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The Highwaymen

'On the Road' finally makes it to the big screen


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"Then I flew to San Francisco," he continues. "While I was here, I also got over to Berkeley to meet Michael McClure—that was incredible. I met with John Cassady [Neal's son, who lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains] and heard a lot of anecdotes. I realized how the Cassady family wanted their father perceived, how great a father he was and how much his family loved him."

When I interviewed John Cassady last year in connection with the documentary The Magic Bus, I was surprised at his enthusiasm. Commonly, the children of bohemian types grind an axe about how they suffered from the absenteeism and the bad behavior.

Cassady said, "Are you kidding? My upbringing was the complete opposite. I had an idyllic existence. I felt like a rock star—my father was not famous, he was infamous. I loved the attention. To this day, it's like, don't get me started."

"That's what he told me, too," Hedlund said, "that he couldn't wait for his father to get home from work, that all the kids would be hanging on Neal's biceps."

Hedlund had read On the Road in high school. "I started with Fitzgerald and Salinger—I moved on to Kerouac, Bukowski and those cats," he told me. "I was fascinated by the spontaneous prose and the thought process—reading about getting out and living life. Of course, you're reading it, and you're still in high school and you have a curfew. You get jealous."

A Kerouac Revival?

On the Road spearheads the beginning of a small wave of Kerouac adaptations: Michael Polish's version of Big Sur—the story of an alcoholic breakdown previously described in Curt Worden's 2008 documentary One Fast Move or I'm Gone. This new film of Big Sur uses the real names of the characters; Josh Lucas is billed as Neal Cassady.

Daniel "Harry Potter" Radcliffe plays Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings, a film of a key event in Kerouac's life: the time the author (played by Jack Huston) was nearly arrested as a accessory after the fact to a murder.

The other day, a fellow fan and I were wondering why The Dharma Bums, one of Kerouac's best books, never made it to screen. It could be shot for cheap in the Sierra Nevada; moreover, of all Kerouac's mentors, the poet Gary Snyder (called "Japhy Ryder" in the book) is perhaps the least ambiguously admirable.

Kerouac's books are still carried by travelers, who can read the rapid prose and marvel at the eye and ear, the ebullience and the sorrows. We're already nostalgic for the time and space of the pre–Interstate America. The Fort Sumter of the Culture War may have been the 1978 deregulation of airlines, making airfares cheap and making the restless want to go airborne, changing what once was the Heartland into what is now Flyover Country. The film of On the Road, done at last after so many false starts, recovers the beauty of speeding over land, heading no place in particular.


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