Tag Archives: Jack Kerouac

With Prodigal Son, Shanley is Our James Joyce

There comes a moment in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when Stephen Dedalus, the author’s alter ego states, “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” The novel chronicles how a young man creates himself both as an individual and as an artist. As he authors himself, he walks through the fires large — nationalism, religion — and small — the struggles of adolescence, a dysfunctional family. Last  month when I saw Prodigal Son, I came to the conclusion as the lights came up for the curtain call that, at last in John Patrick Shanley, we had our American Joyce.

Much can and has been said about Prodigal Son, but I want to here focus on that Joyce connection. Shanley, as with Joyce, has brought his adolescent self to life through words — through poetry and prose, through philosophy and theology — to be reconsidered, reexamined, to undergo catharsis as much for the audience as no doubt himself. His avatar, Jim, is truly a remarkable creation. And I should add that in Timothée Chalamet (famous for Homeland and Interstellar) Shanley has found the ideal collaborator. Actor and author do not shy away from Jim’s darkness — he says and does the stupid things teenagers often do as they wrestle with the twin tensions of childhood and adulthood — his brilliant narcissism, or his self-destructive impulses. He is not likable the way teenagers on television sit-coms are often likable. But he is engaging and endearing. His darkness is understandable, his pain a source of empathy, his yearning to connect with an world of ideas that he cannot yet quite touch remarkable. The play is no better than when Shanley lets Chalamet tear into a monologue, trip the light fantastic in a way that has the raw magic of stream-of-consciousness to find truths (human truths, perhaps, if not universal truths) in the most Joycean, or given the play’s setting in the 1960’s, Kerouacian way. The actor opens up to show us both the wonder and pain within.


Stanley is at his most powerful when his flawed characters wrestle with faith and doubt (in reference to his perhaps most famous work). What intrigues here for Jim is the same that intrigues for Stephen: the temptation for sin he finds within and not from without. He recognizes the darkness in himself — the darkness that dwells within all of us — but he is intelligent enough (brave enough? foolish enough?) to address it and not ignore it as most do. What will win inside him? Will what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” eventually hold sway? Jim does not know. He wants to find the answer, though perhaps it too scares him.

Louise, the headmaster’s wife, tells him, “I think James Quinn is a fine outline, and it’s up to you to fill it in.” Shanley, I think bravely, undertakes the return to his tumultuous past (for the nation, for himself) to try and unlock the puzzle of his earlier life. Kudos to him for not giving us pat answers — for still not truly knowing what the answers are yet, though he surely has a better grasp of the questions.

Shanley, for me, became the American Joyce the day he decided to put Prodigal Son on stage. Here is the kicker. I do not believe he set out to do that. If he had, his work would have been derivative, pretentious, blah. He just sat out to write the most searingly honest play he could. In so doing, he stumbled onto something unintended and rare: a work uniquely specific and uniquely universal. Joyce writes of Stephen, “He did not want to play. He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld. He did not know where to seek it or how, but a premonition which led him on told him that this image would, without any overt act of his, encounter him.” Shapely could write the same of Jim.

“I hope it is true that a man can die and yet not only live in others but give them life, and not only life but that great consciousness of life.”

“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.”

Week 4 Reflections on Teaching

It’s been a pretty interesting week of teaching all and all. On Monday I was still feeling the effects of the norovirus so there was some definite ups and downs. And, of course, now that the semester has set in and its has been really quite cold outside, the students were on the quiet side.

But there was some highlights as well. In my Monday night elective, we worked on the first half of On the Road and “Howl”. Students at my college really take to Kerouac and Hemingway (from the week before). I showed them the connection between the two writers, particularly made manifest by their common utilization of Ecclesiastes; for Hemingway, it is in the epigraph and for Kerouac it is in the text. Always a thrilling moment. I think what most draws them to On the Road, though, is that while it admires Dean M/Neal C, it is not written in the spirit of Dean/Neal. There is a great deal of sexual energy, freedom, and desire present. But ultimately the tone is more in keeping with Sal/Jack. The need to talk, the need to connect, before the sexual act. The search for something called God as something to salve the soul.

We didn’t get to spend as much time on “Howl” as I would have liked. But one student was really turned on to Ginsberg and plans to write his research paper about him. Those moments are what make teaching so rewarding.

Meanwhile in my freshman experience class, I tried to mess with the freshmen’s heads by suggesting that literature is actually a form of technology. It is a somewhat daft notion (though not completely daft). If nothing else, it is an interesting thought experiment that gets them to try and discover what literature really is and does. That it is not useless.