My favourite books are always those where not much happens except entire universes quietly change. Both the characters’ and mine.
Ray Robertson’s What Happened Later is such a book. I read this twice last year. Each reading brought me deeper into the language with layers yet to be discovered.
It’s all about the sentences.
Written in two storylines—the first, a fictionalized account of Jack Kerouac’s last road trip, a kind of going home, to find his ancestral roots in Quebec. The second, a fictionalized account of a boy named Ray Robertson who’s trying to get away from home—1970’s Cambridge, Ontario—and find a copy of On the Road.
In alternate chapters and distinct voices, the stories weave back and forth through time—and not much happens. Except life. On every page, in very sentence—every word is full of what feels like absolutely raw truth—not fact necessarily (it’s fiction, right?), but truth.
The chapters play beautifully off each other—from the innocence and simplicity of Ray’s life and his introduction to Jim Morrison:
“Before Jack Kerouac could change my life, Jim Morrison had to save it. Every Almighty needs an ambassador down below to do his dirty work. Mine wore tight brown leather pants and shouted out his rock and roll couplets like it somehow actually mattered.”
—to Kerouac’s bennies for breakfast, falling down drunk with booze and resentment, guilt; his brilliance in offering up what every story needs:
“… a flesh and blood body on the other side of the book telling the story and not just a bunch of nouns and verbs and adjectives held together under house arrest by a bully bunch of rules of composition some mastermind mammon cooked up to keep everybody talking and thinking and living the exact same way. Because ask yourself this, Mac: Were we born and do we suffer and do we die just so we can all sound the same? What a spit in God’s eye, that.”
The book begins close to the end of Jack’s life and close to the beginning of Ray’s, but ultimately, we’re left mid-stream in both, knowing how each will end. Along the way we see Kerouac in a new light as he mourns the loss of a Georgia pine, holds a kitten up to see the moon, asking aloud how science could explain that; we discover tenderness, vulnerability, and a man whose greatest desire was “…to be Cervantes alone by moonlight.”
I can’t think of a better shape or tone for this book. There’s an almost physical sense of movement with each chapter—from the jaded ‘star’ who’s had anything but a normal life, desperate to get away from society’s narrow-minded idea/treatment of ‘fame’—
“Remember how last week you were a spontaneous prose poet, a singular bard of bop, a lyrical visionary declaiming a previously unknown hipster-rich American underbelly? Yeah, well, now you’re a sloppy, undisciplined, self-indulgent media creation prone to sentimentality, immorality, and obvious sensationalism. Next, please.”
—to Ray, living in this tiny, loving world of grandparents, leather sleeved sports jackets; where he so sweetly sings the national anthem to his father in the bathroom; a place where his greatest career challenge is climbing the ladder of the Sears sales team; a world of wry observations—when he accidentally kisses his own shoulder while making out with his first girlfriend, he reflects “…but that’s okay too…”. This mini philosopher, obsessed with finding the answers to life through Kerouac—all such delicious irony.
Despite my love of the fiery, gorgeous, richly written Kerouac chapters—at the close of each, I found myself turning the page, eager and curious to read more of young Ray, and immerse myself in the very different but just as honest tempo of his life. In many ways it’s Ray’s story, but not completely, because to tell either of the two on their own would render both less.
From the Re-Run Series: originally appeared in February, 2010.