Published five years before On the Road, this candid and perceptive roman à clef chronicles the adventures of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady before they became literary icons. In dive bars and all-night diners, cabs racing across Manhattan and squalid apartments sticky with “tea” smoke, these would-be artists pursue the ecstatic experiences that shape their work and satisfy their restless desire to live beyond the limits of convention.
At the heart of Go is Paul Hobbes, the alter ego of John Clellon Holmes. An aspiring novelist who shares the same creative interests as his friends, Paul frequently participates in their reckless, self-indulgent behavior. Yet his innate solemnness makes him an outsider, as does his commitment to his marriage. As Paul seeks to strike the right balance between experimentation and orthodoxy, freedom and obligation, he casts a discerning eye on his peers. The result is a thrilling and indispensible portrait of the Beat movement before it took America by storm.
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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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By John Clellon Holmes
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 John Clellon Holmes
All rights reserved.
"Last week I got the idea that the one aim of my intercourse with other people is to prevent them from noticing how brittle and will-less I have become," Paul Hobbes was writing. "I can't seem to dance without a piper. Would you believe it of me? I actually yearn for life to be easy, magic, full of love. How wonderful (and simple) it would be if we were all naked on a plain, as Gene Pasternak says. You probably wouldn't like him at all, but I can learn something from him because he's written an annoyingly good novel. And anyway he believes in himself, and also in life.... As of this moment, I only believe in the spring outside the window on Lexington Avenue, and in you. Is there spring up there on Riverside Drive too? Let's all go out and be naked on a plain...."
Angrily, Hobbes stopped typing, surrendering to his feeling that the letter was basically aimless. He pulled the sheet out of the machine, looked it over for a moment, thrust it aside, and got up. He began to walk noisily up and down the floor. It was after five and Pasternak had been sleeping since nine that morning.
Everything in sight made Hobbes impatient: the shelves he had built for their books, the borrowed frameless paintings on the walls, the couches in need of a brush; everything that he and his wife, Kathryn, had collected and arranged so carefully in the last years. They were not enough somehow; nor were his desk, his manuscripts, and the novel upon which he had been biting his nails too long. Only the soft spring evening, which hung like some impossibly romantic watercolor behind the towers of midtown Manhattan, escaped his dissatisfaction. He was filled with that heightened sense of excitement and restlessness that spring brings to New York, when everything becomes graceful and warm with promise. A joy without object or reason rose within him, but like all such joys ebbed into frustration almost immediately because he did not know how to express it.
He went to the phonograph, pulled out an album and put on a soft jazz record. He did not want to keep quiet, he wanted everything to begin; but an overly-developed sense of propriety prevented him from going into the bedroom, and waking Pasternak with cruel brightness so they could talk. Instead he sat down again and began to re-read what he had written.
But just then Pasternak shuffled uncertainly through the bedroom door, stiff with sleep. He glanced at the phonograph, then at Hobbes, and said grumpily:
"What time is it anyway? I just had the craziest dream."
"A little after five." He stuffed the letter into the pile of magazines on his desk. "There's coffee on the burner."
Pasternak nodded groggily, compressing his heavy eyebrows as if sleep was like water and could be squeezed out of his eyes.
"I got more than eight hours then," and he made for the bathroom.
This was the only anchor in his otherwise drifting days. Eight hours (any eight) out of every twenty-four, Pasternak slept grimly, insistently, impervious to noise or hunger or daylight. When he came into New York from his mother's home in Long Island City for some binge, it usually ended at Hobbes' apartment in the early dawn hours. There he would sleep on a couch until nine when Kathryn left for her job in a downtown public relations office, and then Hobbes would poke and cajole and guide him into the bedroom where he would collapse on the extra bed and burrow back into unconsciousness.
As friends, Pasternak and Hobbes were an odd pair. Pasternak was the sort of young man whose ties always seem to have a large knot in them, and on whom clothes look vaguely inadequate to contain the chunky body whose awkwardness is somehow suggestive of athletic prowess. Everything about Hobbes, on the other hand, was angular. He never filled out the corners of his jackets, his hair always needed a trim, and he had a strangely unfinished air. Even his conversation was weakened with generality and that touch of insincerity of which carefully worded speeches often smack. Like the friendships of many American youths, theirs had risen swiftly on the foundation of these differences and persisted because each felt in the other something that he lacked and envied.
Now Pasternak emerged from the bathroom with his black hair combed neatly wet, and his pensive features ruddy with scrubbing. He fixed his cup of coffee with absent-minded impatience, flopped on a couch with it beside him, and said with sudden annoyance:
"You know what I just dreamed? I dreamed about everybody I know. It was at a party somewhere. Everybody — Stofsky, Ancke, Verger, Winnie ... even Hart Kennedy from Denverl People from years back. Agatson was there too, eating glass. And Ketcham with that girl ... what's her name? ... Agatson's old girl ... Bianca." He held the cup gingerly between stubby fingers, taking voracious gulps from it. "And there were lots of others, too.... I honestly never realized how many people I know! Too many goddamn people. You know what I mean?"
