Monday, July 19, 2010

Writer Jay Atkinson: Somerville then " On the Road"

Photo by J. Juniper Friedman

Writer Jay Atkinson: Somerville then " On the Road"

By Doug Holder

I met author Jay Atkinson at the morning meeting of Somerville's Bagel Bards, amidst the happy din of revelers at ART Beat, a yearly arts festival sponsored by The Somerville Arts Council in Davis Square. Atkinson is an athletic and intense-looking man in his 50's who has written "Legends of Winter Hill ", the title referring to the Winter Hill section of Somerville once the home to Howie Winter and his nefarious Winter Hill Gang, and other assorted scoundrels, and ner-do-wells. In this book Atkinson traces the career of legendary cop Joe McCain, whose son Joe Jr. is presently on the Somerville police force. In this work there are stories about McCain's experiences with mafioso, bad cops, and ruthless killers, etc.., something the reader can sink his or her choppers into.

Atkinson's, (who is a professor of Journalism at Boston University), latest book "Paradise Road: Jack Kerouac's Lost Highway and My Search for America" concerns Kerouac's famed benzedrine-fueled cross country trips in the late 1940s and 1950s as recounted in his breakthrough Beat Generation novel "On the Road." (1957). Atkinson took his own road trip, minus the drugs, to retrace the route Kerouac took. The reader of Atkinson's account will hopefully glean insights to how things were in Kerouac's era and how they are now in America.

When I asked Atkinson if he "changed" as a result of his travels, he laughed: " I took Kerouac's route to stay the same." Atkinson explained that most men in their fifties are stuck in a routine, ( I am sorry to say that I am one of those slobs) of the day to day grind of work, and other adult responsibilities. But according to Atkinson, Kerouac, who was 25 when he made his journey was open to new experience, talked to ordinary folks in small burgs he visited, slept under the stars, not in the air-conditioned comfort of a Quality Inn. Atkinson told me that he (and the friends who accompanied him) wanted to feel the way they did when they were young--before life weighed them down with the inevitable baggage. Atkinson feels that he and his friends are no strangers to eccentricity and novel experiences, something Kerouac would look favorably at.

Atkinson quotes in "Paradise Road" his friend David Amram, (the jazz musician, who lead a band that accompanied the earliest Beat poetry jams, and musically accompanied Kerouac at his readings in New York City), who told him not to be a "Civil War Reenactor" of Kerouac's trip because that would subvert the spontaneity of the journey--something Kerouac was not about. And indeed, Atkinson brings his own unique sensibility to the table.

As for Somerville, Atkinson is a big fan. He knows many of the folks on the police force, and he told me: " I like a place where you can down a beer in a blue collar bar, and eat high-on-the-hog in some high-toned eatery in Davis Square." Atkinson has written about the "mean streets" of East Somerville and other aspects of the hardscrabble life in the "ville over the years.

Atkinson said Somerville has changed a great deal in his time. Now he feels comfortable parking his car and visiting his students who live in the " Paris of New England." But knowing Atkinson, I am sure he has his reporter's gimlet eye out looking for trouble.

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