MARCH 30, 2019
HIS NAME WAS DANIEL, he told me, eventually. He’d found me stumbling down the highway near the Hungarian-Croatian border on a sweltering day. I still had a vague hope of getting to Budapest, but by that point I’d given up trying to catch a ride and was seriously dehydrated. Seeing a two-liter bottle peeking out from the roadside grass, I’d run across two lanes to have a look. As I unscrewed the cap, the vapor of heated urine rose up and I fumbled the bottle back to where I’d found it. I kept walking, not holding my thumb up anymore, only trying to scout out a spot over the barrier where I could sleep. While I wasn’t looking, Daniel’s shiny new BMW pulled over in front of me and I bumped into it.
The short, bald, muscular man inside, dripping with sweat, started swearing in French. He asked what the hell I thought I was doing. In my own stuttering French, I thanked him for stopping and asked where he was headed. He told me Romania. Running through the map in my head, I asked whether he could drop me off near Budapest. He said he would and handed me a bottle as I got in. I guzzled the water down, and we sped away.
When I caught my breath, I said he didn’t sound like he was French. Speaking in a mix of stilted English and oddly accented French, he told me he was from Transylvania. He’d trained as an engineer, but there’d been no jobs, so he’d joined the French Foreign Legion. I asked whether it was true that they took on criminals sometimes. “Not if you are a fucking psychopath,” he said. “Not if you killed a bunch of people or burnt down a school. If you just robbed a bank, then maybe yes.”
He’d been a paratrooper in the Congo. He wouldn’t tell me anything more. Instead, he told me about his trip, how he’d started in the south of France and had driven to where he’d picked me up, more than 700 miles, without stopping, except for gas. When I pressed him for stories about the Legion, he looked at me with genuine pain. “Do you want me to tell you how I watched my friends die for the first time? How I left them? No! About how it feels to take life? Non, bien sur.”
He went on to tell me about how he’d fought off malaria in the jungle, how he’d refused field medication because “it tears you up inside.” He told me of the deep shame and guilt he felt over the things he’d had to do. I asked him how he’d survived and how he dealt with those memories. “It took great strength,” he said, pointing to his temple. “If you’re so curious, why don’t you join the Legion? Quelle age are you?” I told him I’d just turned 18. “You’re a child,” he said and asked me what I wanted to do. I told him I wanted to write. “Another good way to get yourself killed.”
Now you may say I didn’t have the right to ask all those questions. I didn’t have his experiences and couldn’t possibly understand his trauma. Besides, ours was just a passing acquaintance. But we came to an understanding that we were two human beings trying to be good. What gave me license to excavate his shame was my relative innocence, my uncurdled curiosity, my belief that he too was trying to be a good man, and my suspicion that talking might help.
After figuring out that I was originally Russian, he told me he’d found some salvation in the works of Dostoyevsky. He’d read of Dostoyevsky’s epileptic Christ character in The Idiot, a man of limitless good who tragically succumbs to his yearning for goodness. Daniel thought that this character’s sacrifice for the sake of others was a worthy one. I unreservedly agreed. Now, Daniel said, he was raising a young son, named Andrei, like my Russian name. He hoped he too would be a good man.
Daniel’s shame was transformative, constructive. He told me that his favorite novel, the one that most defined the shape of his life since the Legion, was The Brothers Karamazov, about a faithful man sent back into the world to deal with the earthly affairs of his family. Of course, it’s about a whole lot of other things too, but that was what Daniel remembered. He concluded that we were all just trying to help each other to be better.
His compassion — and its pairing with an intense interest in Dostoyevsky — wasn’t exactly surprising or unfamiliar to me at the time. In those days, when I was criss-crossing continents hitchhiking, people would ask me whether I liked On the Road. I’d tell them there wasn’t enough hitchhiking in it for my taste, too much roadtripping. What I really liked was Dostoyevsky. I loved The Brothers Karamazov, loved The Idiot, Demons, Crime and Punishment, everything he’d labored over. And I had a suspicion that, if Kerouac had been asked the same question, his mind would have shot off in the same direction, as would the minds of so many literary hitchhikers.
“What’s the name of that Russian author you’re always talking about — the one who put the newspapers in his shoe and walked around in a stovepipe hat he found in a garbage pail?” Remi Boncoeur asks Sal Paradise in On the Road, sounding more like he’s conjuring up the memory of Diogenes than Dostoyevsky. “This was an exaggeration of what I’d told Remi of Dostoevski,” Sal comments. Remi then goes off about people with faces that deserve a name like Dostoyevsky.