Hobbes sniffed eagerly. "That's an odd complaint. Having too many friends! Only someone who doesn't believe it could say such a thing."
"No, but I felt like Elsa Maxwell or somebody. It was a rotten party anyway. Everyone was mad. Winnie ... you remember, I told you about her? The big redhead, six feet tall, who used to come down to Dennison's morphine-pad on Orchard Street in the old days? ... Well, she kept yelling across the room to some hipster, 'How about a fix! How about a fix, man!' Only real loud. And Ketcham looked down his nose at her and began whispering to everyone about 'that vile woman'!" He arched his shoulder and made a fey grimace of imitation.
"But Ketcham hasn't even met Winnie, has he?"
"No, but this is in the dream! What I mean is that it was all like that, everyone I know all mixed together and scrapping. Agatson was yelling about hailing taxis from the El, and when I looked at him he put out his tongue at me. And Stofsky kept trying to convince me he was queer, and in love with evil and all that." He moped for an instant. "You know, there just aren't any real g-r-e-at parties anymore ..."
"Well, what about this one tonight at Stofsky's? Everything may begin tonight, Gene ... And besides, that was only a dream. You're starting to believe it was real!"
"But don't you see, this was my party ... in the dream. A celebration of my selling my book or something. And then everyone got so hungup on themselves. I tell you, Paul, I'm not kidding. I know too many people, I mean too many kinds of people.... And besides, Stofsky will do some real outlandish thing and mystify someone or other. You know how he is. Why, the first time I saw him, five years ago, he was scuttling along the halls up at Columbia like a mouse, no more than eighteen years old, with a huge copy of Spengler under his arm. And then when we got talking and I asked him about his mother, you know what he said? 'She's up in Madtown with the bats!' Just like that. And later I found out it was true. She is actually crazy and in an asylum. But that's the kind of thing he always does.... Oh, and by the way, he said he was going to drop by here after his analysis this afternoon."
They went on talking, and the warm yellow shadows of twilight slid across the buildings outside the windows. But nothing that was said could satisfy Hobbes' growing exhilaration at the prospect of the night ahead, or Pasternak's impatience at the thought of how it might turn out.
Hobbes, normally reserved and even suspicious, became more credulous and excited, but Pasternak kept losing interest and broke out every now and again: "Let's go out and have a beer! Or play some Charlie Parker records," and then "You know, all I really want is to get laid. That's what I'm really complaining about."
At this last, there was a rapid knock and David Stofsky hurried in the door like a sudden gust of wind that comes up out of nowhere. Taking a position in the middle of the room, all at his ease, he announced immediately:
"I've just seen Agatson in the White Rose Bar, and you know what he did? It was fantastic! He was already very drunk, and right while I was talking to him, he turned away, positively wriggling, and went up to a tough-looking marine and said: 'Give me a big wet kiss! ...' the coy way Winnie used to say it to her men. Those were his exact words, everyone could hear! And I borrowed four bucks from him, Gene. For the party. Everyone's coming.... Oh, and you know what else has happened? I had a breakthrough this afternoon at my analyst's! Right at the end of the session, I had this sudden sexual urge for him. And I told him. 'Doctor Krafft, weren't you expecting identification about now?' ... But it was very strange, because it made him furious and he refused to talk about it."
This disjointed speech did not surprise either of the others. It was Stofsky's habit to burst in full of news, for he was one of those young men who seem always to be dashing around the city from apartment to apartment, friend to friend; staying a few moments to gossip and ingratiate, and then running off again. Although he had no job, his days were crowded with vague appointments up and downtown, and for a large group of people he was the unofficial bearer of all sorts of tidings. His sources were multitudinous and his candor so infectious that it made the more suspicious of his friends question his motives. When entering a room full of people, for instance, he would pass from one to the other, shaking hands with mock gravity, then go directly up to someone he did not know, and say, eyes twinkling with excitement behind the heavy horned-rims: "You're so-and-so, aren't you? Well, I'm David Stofsky. I know all about you!" This was said with such eager, guileless smiles that it annoyed almost no one.
"But imagine Agatson," he went on, now pattering up and down the floor. "You know, he's not queer at all. It was just an imitation of course. But I tell you the whole bar was electrified!"
"How did you get him out alive?" Hobbes exclaimed.
"Nothing happened! Isn't it incredible? The marine was absolutely speechless, as though he was seeing a monster. He just stared at Bill, muttered something — to save his face, you know — and wandered out! I swear it's the truth. There were at least fifteen people there!" He emitted a yakking, breathless laugh, his eyes glittering.
Pasternak refused to show his amusement at the story.
"That guy's going to get killed someday, crazy son of a bitch! ... But say, have you heard from Winnie yet?"
"No. I was looking all over Times Square for her a few nights ago, really combing it, but I couldn't locate her. If we could find Albert he might know, but I think he's still in jail."
