Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Fat Businessmen

Kerouac, throughout his journey, is infatuated with the West and what it represents. The mountain ranges and desolate prairies call to his soul. But for all the times he is excited with the West, there are times on his trip where his expectations are not realized. One such example comes when he and Montana Slim visit Cheyenne for the first time. He writes of the town, “Big crowds of business men, fat businessmen in boots and ten-gallon hats, with their hefty wives in cowgirl attire … Blank guns went off … I was amazed, and at the same time I felt it was ridiculous: in my first shot at the West I was seeing to what absurd devices it had fallen to keep its proud tradition” (33).

This, Paradise muses, is an absurd sight. The charade lacks any real meaning or to use onomatopoeia, any ‘oomph.’ Just as the ‘blank guns’ are weak and pointless, so too is the performance itself. It is fake, pure and simple; a pathetic attempt to hold on to a past that the participants never really had. They have idealized the historical past into something romantic. Sal, for all his travel, might have had a more authentic ‘Wild West’ experience if he had stayed in New York.

But Paradise does not fail in his search for the authentic West. Kerouac writes, “Here came this Nebraska farmer with a bunch of other boys into the diner … I said to myself, Wham, listen to that man laugh. That’s the West, here I am in the West” (21). The contrast between the farmer and his friends and the ugly veneer of the Western reenactment is stunning. The essence of the West, and perhaps ultimately of America, is not in staged performances, but everyday people and the struggles and joys of their lives.

This is also represented in the character of Montana Slim. By outsiders, he might be called, at best a vagabond, at worst a degenerate. His unkempt appearance and penchant for booze are unsettling, to say the least. But Paradise does not view him as such. Rather, Montana Slim is a true American, a man who has rode the rails for as long as he can remember, truly experiencing the Wild West. He is the real cowboy, a concept that would be entirely foreign to the “fat businessmen” who can only play at being cowboys.

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