Title: Any Road Will Take You There: A Journey of Fathers and Sons
Author: David W. Berner
In the best tradition of the great American memoir, Any Road Will Take You There is honest, unflinching, and tender. A middle-age father takes the reader on a five-thousand-mile road trip, the one he always wished he’d taken as a young man. Recently divorced and uncertain of the future, he rereads the iconic road story - Jack Kerouac’s On the Road - and along with his two sons and his best friend, heads for the highway to rekindle his spirit. However, a family secret turns the cross-country journey into an unexpected examination of his role as a father and compels him to look to the past and the fathers who came before him to find contentment and clarity and celebrate the struggles and triumphs of being a dad.
I was the teenager with the dog-eared paperback copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road tucked into the back pocket of my Levi’s. I can still see the cover: black with the title in white block letters below a small square of blue and orange rectangles, like pieces of a broken jigsaw puzzle. I’m sure the square was meant to represent modern art, a Picasso-esque painting. I found the edition in a used bookstore outside of Pittsburgh where I grew up, and I cherished it, held it tight to my chest. I so badly wanted to be Sal Paradise, the book’s narrator, the character Kerouac based on himself, and to do nothing more than get in a car and hit the road.
Like Sal, I was a bit of a disillusioned young man. Not a sour, angst-laden kid, but certainly one shrouded with uncertainty. I wasn’t alone. Like most of my teenaged friends, I wondered if I was good enough, smart enough, handsome enough, and fretted over what in the world I was going to do with my life. There were innocent dreams of a being a musician, or at least spinning the records I loved on the radio as a disc jockey. I wrote songs and lyrics, and I honestly believed if I worked hard enough, I could write profound words like Dylan or Leonard Cohen. I played coffeehouses and a few campus bars, but I was only acting the part. I was no Bob Dylan. Not even close. But maybe, like Sal Paradise, I, too, could find inspiration. Paradise wanted to write, and I wanted to compose lyrics and music that I would be proud to play, proud to say were my compositions. But instead of actually going on the road to find insight, I just kept reading On the Road, writing in the margins and underlining passages, defaulting to what was on the pages instead of in the real bus stations, train yards, and on the highways. I was romanced by the book, but didn’t have the necessary courage to live it. Still, there were sections that gave me shots of adrenaline and faith that I could somehow find my place in the world. Right from the beginning, Kerouac’s words screamed out to me. This is what he wrote at the end of the first chapter: Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me. This line and others like it urged me to put myself out there, letting the energy of life and experience envelope me. And if I did, maybe life’s jewels would come my way.
The book starts with a downer. A young Paradise is disillusioned and depressed about his break-up with his wife and his life as a struggling writer. But after a series of manic cross-country road trips with the character Dean Moriarty - an impulsive experience junkie from Denver who had spent some time in jail - Paradise finds joy and purpose. Sal figures it out by going on the road. But in those days, I didn’t have the guts to act on the messages in Kerouac’s road bible. Hell, I didn’t even own a car. Plus, I was in school, had classes to attend, tuition to pay, reasons to be responsible. Despite this, On the Road made a weighty impression. Before Kerouac, I was an ambitious and calculated undergrad, planning out my future like a grocery list of things to accomplish. After Kerouac, I saw the possibilities in exploration, in experience, and the attraction of living life in the moment, honestly and authentically. Maybe I wasn’t prepared to jump behind the wheel and hit the pavement, be a real road rebel, but I could certainly read Kerouac, learn from Sal and Dean, and be vicariously transformed. On the Road offered the story of discovery and the liberty to long for something more meaningful. This was the medicine that was Kerouac, an elixir for a young man’s soul.
But it wasn’t until years later when I was a middle-aged man that I was able to reach deep down and honestly consider putting a bit of Kerouac’s manual of self-discovery into practice. It was the spark from an unexpected discovery; a surprising and eye-opening find that re-ignited the old Kerouac’s spirit in me. Deep inside the middle drawer of a cabinet in my mother’s living room, hidden from view for decades, was a photograph, one that had been kept from me for more than forty years.
It was a few years after my father’s death and I was helping my mother clean out decades of accumulated clothes, books, record albums, and old receipts from desks, closets and chest-of-drawers. The old Kodak snapshot was among a stack of dozens of other faded and cracked photos stuffed inside a small shoebox. It was taken when I was five-years old with a film camera, one technical progression prior to the Polaroid Instamatic. The setting is the family room of a relative’s home in front of the fireplace. A plastic poinsettia ornament hangs on the wall in the photo’s background, so it is Christmas. The photograph captures four generations of men – my great-grandfather, my grandfather, my father, and me. I look bewildered and uncertain. My father and grandfather smile awkwardly, the way people do when they are coaxed to grin for a camera. And the man in the middle with his arms folded across his chest, appears he wants it unmistakably known that he has no interest in being part of the picture at all. Considering the remarkable moment it recorded, the intersection of the lifetimes of fathers and sons, I was puzzled that it had not been framed and displayed in a place of prominence. When I asked my mother why, she unfolded a story that had been tucked away in that cabinet drawer for a generation.
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Father and sons on a road trip—what could be more of a quintessentially American adventure? Any Road Will Take You There: A Journey of Fathers and Sons is a father’s love letter to his personal spirit, his father, all the fathers before him, and his own sons—an examination of what makes a man become the father he wants to be and reject the mistakes the fathers before him have made.
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Winner will be drawn on June 28, 2020.
David W. Berner has written nine books, including the award-winning novel A Well-Respected Man and the memoir The Consequence of Stars. He has been honored with the position of Writer-in-Residence at the Jack Kerouac Project in Orlando, Florida and at the Hemingway Birthplace Home and Museum in Oak Park, IL. He is the founder and editor of Writer Shed Stories and a frequent contributor on writing and creative work at the online platform MEDIUM. He teaches at Columbia College Chicago.
More at www.davidwberner.com.
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