Monday, August 20, 2012

Big Sur - Jack Kerouac

We all go a little mad sometimes.

That line is from Psycho, but Kerouac might as well have written it.

Kerouac gets a bad rap, I think.  Most people go no further than On the Road, or The Dharma Bums if you are really lucky.  Almost no one can talk about Desolation Angels, The Subterraneans, or Big Sur (not to mention And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks..).

In terms of ranking, I would put Big Sur just beneath Desolation Angels (slightly) as my favorite.  Desolation Angels is much longer, a real "adventure" novel.  Big Sur is a pretty compact little book, but does not appear as well-edited as The Dharma Bums.

The plot can be described as follows: Jack Duluoz stays at Lawrence Monsanto's cabin alone in Big Sur and does not drink, decides he's bored, goes back to San Francisco to get people to go with him to Big Sur to drink, gets sick and tired of everyone and thinks about not drinking, goes back to San Francisco and drinks and decides he likes everyone again, then goes back to Big Sur with them and drinks and has a total breakdown.

That may sound facile, but Big Sur is quite excellent.

Much of this book is devoted to describing the psychological conditions giving way to addiction and insanity.   And it is on these topics that Kerouac shines:

"I can hear myself again whining 'Why does God torture me?'--But anybody who's never had delirium tremens even in their early stages may not understand that it's not so much a physical pain but a mental anguish indescribable to those ignorant people who dont drink and accuse drinkers of irresponsibility--The mental anguish is so intense that you feel you have betrayed your very birth, the efforts nay the birth pangs of your mother when she bore you and delivered you to the world, you've betrayed every effort your father ever made to feed you and raise you and make you strong and my God even educate you for 'life,' you feel a guilt so deep you identify yourself with the devil and God seems far away abandoning you to your sick silliness--You feel sick in the greatest sense of the word, breathing without believing in it, sicksicksick, your soul groans, you look at your helpless hands as tho they were on fire and you cant move to help, you look at the world with dead eyes, there's on your face an expression of incalculable repining like a constipated angel on a cloud--In fact it's actually a cancerous look you throw on the world, through browngray wool fuds over your eyes--Your tongue is white and disgusting, your teeth are stained, your hair seems to have dried out overnight, there are huge mucks in the corners of your eyes, greases on your nose, froth at the sides of your mouth: in short that very disgusting and wellknown hideousness everybody knows who's walked past a city street drunk in the Boweries of the world---"(95-96)

And, as in Desolation Angels, there is some of the world-weariness that Kerouac felt upon being crowned "the King of the Beats":

"Because after all the poor kid actually believes that there's something noble and idealistic and kind about all this beat stuff, and I'm supposed to be the King of the Beatniks according to the newspapers, so but at the same time I'm sick and tired of all the endless enthusiasms of new young kids trying to know me and pour out all their lives into me so that I'll jump up and down and say yes yes that's right, which I can't do anymore--"(94)

Kerouac was about 38 or 39 during the events taking place in this book and he would be dead seven years after its publication.  His portrayals of himself as an "old man" therefore, may be somewhat accurate for the truly wild of the partiers amongst us.  Kerouac and F. Scott Fitzgerald (and to a lesser extent Hemingway) therefore represent the "second tier" of the so-called 27 Club.  While Fitzgerald is in the 44 Club and Kerouac is in the 47 Club, neither was apparently addicted to seriously hard drugs (I will leave Burroughs--84 Club--out of this...) but could not overcome their passion for drink.  While they went on to contribute several masterpieces to the American literary canon, they did so at their own expense, or perhaps out of the fear that they would not write anything better than their first books.

Kerouac and Fitzgerald also share the quality of writing "thinly-veiled autobiographies," though Fitzgerald did much more to add veils.  Kerouac admits that his entire oeuvre is one story--the story of his life--and an attempt to imitate Marcel Proust.  This is not the time for a discussion on the merits of burning the candle at both ends, or whatever phrase you like, but it is an interesting side-note.

