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Book review: Go, by John Clellon Holmes

12 December 2011

GoGo by John Clellon Holmes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Go is generally regarded as the first novel of the Beat Generation, written between 1949 and 1951, and first published in 1952, nearly sixty years ago. I first read it when I was 20, fifty years ago, and rereading it after all that time is a rather strange experience.

It is set in the late 1940s, and that was another generation, a generation that I don’t connect with. They are the people who came home from the war, whom I used to meet in bars around Durban, those boozy old men. In 1972 I used to go for lunch at the Grosvenor Hotel in Soldiers Way across the road from Durban station and sip my solitary beer and eat my 15c curry for lunch, and hear them talking about Smiler Small, who used to frequent the bar in Malvern, and I used to look at all the World War II memorabilia decorating the bar. It never occurred to me that those people, who frequented bars like that, were the Beat Generation, and yet they were. Jack Kerouac was the same age as my father-in-law, who occasionally used to go drinking at the Malvern Hotel.

Yet it was only ten years later, in 1960-61 that I was reading their books, envying their life, and wondering if had really happened the way John Clellon Holmes and Jack Kerouac described it. But they are the generation I associate with alien things like Frank Sinatra, and males in suits and hats, and women wearing lipstick and nylon stockings, and people trying to get back on their feet after the war. So reading Go is very strange. It was only 20 years before 1970, yet 1970 is now forty years ago. And the Durban station is no longer there, and Soldiers Way is probably called something else, and if the Grosvenor Hotel is still there it too is probably called something else now.

But then I remember that I too was like that, even when longing to be like that and thinking it must be different somehow, and somehow more exciting. But it only sounded more exciting than the lives we lived in the 1960s. We too experienced that restless rushing around in the, rushing to Meadowlands to see Cyprian Moloi, or to Springs to see Noel Lebenya, travelling many miles to see if a friend was home, and finding that they were out, travelling many more liles to see another. Not as many boozy parties, and no one was writing a book, but perhaps our conversations were even more intelligent, even when we smoked pot, which was rare. And that was only fifteen years after it all happened in Holmes’s book. Fifty years ago somehow seems quite close to the present, yet ten years earlier, when Holmes wrote, seems another world, another eon, another universe. In the sixties Holmes’s world of New York seemed like some magic golden age, and looking back from now to the sixties, that seems like the real golden age. The times Holmes wrote about, I realise now, were different, not just because it was another generation, but another world and worldview.

And rereading it fifty years later, I see that Holmes actually tried to create the new vision that made us look back on his world with rose-tinted spectacles. What he longed for became part of our vision.

The essence of the book is summed up in the dream of one of the characters, Stofsky (a thinly-diguised version of the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg). Stofsky dreams that he meets God, in a rather shabby dusty room, sitting on a very shabby throne, and God tells him to “Go, and love without the help of any Thing on earth.”

For us in the sixties, that was the starting point. It was a kind of presupposition. It was the presupposition with which I read Go the first time. And so it all seemed rather wonderful, transported out of its time and place into some kind of beautiful timeless realm. I could not imagine them as part of the same world as the suits and hats and nylon stockings.

But rereading it fifty years later, I see it in a very different perspective. Another of the characters in Go, Paul Hobbes (who represents Holmes himself) doesn’t have dreams and visions like Stofsky, but gradually comes to realise that their values and their life of endless boozy partying are rather shallow. He thinks of his friends, including one who had died, and wonders if anyone had actually loved them. And it is in this seeting of lovelessness, hopelessness, selfishness and despair that God appears to Stofky in a dream and says “Go, and love without the help of any Thing on earth.”

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