Albert Ancke and Winnie were phantoms to Hobbes, shadowy figures that he always associated with the glaring nighttime confusion of Times Square, its unruly bars, teeming cafeterias and all-night movies. He had never met them, but Pasternak and Stofsky talked of them incessantly, along with other petty thieves, dope-passers and "characters" that they knew. The stories fascinated Hobbes, but in the three months he had known his two friends there had only been vague rumors concerning Ancke and Winnie; rumors that filtered in from casual acquaintances that Stofsky ran into during his travels about the city, which said that Ancke was serving a narcotics sentence, and that Winnie was "kicking her morphine habit" out in some walk-up in Astoria. But that was the extent of the information.
Pasternak was buttoning up his shirt, and said sullenly:
"Come on though, let's go out and have a beer or something." But then, noticing that Stofsky had wandered to Hobbes' desk and was picking through his papers idly, he added, with a worried glance at Hobbes: "Hey, you oughtn't to do that, David. Ask the guy first."
But at that moment Hobbes did not resent Stofsky's inquisitiveness so much because he might read a paragraph of his latest chapter. His chief concern was that he would stumble across the letter that was sandwiched among the magazines, for he knew Stofsky would read it aloud and ask questions with the confident belief that there were no secrets in the world.
To divert him, Hobbes began nervously: "How about your poetry, David? Have you been writing since I saw you?"
Stofsky came away from the desk to sink on the couch wearily. "Oh no, I haven't done a thing. I've been rushing around, and besides, you know I think it's bad for me. Perhaps even a symptom of disorder. Doctor Krafft was saying that I should curtail anything that might be an escape-valve, that might compete." He whinnied again in his breathless way. "He was very mysterious today, for instance. I was certain it was an authentic breakthrough, the first real sign that I'm making progress, but he told me I take everything much too lightly, and I'm not trying. Isn't it funny? It seems I'm not even qualified for analysis!"
"Then it wasn't a real whaddayacallit?"
"Aw, it's a lot of nonsense anyway," Pasternak growled. "Come on, let's go out!"
But as they stood outside the door, Hobbes pausing to lock up, Stofsky said with odd seriousness, that sounded even odder in one who was usually given to exaggeration and self-ridicule:
"But, you know, what could I say when he told me that? I am in earnest about this analysis. In a way, it's my last chance. And yet when he said that I wasn't trying, I felt like laughing, uncontrollably." He glanced with bashful embarrassment at both of them. "Remember how I used to do that all the time?"
They went around the corner and over to Third Avenue. Under the shuddering roar and sooty pilings of the Elevated there was a ramshackle, narrow bar called Mannon's where they always drank when they were in Hobbes' neighborhood. It was a grimy, ill-lit place, lacking even a neon in the window, the atmosphere fouled with the odors of urine and flat beer; and there were always a few dispirited, vacant-faced Third Avenue drunks slumped in the rear booths.
They ordered beers and sat around, saying little. The other two were concerned about Pasternak's gloominess. Like all young men, matters of the soul were the very substance of reality to them, and each one of them, in his own way, had grown surprisingly sensitive to the merest change of mood or shade of emotion in the others. Pasternak, who was usually as eager as a boy to grasp the moment and experience it fully, and in whom even angers and irritations found rude, immediate expression, now sat surveying the bar with a pinch of sour displeasure at the sight of everything.
Stofsky went after it. Sordid surroundings and inexplicable actions always created a weird excitement in him, and his tempers alternated rapidly. His moment of seriousness had vanished and the beers, the dusty walls, the doleful faces of the drunks, and Pasternak's strange mood put a gleam in his eye.
"What's the matter with you, Pasternak?" he began challengingly. "You look like you swallowed the monster, like that marine!"
Hobbes laughed uneasily. "He just got up, that's all."
"But look at him now," Stofsky went on gaily. "You'd think I was his monster! By which I mean, of course, the thing he simply can't bear to face at this particular moment!"
"Oh, you're always talking about monsters that way," Pasternak exclaimed morosely. "Naw, it's just that I haven't heard from MacMurry's.... Can't I be quiet if I want to? ... They probably lost my book in their cellars or someplace. I'm just fed up with these goddamn, high-hat publishers, that's all! Did I write the book for them?"
"No, but you did write it, Gene, you finished it," Hobbes said earnestly, remembering his own fitful, halfhearted, efforts to complete his novel. "Don't think of them. Screw them!"
"Maybe you're their monster," Stofsky put in with a giggle.
"Well, I've decided I wrote it because I wanted fame and money and ... and love; not for any sterile artistries," Pasternak went on disconsolately. "I was just wooing the world with it, being coy. That's why anybody writes a book, for Christ's sake! Why should you fool yourself, Paul? I'm feeling geekish because the world isn't interested in my clumsy valentine."
"You're just depressed. Forget about it. They've only had it a few weeks. And, you know, I have the feeling that a new 'season' is about to begin. I really have that feeling."
Excerpted from Go by John Clellon Holmes. Copyright © 1997 John Clellon Holmes. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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