Jack Kerouac, cafe racers, writing and style

Another WordPress blogger suggested a while back that Jack Kerouac was the ‘café racer’ of writers. She was right, of course.

Ducati ‘Paul Smart’ 1000LE, one of only a handful imprted into New Zealand. In some senses it’s more stripped sports bike than classic cafe racer. I took this photo for a book I was writing on bikes in 2008.

That got me thinking – as good blog posts should. Cafe racers were simple, honest motorcycles, quintessential cool. They captured the freedom of lifestyle; road legal bikes you could race on the track. For me you can’t go past the Vincent Black Shadow. The first superbike and, for me, quintessential café racer. Those beasts could drag-race jet fighters – and win, at least until the jet took off. They appeared in 1948 and weren’t beaten for speed until Kawasaki turned up with the 750 Triple in 1973.

The message I got from the post was that Kerouac’s style – his approach, his authenticity, the feel – relates to writing in the same way that café racers relate to motorcycles.

Those three words again  – cool. Fast. Authentic. Kerouac was all these things. There was no doubt about cool.  The beat crowd defined it.

Speed? Kerouac blew On The Road through his typewriter in three weeks. And his stories were fast, too; On The Road, again, pushed at breakneck speed. Authentic? Kerouac went steps further than Hemingway when it came to authenticity. Sometimes what he wrote was literally real.

His was a quest for self in a youth generation who had spun out of the Great Depression and sought all the joy they could find in life.

He wrote real. Authenticity to himself; authenticity to reality as he saw it. Just like a café racer and the riding experience.

Can we learn from this? Absolutely. If we can find something that symbolises our style, like the café racer symbolises Kerouac, what can we then learn about ourselves?

Extending the point (as I always do), I wonder about other writers. J. K. Rowling, for instance, who I’d classify as the ‘family car’ of writers – a bit cliched in terms of ideas, but absolutely solid, reliable and competent (I can hear the scream from the Harry Potter fans…but I mean, magic wands and school stories? Reinvented cliche…but still cliche.)

Or Robert A. Heinlein, who was always looked on as an SF writer but really was an American writer, generally – tackling all the issues that needed tackling. Another realist. Solid. Conservative, yet with a twist that got you thinking. Full sports bike, maybe – Ducati? As opposed to someone like Michael Moorcock, whose writing I’d envisage more like a trail-bike – scorching off on his own very interesting direction with eager joy.

Who’s your favourite author…and what mode of transport – with lifestyle – do they remind you of?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

5 thoughts on “Jack Kerouac, cafe racers, writing and style

    1. She’s one of mine, too – and for the reasons I mentioned above. I’m going to post more on her soon. Reinvented cliche becomes something – well, pretty magic, in the sense of literature.

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