Perhaps notable if one wants a very-detailed understanding of Kerouac's oeuvre/life is the character of Cody (previously known as Dean Moriarty in On the Road and Neal Cassady in real life) who strongly influences most of the action in this novel--or at least of its second half.  Cody is married to Evelyn, and Jack loves her.  They both believe they will be married in another life.  However, Cody also has a mistress named Billie.  He sets her up with Jack, and she eventually drives him insane at the end of the novel.  But there is this interesting story about marijuana prosecution when Cody makes his first appearance:

"Cody shakes my hand again--Havent seen him for several years because mainly he's just spent two years in San Quentin on a stupid charge of possession of marijuana--He was on his way to work on the railroad one night and was short on time and his driving license had already been revoked for speeding so he saw two bearded bluejeaned beatniks parked, asked them to trade a quick ride to work at the railroad station for two sticks of tea, they complied and arrested him--They were disguised policemen--For this great crime he spent two years in San Quentin in the same cell with a murderous gunman--His job was sweeping out the cotton mill room--I expect him to be all bitter and out of his head because of this but strangely and magnificently he's become quieter, more radiant, more patient, manly, more friendly even--" (55-56)

A key difference in this book is that now, Kerouac is rich.  Or at least semi-rich.  He has begun to receive proceeds from On the Road and characterizes himself as a celebrity disenchanted with what readers have interpreted him to be--a 26 or 27-year-old hitchhiking artist, in search of the next great adventure.  He is hardly this, and near the opening of the novel, he hitchhikes for what he says was the last time in his life.

But he lends $100 to Cody and this is enough for Cody to completely change his life around.  He reappears in what may be the most "exuberant" scene in the novel--at Monsanto's cabin in Big Sur:

"Suddenly, boom, the door of the cabin is flung open with a loud crash and a burst of sunlight illuminates the room and I see an Angel standing arm outstretched in the door!--It's Cody!  all dressed in his Sunday best in a suit!  beside him are ranged several graduating golden angels from Evelyn gold beautiful wife down to the most dazzling angel of them all little Timmy with the sun striking off his hair in beams!....."Happy birthday Jack!" yells Cody or some such ordinary crazy inane greeting "I've come to you with good news!  I've brought Evelyn and Emily and Gaby and Timmy because we're all so grateful and glad because everything has worked out absolutely dead perfect, or living perfect, boy, with that little old hunnerd dollars you gave me let me tell  you the fantastic story of what happened" (to him it was utterly fantastic)..." (106-107)

And then he gives him pot:

"You guessed it old buddy I have here the LAST, the absolutely LAST yet most perfect of all black-haired seeded packed tight superbomber joints in the world which you and I are now going to light up, 's'why I didnt want you to bring any of that wine right away, why boy we got time to drink wine and wine and dance" and here he is lighting up, says "Now dont walk too fast, it's time to stroll along like we used to do remember sometimes on our daysoff on the railroad, or walking across that Third and Townsend tar like you said and the time we watched the sun go down so perfect holy purple over that Mission cross--Yessir, slow and easy, looking at this gone valley" so we start to puff the pot but as usual it creates doubtful paranoias in both our minds and we actually sort of fall silent on the way to the car which is a beautiful grape color at that, a brand new shiney Jeepster with all the equipments...." (108-109)

From there, Jack is later introduced to Billie, and her son Elliott, which sets up the denouement of the novel.  He also meets Billie's friend Perry, who takes the "beat" attitude to its logical extreme, and causes Jack a moment of pause.  As a side note, there are also several meetings with generals in the U.S. Army which cause Jack some weird paranoia, but moving on:

"Strange--and Perry Yturbide that first day while Billie's at work and we've just called his mother now wants me to come with him to visit a general of the U.S. Army--"Why? and what's all these generals looking out of silent windows?" I say--but nothing surprises Perry--"We'll go there because I want you to dig the most beautiful girls we ever saw," in fact we take a cab--But the "beautiful girls" turn out to be 8 and 9 and 10 years old, daughters of the general or maybe even cousins or daughters of a nextdoor strange general, but the mother is there, there are also boys playing in a backroom, we have Elliott with us who Perry has carried on his shoulders all the way--I look at Perry and he says "I wanted you to see the most beautiful cans in town" and I realize he's dangerously insane--In fact he then says "See this perfect beauty?" a ponytailed 10 year old daughter of the general (who aint home yet) "I'm going to kidnap her right now" and he takes her by the hand and they go out on the street for an hour while I sit there over drinks talking to the mother--There's some vast conspiracy to make me go mad anyway--" (133)

This takes place in San Francisco, but later they will go to Big Sur, and Jack will experience his breakdown.

