turn introduced it to the world in a seminal article published in the November 16, 1952 issue of the New York Times Magazine: “This Is the Beat Generation.” Holmes’s other works include the novels Get Home Free (1964) and The Horn (1953), the latter of which was declared by the San Francisco Chronicle to be “the most successful novel about jazz that has ever been published;” the poetry volumes Dire Coasts (1988) and Night Music (1989); and Nothing More to Declare (1967), a collection of essays.
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Get Home Free
By John Clellon Holmes
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 John Clellon Holmes
All rights reserved.
NEW YORK: THE END
A dozen years ago, before the Fifties were as fat and foolish as they would eventually become, and people still believed the new decade was going to be a continuation of the wild postwar years, there was an autumn of bad parties in New York, most of which May and Verger attended. He was working for a public-opinion survey, and she was one girl in the two-girl office of a small-time talent-booker, and they were living together in Agatson's old loft in the West 20's, where May had remained after Agatson was accidentally killed under a subway train. She had gotten ownership because she was Agatson's last girl, even though the place was coveted by some people who were really hard up for a rental, and others who thought that a little of Agatson's destructive magic might linger in the unswept corners, along with the broken bottles, smashed 78's of Verdi, and old socks that were all that remained of his wild parties and his short life.
The same people came to the bad parties that had come to the good ones a year before, only the poets, who had argued about Pound with boozy combativeness then, were now conniving for instructorships in Midwestern universities, and last year's careless copy boys were this year's solemn rewrite men, and people were having relationships instead of affairs. All the same girls came, their hemlines taken up, their necklines let down, just married or just divorced, their eyes a little more diamond-bright, their mouths a little less rose-tipped. The same people came, only more of them came in cabs, and wore ties, and had serious jobs, and drank seriously as a consequence. People brought total strangers, and the strangers phoned other strangers. There was less impulsive beer, and more calculated whiskey. The jazz was not played so loud, but everyone seemed to notice it more. It was a little harder for them to have fun, and when they did it tended to be ugly fun. People were surer of themselves, and less certain of everything else. There seemed to be more queers, and more brawls, and more talk. Two years before, they had been part of a postwar generation, veterans, a vanguard of something that never had a chance to materialize because Korea came along, making them obsolete; and Verger got in the habit of quoting bitter poetry to May as they brushed their teeth at four or five in the morning.
"You know how I explain it? ... 'The pure products of America go crazy.' That's how," swishing water in his mouth and spitting it out. "'The imagination strains after deer going by fields of goldenrod in the stifling heat of September.... Somehow it seems to destroy us,'" capping the toothpaste fatalistically. "Old William Carlos. Years ago. Don't think he didn't know why it happens. The end of a season like this. Everyone putting everyone else down, getting drunk and mean. Everyone going home that way. I tell you, New York's gotten pompous and phony. America's old all of a sudden," pausing to stare irritably at his tousled image in the glass as she lit a last cigarette. "Well, anyway, it's true," turning on her in his shorts to find her waiting impatiently for an Alka-Seltzer to dissolve. "But look at that. Even our stomachs've gone bad. Nerves, anxiety, what to wear tomorrow. Nobody's excited any more, nobody's disturbed.... And last year we were thinking about deer." He scowled with that tipsy gloom that is sometimes more comforting than sobriety.
"Here," she said wearily. "Will you get the light?"
"Used to be able to stay up all night, smoke packs and packs, drink anything in sight, talk for days," he muttered, choking off the glass in a gulp. "Ick! I should have had me a drink instead.... One more gaudy nightcap." He chuckled. "Well, damn it, I'm just gonna stay up anyway. You tell me why I should go to bed when —"
"Look, it's four in the morning, Danny. Do we have to argue? Couldn't we skip it till tomorrow?"
He pouted, curling his toes on the cold tile of the bathroom, waiting for the first soft, relieving belch. "How can we argue? You Southern belles never hear what a man says any more. Tennessee Williams's right about that much, you know."
"Well, who wants to listen to a lot of crappy poetry at four-thirty in the morning, for Christ's sake? And why do you always want to fight whenever you get drunk these days?"
"Must be someone left in America who wants to hear crappy poetry," he murmured just loud enough for her to hear. "But that's the point. There isn't anyone who wants to hear anything. Even all the girls you meet —"
"Now, of course, that's what you really mean," she shot back as she turned a warm hip away from him there in the bed. "Why don't you at least say what you mean?"
"I do. I say exactly what I mean. I ought to get the hell out of New York is what I'm saying," he repeated for the fourth time that week. "I ought to go back to Grafton, or just take off for Europe.... New York's not America, for Christ's sake."
"And what are you going to use for money, Mister Expatriate?"
"I'll get you to send home for a trunkful of Confederate. And besides, where the hell can you go these days? They hate Americans in Europe now."