But Kerouac’s allusion has a deeper significance. In certain ways that the writer of history’s greatest hitchhiking novel must have picked up on, Dostoyevsky’s late novels reflect the openness and the vulnerability of standing by a road waiting — hoping — for a car to stop. They reflect the experience of hoping — believing — that the driver will be good.
There’s something about entrusting your welfare to the whims of speeding humanity that is essential to engaging with Dostoyevsky’s radical project, and there’s something about Kerouac that made him particularly successful in that engagement. The two main things Kerouac must have understood about Dostoyevsky, if only because these things chimed with his own life and work, were that there was a powerful yearning for sainthood in Dostoyevsky, a yearning — not necessarily religious, though tinged with Christianity in Dostoyevsky’s case — to be good, to be moral, almost beyond human capacity, and that sainthood is inaccessible without accepting that one must pass through darkness to get there.
A ride through the south of England made clear to me just how essential this darkness was to the saintly paths Dostoyevsky set out on. The car belonged to an engineer who was apocalyptically obsessed with Demons, which may outdo Crime and Punishment as Dostoyevsky’s scariest novel. He picked me up at a service station near Essex where he’d stopped for a cigarette. He gave me a lift because he remembered hitchhiking from his home to Turkey as a young man.
“Nothing will get better until we exterminate the politicians,” he said, not long into the ride. Brexit had just happened and that sentiment wasn’t new to me — I’d heard it all over Britain — though his phrasing was a little more brutal than the standard rhetoric most of his countrymen offered. “We need some sort of natural disaster that will make people realize that they must oppose their government.”
He had a thin, upper-crust accent and an air of almost threatening confidence and intelligence. He seemed unbelievably efficient. His hair had gone gray but his intensity had not abated, or perhaps it had been renewed. He worked for a wind-power company that was based in Denmark and he was going down to London to attend to some offshore turbines.
His politics tended toward the optimistically catastrophic and the catastrophically optimistic. “It’s a system run by the very few,” he said. “We need London or New York to flood. Or even Tokyo. Something to cause a major depression and cause a real change.” I asked him what would come after, whether he was some form of communist. He denounced that as a failed creed. Instead, he brought up the conspiratorial nihilist group in Dostoyevsky’s Demons. He seemed to view them as a kind of example.
That’s funny, of course, because Dostoyevsky, though he was involved with similar groups as a young man, wrote the book largely as a denunciation. The engineer understood this, but nonetheless he sympathized with the violent conspirators. On my next reading of the novel, I was reminded of his fiery spirit and the group came to much more vivid life.
Eventually, he dropped me off, giving me a firm handshake and wishing me good luck. The hard, pouring rain made hitchhiking a chore, so I ran across a couple of traffic circles, hopped a roadside fence, and crossed a creek. As I walked through the woods, scouting for a level, relatively dry spot to sleep, my mind was filled with the radical notions of bygone days.
In that forest, as rain droplets pattered on the surface of my tent and water began to drip through, I thought about how Dostoyevsky’s youthful association with that conspiratorial circle in St. Petersburg finally caught up with him. Consequences burst into his room in 1849 in the form of the czar’s soldiers. Later, as he stood in front of a firing squad with his fellow radicals, the thoughts that passed through his head were exactly what you’d expect. “He felt only a mystic terror,” a friend recalled Dostoyevsky’s description half a lifetime later, “and was completely dominated by the thought that in perhaps five minutes he would be going to another, unknown life.” And yet the bullets did not leave their chambers. They never made that swift journey through his flesh.
Anticlimactically, Dostoyevsky and his co-conspirators were led back to their cells. What happened in his head at that moment, the mysterious and powerful operations of his rare neurons, set him apart from the other men who’d stared down the gun barrels with him. It didn’t take long for most of them to fall apart, physically and mentally, following the shock and terror. Dostoyevsky, however, accepted his fate at that moment, and he allowed it to alter him. “Now, deprivation means nothing to me,” he wrote his brother from the cell, and he would later tell his wife that he sang louder that day than he’d ever sung before, so loud that his voice touched its limits, “so happy was I at being given back my life.”
