By trying to follow in his literary hero’s footsteps, Jarad Dewing learned that not all heroes are what they seem.
A tractor trailer behind me blared its horn, urging me to move. I woke up and shifted my shoddy Audi into drive, inched forward a bit over crunching snow, and shifted back into park. A sudden blizzard had struck Sunday before I left. I had to pee, but I’d have to wait. I was only two hours away from my hometown, it had taken me eight hours to get this far south, and I’d almost died once already.
It was going to be a long night.
You might’ve seen Mel Gibson in “Braveheart” and imagined yourself for a moment as William Wallace: the honorable and vengeful farmhand trying to protect his clan, his hills, his liberty.
Surely you know of Neo, from “The Matrix”? Loner extraordinaire, launched from obscurity into badass-dom? He knows kung fu because he can download it into his brain without exerting any effort whatsoever. Or maybe Wolverine, all snarling claws and snarky cigar-chewing, burdened by his berserk gift.
Rocky Balboa. Han Solo. James Bond. Tony Stark. Sherlock Holmes. Conan the Barbarian. Harry Potter, even.
Yeah, that guy. That guy we all somehow think we can be, can turn into, could’ve been if things had gone differently, could maybe still be if we got our wish, won the lottery, struck out on our own, had the guts, the nerve, the balls. That guy we grin at on the screen or on the page, gleaming eyes, clenched jaw, little boy dreams stuck in our throats.
These are the versions of us we wish we could be, writ larger than life. They are what we might aspire to, which is not necessarily a terrible goal, except that these men only exist in fiction.
They are a lie.
Sunday night found my drummer, Chris, and I hunched over the inside of a pizza box, Sharpie in hand, scribbling a childlike map of the United States. A mostly-empty bottle of Jim Beam sat on the coffee table. We sat on the floor, excited and quite drunk, drawing lines between vague geographical points, outlining a rough roadmap.
“See, if we head south first, we can hit all the big cities along the East Coast, and get somewhere warm to last out the winter,” I explained. “Then work our way west across the Gulf, head up into the Rockies or out to Cali, whatever. Dean, this is our chance.”
Lately we’d taken to calling ourselves Dean and Sal, after Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. If you haven’t read it, these two characters are at the heart of the Beat movement in the 40’s, drenched in bebop jazz, experimental drugs, reckless sex, revolutionary literature, and spiritual introspection. We imagined ourselves as kindred spirits to these two characters, based autobiographically on Kerouac himself and his muse, Neal Cassady.
We wanted to rid ourselves of the obligations we imagined ourselves shackled by. We were restless and lusty and red-blooded, ready for anything. We’d live by our wits, con who we must, drive like the devil, and damn all who damned us.
I never stopped to think that by emulating the path of these fictional rogues, I’d be sharing in their hardships as well as their glories. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me that reality wasn’t concerned with my ideals, shakily formed by a bum in a book.
Chris, to his credit, thought better of it, decided he couldn’t leave everything behind with no answers for his family or friends, and promptly collapsed on the futon in a fog of bourbon breath.
He woke up the next morning to find me standing in his living room, hand outstretched. “Goodbye, Dean, you magnificent bastard. I’ll see you when I see you.” I left him groggy-eyed and dumbfounded.
The next time Chris heard from me, I was trembling on the side of Route 81, cellphone barely held in freezing fingertips, the Audi facing the wrong way on a three-lane highway. I’d just been sideswiped by an eighteen-wheeler hauling ass during a persistent snowstorm, and slid around to slam into the wall of snowplowed snow and ice.
“Try to dig yourself out, man,” he advised before he hung up. There was no offer of rescue. In fact, he sounded pissed off.
The lone wolf, right? That’s the image we get when we see some of our heroes, forsaking mediocrity or bureaucracy or blatant cowardice and heading off into the unknown, alone and full of purpose.
There aren’t any lone wolves; that’s another fiction, another lie. Wolves are pack animals, like humans, social creatures. The only ones who go off on their own are diseased or ostracized.
Lone wolves tend to die rather quickly.
Darkness was settling in. The highway was coated in over a foot of snow and then caked in ice. Plows couldn’t get through. Traffic was backed up for dozens of miles. National Guard Humvees blocked the exits. One of my headlights was shattered after my first brush with death.
I had a half-tank of gas and fifty dollars in my pocket. The backseat held a thin wool blanket, a bag of bagels, a gallon of cranberry juice, and some random knick-knacks I hoped I could pawn along the way. Apparently I hadn’t expected this leg of the trek to take longer than breakfast. I had hoped to reach Maryland, perhaps Virginia, by this time. I was just outside Hazleton, Pennsylvania, when an exit opened up. I gunned the Audi, fishtailed sideways, and plunged into the suburbs.
