Get Home Free

by John Clellon Holmes
   This third novel by John Clellon Holmes was his favorite and arguably his best but also his least known. Written between January 1961 and October 1962, it succeeded in getting Holmes out of a frustrating writer’s block. The story follows May Delano, Dan Verger, and Paul Hobbes (Holmes’s persona), who were all characters from Holmes’s first novel Go. The major theme of the novel is sexuality as spirituality. Get Home Free is in part a sequel to Go. In Go, Delano was partially based on jack kerouac’s first wife Joan Haverty, who was living with Bill Cannastra (Agatson in Go and in Get Home Free) at the time of Cannastra’s death in a subway accident. Though only a type in Go, Delano is one of Holmes’s most fully realized characters in Get Home Free and is representative of Holmes’s newfound feminism. Verger was based on Russell Durgin, a friend of allen ginsberg’s, whose book collection was pilfered by herbert huncke. Hobbes, the voyeuristic chronicler of Beat life in Go, is also a major character in Get Home Free, although all we hear about Go’s visionary poet Stofsky (based on Ginsberg) is that he has taken a straight job in advertising, and all we hear about the larger than life novelist Gene Pasternak (based on Kerouac) is that he has taken a bus to Mexico.
   In part one of the novel, “New York: The End,” Verger moves into Agatson’s old loft with Delano after Agatson’s death, and the legendarily wild parties that typified Agatson’s self-destruction become an “Autumn of bad parties.” Holmes presents Verger’s existentialist speeches and his belief that excess is a sign of “a spiritual need” with a backward-looking irony. Delano is also weary of hearing Verger’s speeches. The two break up, with Verger going back to his hometown in New England, Old Grafton, and Delano returning South. In Part Two, as he did in Go, Holmes creates characters who are representative of their generation, this time as they move from the drunken 1940s to the hungover 1950s: “the frantic postwar years when nothing seemed worth one’s time but Third Avenue beers and Times Square bop, Harlem pot and Village sex; when the jangled rhythm of the war carried over into the fake peace, and we all wanted wild things, strange things, any extreme of spirit, and (all unknowing) prepared to put our hopes underground for the fatuous Fifties. All the night-long talk, and nerves, and drink, and exhaustion had burned me down until I was clear and minimal.” To come to terms with his stagnant life, Verger flees New York for his hometown of Old Grafton (Holmes’s hometown of Old Saybrook), where he tries to decide whether to return to New York or to take the trip to Europe that he has long promised himself. He stays with his mother but falls into his New York habits of dissipation and spends his time trailing around after the town drunk, Old Man Molineaux. Old Man Molineaux’s great mistake in life is that he failed to leave home and go to sea, as he always dreamed. Verger takes his cue and resolves to go to Europe after all but not before he witnesses Molineaux drinking himself into such a state that he has to be hospitalized. Verger learns from Old Man Molineuax (who could be Verger in 30 years, and who also resembles Verger’s father) that you have to “come to terms with the hateful past. . . . Otherwise people just take out their disappointments on one another like we did, like my mother and father did.”
   The third part of the novel is a brief transitional section in which Verger and Delano meet up briefly while Verger prepares to leave for Europe and Delano prepares to head back home to smalltown Georgia. There she hooks back up with the old crowd and talks them into going to a bar on the African-American side of town where they used to party as teens. The southerners try to explain to her that race relations in the South are more sensitive because of the emerging civil rights movement than they were five years earlier, but she does not listen. It is a typical setting for a Holmes novel, a moment between being and becoming.
   At the bar, the novel’s one major coincidence occurs—Hobbes, the Holmes character from Go, is playing piano for a young, blind, African-American singer, who could be out of The Horn. Hobbes tells Delano over drinks that he had to leave New York before he became a conformist with a straight job. The times, he says, are ones in which you want to be out of step, not in. Hobbes takes her back to a ramshackle antebellum mansion where musicians, drug users, and interracial couples hang out. Hobbes, it turns out, has developed a heroin habit. He and Willie, a converted Moslem from Detroit, argue about whether or not whites can ever truly understand the reality of being black. Hobbes urges him to forget the color of his skin, and Willie replies that the moment he does that, he will be lynched. Apparently, Willie makes his point, for later, when Hobbes tries to make generalizations about his “generation” (as he did unselfconsciously throughout Go), he realizes that such generalizations cannot include both blacks and whites, whose experiences are so different. In this sense, the novel addresses Holmes’s and Kerouac’s roles as the labelers of their generation, and Holmes, quite appropriately, points out that beat, in spite of its roots in jazz, was primarily associated with white writers. The book thus serves to reflect the assumptions of Hobbes’s two previous novels. It also features a self-revealing moment that must be Holmes’s own confession about the New York crowd chronicled in Go: “I used to wonder,” Hobbes tells Delano, “what was behind all your eyes, all of you, and I know I was never a part of it.” Holmes’s detractors, quick to say that he presents a “square” picture of the Beats must, therefore, come to terms with Holmes’s own acknowledgment of his outside status among these outsiders.
   At the end of the fourth part of the book, Delano comes to a kind of Buddhist recognition that heaven is right under her nose, already there. She has this satori on the verge of exhaustion from allnight marijuana smoking and moonshine drinking. She is “beat,” she says, but “that need not be bitter simply because it is bleak.”
   In part five, Delano returns to New York from the South, and Verger returns to New York from Europe. Almost without trying, they find themselves together again. As Holmes says in his 1987 introduction, “I wanted to think they had a chance for provisional happiness, a temporary reprieve, knowing for a certainty they would have made one last try for it.” As Go described the moment between being and becoming when “hot” jazz turned to “cool,” here Holmes describes this existential couple’s movement from exhaustion to a tentative new life. In larger terms, he describes a society also in transition: “It is an ambiguous time,” Holmes writes in his introduction, “of affluence and lethargy, prosperity and conformity, false gaiety and deep unease.”
   Holmes considered this book to be his best novel of the three he completed before his death in 1988. Critics often point to Get Home Free as being one of the few works by a Beat writer in which race relations are addressed as a central topic (Kerouac’s The Subterraneans being another). Holmes agreed, believing that the book was ahead of its time in this respect. Kerouac, who kept Holmes as a friend while discarding most of his other friends from the 1940s in the 1960s, praised the book in a December 11, 1963, letter which included a blurb for the book jacket: “Here is my blurb for GET HOME FREE and every word I mean—I like it, and some parts of it are great.” He particularly likes the reappearance of Hobbes as a piano player in the South and says that it made him “realize you actually dream such drizzly stuff for your vision of America, that, in fact, you’re a maniac.” He also singles out the “Negro–White party down South” for praise. When the book received poor reviews, Kerouac wrote to Holmes on October 16, 1964: “Had your reviews of FREE sent to me and read them and commented to Sterling [Kerouac’s agent, Sterling Lord] you were being treated like me. . . . down to the bone, publishing has been taken over by outand-out con men who are the Mephistopheleses to your Faustian effort. No mind. Autumnleaf laurel you.” It is one of the rare moments when Kerouac expressed his empathy for the plight of a fellow Beat author.
   Rob Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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  • home — 1 noun 1 PLACE WHERE YOU LIVE (C, U) the house, apartment, or place where you live: They have a comfortable home on the outskirts of the town. | at home: Her daughter lives at college during the week and at home on the weekends. | work from home… …   Longman dictionary of contemporary English

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