What followed wasn’t the release and amnesty Dostoyevsky had hoped for, but though he would soon be sent off to serve a horrific sentence in a Siberian work camp, that moment changed him, in some ways, for the better. Dostoyevsky’s biographer Joseph Frank claims that, immediately after returning to the cell, the writer experienced a revelation, a “blinding truth that Dostoevsky now understood for the first time — the truth that life itself is the greatest of all goods and blessings, and that man has the power to turn each moment into an ‘eternity of happiness.’”
This understanding wasn’t limited to his life. It permeated his work. It’s what makes reading him so powerful for people like Daniel, the former legionnaire, and for people like Kerouac and me. “If the values of expiation, forgiveness, and love were destined to take precedence over all others in Dostoevsky’s artistic universe,” Frank continues, “it was surely because he had encountered them as a truth responding to the most anguished predicament of his own life.”
This is exactly the sort of sweeping epiphany that Kerouac tried to build toward in his books, and the experiences and motivations that led to those revelations, though not the same, must have felt comparably powerful.
Kerouac never faced down a firing squad, not a literal one. But he did live with guilt, and he suffered in ways big and small. The primary cause was the death of his older brother Gerard when Kerouac was four years old. In later years, he explicitly associated his brother’s decline with the rise of his own saintly urges and behavior. “The world was his face,” he wrote, “the flower of his face, the pale stooped disposition, the heartbreakingness and the holiness and his teachings of tenderness to me.” He wrote, in Visions of Gerard, that the death didn’t affect him immediately, but it hit him hard enough that he returned to write about it all those years later.
And yet, unlike Dostoyevsky, who found the merits of suffering in huge, almost melodramatic plots, especially in his earlier writing, Kerouac relegated events of that caliber to the sidelines. The first lines of On the Road read, “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead.” This prominently placed split-up haunts all that follows, but it’s never mentioned again. In the original scroll manuscript, Sal’s comment about “feeling that everything was dead” refers specifically to the death of his father. At some point in the writing process, Kerouac chose to emphasize smaller sufferings.
Kerouac found shades of transformative, transcendent hardship in the mundane experiences of travel. They were there for him to explore because travel isn’t just a continuous shock of freedom and joy; it’s just as often an experience full of obstacles and discomforts, of setbacks and confusion. Fundamentally, the overwhelming excitement that makes travel so compelling is caused by gnawing, impatient longing for the next thing, and by not knowing what comes next.
Kerouac doesn’t shy away from these aspects. He writes about scrounging up money, about being pulled over by humorless cops, about missing his friends, about loneliness and being lost. But it’s not depressing because not only does he not shy away from all this, he focuses on each of those moments. By flinging himself on the world, by accepting all that comes at him, whether good or bad, as beautiful, and by focusing on the smaller things, Kerouac’s books begin to touch a sort of sainthood.
The sun was starting to set and the heat had evaporated by the time Daniel dropped me off on the ramshackle outskirts of Budapest, among the stray dogs and scrap-metal fences. Before he let me go, he made me write down his number, telling me to call him when I got to my friend’s apartment. “I’d like to be sure you’re okay,” he said. But after talking to him, I wasn’t sure he or anyone could ever be fully okay, nor was I sure we wanted to be.
Dostoyevsky and Kerouac were never quite okay. They lived troubled lives, striving toward aspects of goodness, and neither of them lived to grow peaceful and calm, perhaps because they didn’t really want to. Dostoyevsky’s sainthood, to the extent that he achieved it, was hard-won, born of guilt, early onset cynicism, and a lifetime of fuck-ups. Kerouac’s sainthood was shrouded by alcoholism and dissatisfaction. What they shared, and what I think allowed them to experience moments, if not a lifetime, of near inhuman goodness, was a sort of transcendent shame and a willingness to take the good with the bad, to accept the world as they experienced it. I think Daniel experienced those moments too.
Hitchhiking, with all its indignities and discomforts, also forces you to accept those saintly, beautiful moments, if not necessarily to experience some sort of deeper transcendence. Kerouac must have known that. He must have known that the moment you step out with a thumb up, the world can do with you as it likes. He must have known that, to even get to that roadside, you had to believe in the possibility of good, to believe that you can fall in the world and yet, by doing so, paradoxically rise. He must have known that nothing he’d found in literature would prepare him for the surprises and mysteries that the world would throw at him once he gave himself up to it — the difficulties and upsets, and the unexpected joys.
Nothing, that is, except what he’d found in the novels of Dostoyevsky, the secret Patron Saint of Hitchhikers.
Banner image by Bradley Gordon.