"So what does that matter!" she exploded. "What do you care if they like you or not? ... I swear that's the only thing that makes me ashamed of my own country — that we all understand it so little, and the secret's lost on us, and in growing up we came down so much.... The pure products of America are crazy, you fool! And Europe's just a self-conscious museum by comparison. Believe me."
"All right, so you've been and I haven't," he grouched out. "That doesn't prove anything."
"Well, why don't you stop complaining about America all the time? Really, it's so corny and — and, well, like some 'Greenwich Village Idiot.'"
His lips tightened. "Look, just save me any more pithy Streikisms, will you!" Incensed that she should dare to quote Streik back at him. "Because he's exactly what I mean about America this year. He's just like my father used to be — charming, cynical, empty, absolutely absorbed in his own repulsive ego, and —"
"Oh, honestly, why do you always have to get so solemn and testy that way? He's just a guy, and he's fun, for God's sake! He's fun to be with.... Besides, maybe you should be a little more like your father, from what you tell me. I bet I'd have been intrigued with him."
"I guess you would. But don't kid yourself. He never loved my mother."
"But I'll bet she loved him. I'll just bet she still does."
The application of this to their relationship was not lost on Verger, despite his liquor, and all of a sudden he erupted: "Listen, just shut up to me about Tertius Streik, you hear? Do whatever you want to do, but don't try to justify it to me!" His mouth twisted into an ugly sneer. "Tertius Streik, indeed! I'll bet his name's really Horace or Wilbur."
"What do you mean by that? 'Do what you want to do.'"
"Oh, come on, baby. You think I don't know what you're up to? What do you think I am, a goddamn fool? ... You want to sleep with him? All right, all right! But don't lie about it. I don't give a damn what you do, I have no strings on you, but I won't stand still for your ingrained Southern deceit!"
"I'm not lying.... Yes, I've seen him. Yes, I've bumped into him, but nothing's happened, and —"
"You actually expect me to believe that, don't you? You think I'll believe it because you think I can't afford not to," he snarled at her, though he knew she was telling the truth. "Well, listen, babe — listen, buddy" — both favorite expressions of Streik's. "I don't have to believe anything!"
"But you do. You have to believe I'm sleeping with him. Why? Why is that?"
"Horseshit.... And besides, do you actually think he'll satisfy you? Listen, he drinks too much, baby. All of you drink too much, and —"
"Stop it, Danny."
"— and he won't satisfy you.... You're frigid. Admit it. Go on, admit it. You can't love anyone. At least face it, for God's sake! You're a goddamn icebox."
The rage that brightened her eyes dimmed immediately with the tears it produced. "Don't you dare say that to me!"
"It's the truth. And if you think it's easy to live with you, you're —"
"Oh, you're really a rotten bastard, aren't you!" she cried out, sweeping the half-full glass off the bedside table. "Listen, I'm the one who has to live with it, so don't you dare say that to me ever again! I'm warning you!"
He sighed hopelessly, somewhat sorry he had said it, but suddenly wanting to miss the bad times ahead, and certain now that they would have to kill it before it would die. "Oh, all right, I didn't mean that.... Oh, come on, sweetheart, stop crying now. Didn't you hear me? I didn't mean it."
"I know.... It's just that I thought at least you would love me —"
"But I do. I do love you."
"I know, but —"
"And what in hell do you mean, at least me? Is that the way you think of me? Well, listen here, buddy —" And on and on, for lately they had reached that impasse in the emotions beyond which lies only the necessity to assign the blame, and Verger was trying to decide whether to go to Europe or not, and May had begun staying out later when walking Jefferson the dachshund, and getting raucous at parties, and seeing Streik on the sly. It was a period when Verger was telling himself that he put up with it because he needed a place to stay, and May was saying to almost anyone, "Oh, you know. It's when you become sort of buddies. Roommates. Just before you don't give a damn any more"; that time when each was trying to think of a way to tell the other that it was over between them, and both were preoccupied with the illusion (so necessary to the end of love) that it was the other who would be most hurt.
At four-thirty that afternoon, Verger was standing by the bed in wrinkled shorts and baggy skivvy shirt, studying May's sleeping face, turned into the wizened light, untroubled by dreams behind the eyes, unscarred by the emotions of the morning, maddeningly calm and very pretty. He had just come back from the bathroom where the reflection of his own ashen face, stricken in the talons of hangover, had seemed to him like someone else's face, a face he didn't like, the face of a haunted Laertes. He had slept wrong, and his cowlick stood up in back like a top knot; his lean cheeks were stubbled, faintly cadaverous, and the very idea of shaving made him groan; his grave grey eyes, wincing in the stark light of the unshaded bulb, were comically ringed with red; and he doused cold water over his face, as if he hoped it would wash away the ruins that he saw.