Before me, flickering grey in faltering streetlights, lay the most goddamn evil hill I’d ever seen. The ditches were littered with hazard lights. Jackknifed semis hung their backends out like cats in heat. I roared forward. Halfway up, my traction disappeared, and I slid down, down, down in a slow-motion ballet of terror. I wrestled the car under control and maneuvered onto a rural side street. I saw brake lights in front of me.
Toward the end of On The Road, Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise embark on an epic roadtrip south through Mexico, through the tourist-laden cities, into the dank and overbearing rainforest. Primitive villages, strange dark people and incessant mosquitoes, insufferable heat. They pressed on, ever glorious, ever reaching for the beatific.
Never mind the side-trip to the hospital they’re forced to make when one of their party gets an infected bug bite. Never mind the racial undertones when the white boys come to the whorehouse to party and have all the money in the world to spend. I’d always focused on the samba records and the transcendent sense of otherworldliness. I chose what I wanted to remember because the rest of the story, the details that didn’t fit my interpretation of what Dean and Sal meant as literary characters, was unimportant.
Fictional characters can’t get mad at you for cherry-picking their qualities to suit your needs.
Following the brakelights, I pushed on. Up a hill, ever so slowly, ever so cautiously, keeping those dim red beacons in my field of vision always, until the snow fell quicker and blanketed everything and I lost sight, and I was alone again. With one headlight, I aimed as best I could for the side of the road, which at this point couldn’t have been more than a gravel path carved along the side of a mountain. When everything is the same color, though, it’s hard to distinguish. I hit the snowbank gently and the car stopped.
And then it slid. Just a soft shift, at first, and I reacted by deliberately trying to hit the snowbank again, just to cease, just to keep from hurtling off the side of wherever the hell I was and I did hit it, hard. My head slammed against the driver’s window. Everything went from white to black.
Headlights in my eyes woke me to a piercing headache. I couldn’t feel my fingers or my face. My feet were numb. I looked at the clock. I’d been out for almost ten minutes. I took a breath and watched the headlights recede as a car that had been approaching made a wiser choice and retraced its steps back down the hill.
I fumbled behind me and found my cranberry juice, took a drink, and stepped out of the car. I’d have to dig it out again. I screamed every curse I could think of, the adrenaline finally kicking in and bringing new pain and new feeling to my limbs. I checked the gas gauge and made a quick decision: if I could make it back down into town, I had just enough money to refill the tank. I could go home.
Alan Ginsberg wrote in his epic poem, “Howl,”
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the
starry dynamo in the machinery of night…”
He was talking about Kerouac, and Cassady, and Burroughs, Solomon, all the characters renamed but so vividly portrayed in Kerouac’s tome. He was talking about despair in the pursuit of finding one’s self.
Our heroes, our literary versions of masculinity we aspire to, are not real. They are carefully crafted representations of our hopes, longings, and fears. As often as they are inspirational tales, they are also cautionary ones. The “angelheaded hipsters” were, in real life, kind of a hot mess.
Jack Kerouac died of internal bleeding from long-term alcohol abuse. Cassady died walking alone on train tracks in Mexico after ingesting unknown quantities of barbiturates. Bill Burroughs accidentally shot his wife in the head trying to perform a drunken party trick.
Hell, even William Wallace wasn’t avenging the murder of his wife as seen in the movies; that was part of a poem written about him 150 years after the fact, another fiction. Neo gave us unrealistic expectations that any loner can be the Messiah, and any skill can be handed to you, genie-like, with no work required. Conan was a misogynist, Sherlock was a sociopath, and brain-damaged Rocky Balboa lost his wife and son in the pursuit of a goddamn belt.
You are not going to get adamantium claws, exploding pens, an IQ off the charts, or a magic wand. You are going to live your life and nobody else can write that for you. That’s not to say there aren’t traits we admire, hell, even want from literary characters. But following the path of an imaginary creation means that our footing isn’t grounded in everyday reality. Acting like a knight can mean either living chivalrously to your fellow humans, or clanking around in armor and broadswording anyone who offends your misguided honor.
So, we pick and choose. Keep what works. Abandon what leaves you alone, in the snow, to die. If we stay rooted in ourselves, participating actually and honestly in our everyday lives without getting caught up in daydream tales and overblown expectations, we will never end up as fiction. We will never be a lie.