BOOK REVIEW: Big Sur, Jack Kerouac

The name Jack Kerouac brings a perplexed look of recognition on most faces. Though most people don’t know who he is or what he did, they have at least heard the name. Those who have looked into that name will probably associate it with that book ‘On the Road.’ Because for most, Kerouac is On the Road. Many try and read it in youth: become confusingly entangled in its rapid delivery, dense vocabulary and the vast cast of characters that casually just come and go. And there ends their venture into Jack Kerouac. But for me - though I sincerely love that book – Kerouac’s true spirit lies elsewhere: namely in his 1962 novel, Big Sur.

Big Sur in my opinion is Kerouac’s greatest work. Where his policy of pure honesty is at the forefront, where he pours his tortured mind out in waves of magical sentences, where his style of writing reaches full maturity. It is for certain, the best use of the method Kerouac christened spontaneous prose: swiftly written, unaltered and intensely poetic.

The book was written at a low point in Kerouac’s life, during immense personal struggle: the death of his cat, delirium tremens, guilt due to his inaction around Neal Cassady’s imprisonment, an inability to deal with fame and a huge misinterpretation of his message and books.

Told through the main character, Kerouac’s alter ego: Jack Duluoz, the book starts with the fall out of a heavy drinking session, and the subsequent journey to a cabin in Big Sur. He describes the changes that have took place since he’d become famous: “All over America highschool and college kids thinking 'Jack Duluoz is 26 years old and on the road all the time hitch hiking' while there I am almost 40 years old, bored and jaded.” Then comes his sojourn into the wilderness, his experiences there: solitude, meditation, nature, drinking water from the creek, tending to the wild mice, staying off booze, chopping wood, criticising Herman Hesse (quite unjustly), reading and drinking coffee and rolling cigarettes.

When he finally has enough of the wild, he enters the San Francisco beatnik scene as a hero; ends up heavily drinking and meets his old friends: Dave Wain (Lew Welch), Cody Pomeray (Neal Cassady) and Ben Fagan (Philip Whalen). Together they all embark on multiple journeys to the Big Sur Cabin. Duluoz starts living with Cody’s mistress, Billie and experiences severe case of alcohol withdrawal. The book ends with long, speedy sentences detailing his feelings of suspicion, paranoia and mental anguish before ending in what could only be described as an alcohol induced psychotic episode which brings about a (kind of mystical) vision of Christ.

The prose is simply breath taking. It conveys perfectly the thoughts and feelings of a nearing-middle-age alcoholic artist: his self-hatred and paranoia are right on the surface of the writing and through it he displays feelings of immense emptiness and sorrow. This particular talent is seen in the way in he describes his severe alcohol withdrawal: some of the most tormented writing ever written.

What comes through most of all is Kerouac’s honesty. For me the greatest writers are those that write with a self-deprecating honesty and Kerouac does exactly that. Carolyn Cassady, who is characterised as Evelyn (Cody's wife) once said it was some of “Jack’s most honest writing.”

In 2013 a film version was made, and it well worth watching. Starring Jean-Marc Barr, Josh Lucas, Radha Mitchell and Kate Bosworth, it is definitely one of the better Beat films - most of which are pretentious and drab. Jean-Marc Barr's performance is stand out: he looks pretty much like Kerouac, expresses correct dose of moroseness and hopelessness, and does such a good job that after having watched the film, I can hear him say the words as I reread the book.

It is important to note that the book starts with a preface by Kerouac, explaining his wish of combining all his books into one vast saga and re-insert the original names of the characters. Unfortunately, Kerouac passed away in 1969 due to alcoholism, and this wish of his was never fulfilled. Though, as with all Kerouac books, a character list can be found here that corresponds directly to the real people. - https://www.beatdom.com/the-beat-generation/whos-who-a-guide-to-kerouacs-characters/

Big Sur is urgent, haunted and heart wrenching. At times you even begin hating Kerouac for his mean spirited comments and manic behaviour, but you finally understand that they are the truthful expressions of the archetypical tortured artist. Gone is the manic joy of On the Road, the hopeful spirituality of Dharma Bums or the drug fuelled romancing of the Subterraneans. Here is Kerouac risen to full form - the real Jack Kerouac - laying himself out bare for all to see

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