Last of the Beats

‘Little Boy’
Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Edward Nachtrieb / Alamy Stock Photo)

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s one hundredth birthday in March was the occasion for a lot of celebration in San Francisco. Perhaps trying to counter its image as  an exemplar of gentrification and greed, San Francisco took the opportunity to celebrate Ferlinghetti as representative of a life devoted to art and letters, a kind of life the city can no longer provide. City Lights Bookstore, which he opened in 1953, is now a place of pilgrimage, and like a church on Easter, it was draped with banners. North Beach streets were shut down for readings and parties, and the public library held a marathon reading in his honor. What Ferlinghetti did to celebrate his birthday, however, was remarkable for a person of his age: he became one of the oldest living people ever to publish a novel.

Little Boy, released just before his centenary, is a rambling, stream-of-consciousness narrative with splashes of free-form punctuation and very few paragraph breaks. The book’s narrator Little Boy is a man looking back on his long life as a bookseller and writer after a turbulent childhood, service in World War II, and a post-war sojourn in Paris. Much of the previous sentence could have been copied and pasted from Ferlinghetti’s own Wikipedia page. The book is not so much a novel, carrying the reader through the story with a narrative arc, as it is a look into the turbulent mind of a person who’s kept a creative flame alight for so very long.

The Beat writers, of course, thought this kind of untethered writing—mashing up autobiographical elements with fictionalized ones, often assisted by piles of drugs and gallons of alcohol—was a means of unlocking creativity. Jack Kerouac even had a nine-point guideline for writing “spontaneous prose.” Kerouac’s On the Road, the bible of straight young men in their senior year of high school who go on to become English majors and get MFAs in fiction writing, was famously written in a drug-addled three-week binge, on an actual scroll of paper, and without paragraph breaks.

Kerouac, like most of the other Beat writers (with the exception of the more modest forest-dwelling sage Gary Snyder) was a self-mythologizer. He claimed the book sprung forth unedited, whereas the writer Joyce Glassman, his girlfriend at the time, later corrected the record and said Kerouac had been tinkering with the manuscript for years. In Little Boy, Ferlinghetti alludes to On the Road as the product of a “mad mind and heart inflated with the rage to live” and grieves the loss of Kerouac decades after his death. Kerouac’s mad mind, its problems worsened by the spotlight of fame, led him to retreat to the home of his mother in middle age and to drink himself to death before the age of fifty.

If anyone’s allowed to be self-indulgent, it’s a person who lives to be a hundred.

Kerouac was also a terrible misogynist, but that’s par for the course for the Beat writers, who generally treated women like props to be used and disposed of. Ferlinghetti may or may not have participated in this, but sex is a pervasive theme in Little Boy. The subgenre of memoirs and essays by the former girlfriends of Beat writers shines a light on the phallocentricity of the era. The exception to Beat misogyny is, of course, Allen Ginsberg, who preferred young, straight men. Ginsberg, the beloved literary godfather of many queer writers, was no sexual saint, but a card-carrying member of NAMBLA, an organization dedicated to normalizing pedophilia and pederasty. A friend of mine who met Ginsberg when he was a young, beautiful undergraduate still wonders aloud, years later, whether he should have acquiesced to Ginsberg’s advances, just for the sake of  his literary career. And William S. Burroughs, so beloved by many readers as a kind of bizarre, cranky uncle, was a gay man who also pursued underaged boys, and was briefly married to a woman, whom he shot in the head. He thought of  her death as the beginning of his literary career.

That Beat obsession with sex as fuel for creativity is evident in Little Boy, making it perhaps the horniest work ever written by a centenarian. Little Boy is a novel of observation rather than action, including its observations of the bodies of women and of the narrator’s own penis, which may account for its complete lack of anything like a plot. Ferlinghetti cleaves to a kind of narrative arc for the first fourteen pages, tracing his own journey from birth to adulthood, at which point he says that “Grown Boy came into his own voice and let loose his word-hoard pent up within him,” and the book subsequently tumbles into its unchained flow from there until its closing line. There’s an argument to be made that two hundred pages of nonlinear prose is nothing but pure self-indulgence, and Little Boy was apparently rejected by at least six different publishers who’d initially been enthusiastic about the idea of a new novel from Ferlinghetti until they got their hands on it. But the argument can also be made that if anyone’s allowed to be self-indulgent, it’s a person who lives to be a hundred. If that person also happens to be Lawrence Ferlinghetti, an entire city throws a party in his honor.

Ferlinghetti, Snyder, Michael McClure, and Diane DePrima are the last living Beat writers. Whatever the legacy of the Beat Generation turns out to be once its scribes are no longer alive, it’s likely that City Lights will still be around. San Francisco made the building a landmark in 2001, and it remains a vibrant and entertaining place to spend a few hours. I was last there a week or so after Ferlinghetti’s birthday, and RE/Search, a local radical publisher of books about body modification and robots, was holding a party on the first floor. In the poetry attic on the third floor, a college-aged guy was offering a long, complex defense of Kerouac’s poetry to a couple of older female tourists from Europe who seemed not to speak much English. On the basement level, the nonfiction books were categorized into “Muckraking” and “Class War,” among other things. A pair of black-clad Antifa guys were paging through Angela Davis books while a couple from the U.K. who looked like they might have been rock stars in the sixties drunkenly tumbled down the stairs.

Ferlinghetti has for years had an office in the City Lights building with a sign saying “open door,” and while the Beat Generation and all of its baggage probably pays the bills that keep the bookstore open, what happens inside is much more reflective of the Bay Area and its enduring literary identity, even in the face of change. All of us, as writers, have to reckon with the fact that our literary forebears were often deeply flawed, and the flaws of the Beats don’t necessarily outweigh the good City Lights has done. My own father was a devoted but unpublished writer, and regular trips to City Lights to browse, read, rub elbows with writers, and sit by his side while he drank at the Vesuvio next door were a feature of my childhood and adolescence. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a father to every writer in the Bay Area, because he opened a door for us to discover other writers. When my first book came out, the first place I went to go see it on a shelf was City Lights. Now my teenage niece and her friends ride the train into San Francisco, walk up to North Beach, get wired on coffee at the Café Trieste where Ferlinghetti still goes to write, and then make their way to City Lights. Sometimes, people say, you can see Ferlinghetti’s silhouette in the windows of the bookstore’s attic. It will probably be there long after he is gone. 

Little Boy
A Novel

Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Doubleday, $24,192 pp.

Published in the September 2019 issue: 

Kaya Oakes teaches nonfiction writing at UC Berkeley and lives in Oakland, California. She is the author of four books.

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