He got down another Alka-Seltzer, knowing it wouldn't help, gargled the sour lees of the night-before out of his mouth, and wandered back into the drafty rooms, suddenly disgusted by the dim, cheerless loft, by the heavy burlap curtains (left over from Agatson's tenure), the overflowing ceramic ashtrays where the hours and the nerves and the rebukes could all be tabulated simply by counting the butts, the unwashed plates with the remains of hasty and indifferent meals hardened on them, the half-empty bottle of Scotch, the whole glass and the broken one, the dusty phonograph records, the disorderly stacks of books, the heaps of clothes (his and hers) thrown down carelessly last night, and the night before, and the night before that. The whole place seemed cannily contrived by an avant-garde set designer to evoke, with nothing but inanimate objects, the hopelessness and waste of the past weeks. He wanted to yank down the drapes in a cloud of months-old dust, sweep all the litter into a dark corner, throw open the windows to that warehouse street of trucks and shipping offices, and let in the blank light of that overcast late-October afternoon to stun May's eyes awake.
But instead he stared down at her face, framed by a taffy-colored profusion of heavy locks on the pillowslip, last night's make-up half-worn away, lipstick cracked on the sensual mouth that pouted even when she slept, traces of mascara giving the crescents of her eyelids the emphatic, somber garishness of a sorrowing Spanish madonna, her nostrils flaring faintly with her regular breathing, the brown flesh of her wide shoulders smoother and darker than the sheet that had been pulled away from them when he got up.
He inspected her face, thinking with amazed rage: "Look at you. Sleeping! Just as sound asleep as if you'd been to a barbecue.... Is that all it means to you? Eh?" incensed, as always, by his inability to get their arguments into a perspective that would produce, in him, the indifference he fancied her to feel. "Well, go ahead, you bitch, sleep it off.... But I can't. I won't. ... Not for any goddamn Southern whore —" breaking off at that idiotic word, exasperated by the moody reflex of puritanism that characterized his secret mind, and yet thinking crossly: "Well, what the hell else can you call it? Lying to me for weeks about Streik, lying to me for months about love.... But I'm through this time, one morning I'll look down, and I just won't give a good goddamn any longer," looking at her with a frown, already bored by the monologue, "And what does it really mean to me? Secretly, all words aside? ... Nothing, not a single goddamn thing," taking bitter pleasure from that thought, for to abuse his spirit gave him the same feeling of contemporaneousness that abusing his body did — liquor and cynicism providing the illusion of hardheaded reality that people whose instincts are conventional, though their ideas are not, seem to need; thinking also, "Well, anyway I didn't tell her about the money — the letter's still in my coat, the check's safely deposited, I've got my escape-hatch — and no matter how much I wanted to get back at her, I wasn't fool enough to tell her about that," experiencing a private satisfaction in the deceit by which he had kept the letter a secret from May for a week, the letter which said in part: "... and so your Aunt Abby (you never knew her, she died in 1928, perhaps you remember Dad's stories — yes, she was the Abaca Verger, poor woman — though I never believed half of what they whispered later, she was always very thoughtful to me) — anyway, she left this bequest to you for when you turned 26 — $1800 which, of course, was more then — and the particular age always puzzled me too, usually it's 21 — but I have a notice today from the lawyers, informing me that it's out of the courts at last, and enclosing the enclosed check...."
He frowned down at May, seeing no reason why he shouldn't just uncover her, pour a glass of water on her, tickle the soles of her feet with a mean snicker, put on loud records, slam doors — anything that would wake her, confused and unprepared, so that he could continue the argument, or start a new one, for he was clearer-headed (hung over or not) than she, even on the best of her mornings. He pulled the sheet away from her breasts on a whim, feeling a faint, aimless sexual urge, an urge that was more of an idea than an emotion, wanting to have things with her they had never had (knowing that was only the hangover, too), and at the same time wanting nothing with her ever again, for these days even the simplest, most mechanical embrace only served to remind him of the failure of intimacy between them.
He sat down on the bed, disconsolately covering her up again, unable to maintain the edge of his anger against the gas in his stomach and the throb in his head. His mouth tasted of the dead ends of too many cigarettes and too much emotion, and he automatically lit his first Chesterfield of the day, knowing it would sicken him, but stoical. He began coughing after the first acrid drag, and suddenly heard her voice of months ago, saying with a careless laugh:
"You smoke too much," snatching the cigarette away from him with a gay pout, to leave it moist and red on the end. "Just listen to that ghastly cough! ... Daniel Verger, you sound positively tubercular — you sound Keatsian, you poor honey!" remembering the exact moment at the top of these very stairs, up which he had just struggled her suitcases and dress bags, because Agatson was too deep in his binge of that week to move her in with him, and so Verger had volunteered.
Excerpted from Get Home Free by John Clellon Holmes. Copyright © 1988 John Clellon Holmes. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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