It is perhaps worth noting at this point my personal connection to this story.  While I am no stranger to incredible statements that may in fact be erroneous, perhaps the most incredible statement I have made of late is that I am, in fact, Kerouac's reincarnation.  Now I understand that all people are tied by a common humanity, and certainly some religious upbringings may cause others to experience certain sensations more closely than others--but Kerouac's description of madness in Big Sur is personally significant to me for two reasons: #1: In July 2012, I went to Big Sur and experienced a similar breakdown of sorts.  #2: In March of 2003 I experienced the physical, mental, and psychological sensations that Kerouac reports in this book (which I wrote about in my first significant written work "Autointoxication").  Kerouac would often say in bars, "I'm the greatest writer of the 20th century."  That may be up for debate, but it is not so far from the truth.  For me to say "I'm the greatest writer of the 21st century" certainly comes off as false, since I have not been published--but keep in mind that On the Road was published in 1958, when Kerouac was 35, and keep in mind that we share the same aesthetic sensibilities (to what degree he has influenced me I cannot be sure but I must say that before I ever read him --On the Road when I was 18--I did not have such a different artistic vision as I have today, which is not far from Kerouac's, or Proust's.

With that out of the way:

"I realize I may never come out of this and my mother is waiting for me at home praying for me because she must know what's happening tonight, I cry out to her to pray and help me--I remember my cat for the first time in three hours and let out a yell that scared Billie--"All right Jack?"--"Give me a little time"--But now she's started to sleep, poor girl is exhausted, I realize she's going to abandon me to my fate anyway and I cant help thinking she and Dave and Romana are all secretly awake waiting for me to die--"For what reason?" I'm thinking "this secret poisoning society, I know, it's because I'm a Catholic, it's a big anti-Catholic scheme, it's Communists destroying everybody, systematic individuals are poisoned till finally they'll have everybody, this madness changes you completely and in the morning you no longer have the same mind--the drug is invented by Airapatianz, it's the brainwash drug, I always thought that Romana was a Communist being a Rumanian, and as for Billie that gang of hers is strange, and Cody dont care, and Dave's all evil just like I always figured maybe" but soon my thoughts arent even as "rational" as that any more but become hours of raving--There are forces whispering in my ear in rapid long speeches advising and warning, suddenly other voices are shouting, the trouble is all the voices are longwinded and talking very fast like Cody at his fastest and like the creek so that I have to keep up with the meaning tho I wanta bat it out of my ears--I keep waving at my ears--I'm afraid to close my eyes for all the turmoiled universes I see tilting and expanding suddenly exploding suddenly clawing in to my center, faces, yelling mouths, long haired yellers, sudden evil confidences, sudden rat-tat-tats of cerebral committees arguing about "Jack" and talking about him as if he wasnt there--Aimless moments when I'm waiting for more voices and suddenly the wind explodes huge groans in the million treetop leaves that sounds like the moon gone mad--And the moon rising higher, brighter, shining down in my eyes like a streetlamp--The huddled shadowy sleeping figures over there so coy--So human and safe, I'm crying "I'm not human any more and I'll never be safe any more, Oh what I wouldnt give to be home on a Sunday afternoon yawning because I'm bored, Oh for that again, it'll never come back again--Ma was right, it was all bound to drive me mad, now it's done--What'll I say to her?--She'll be terrified and go mad herself--Oh ti Tykey, aide mue--me who's just eaten fish have no right to ask for brother Tyke again--"--An argot of sudden screamed reports rattles through my head in a language I never heard but understand immediately--For a moment I see blue Heaven and the Virgin's white veil but suddenly a great evil blur like an ink spot spreads over it, "The devil!--the devil's come after me tonight! tonight is the night!  that's what!"--But angels are laughing and having a big barn dance in the rocks of the sea, nobody cares any more--Suddenly as clear as anything I ever saw in my life, I see the Cross."  (177-178)

This passage represents the closest I have seen Kerouac come to describing a delusional episode with perfect accuracy.  Indeed I am hard-pressed to think of any other writer who has summed up those horrifying moments when one is alone in their mind and confused and cannot summon a rational thought but is instead reduced to broad, dualistic sensations of good and evil, heaven and hell, God and the Devil, blue and red, or white and black.

While this review is pretty much complete, a passage or two on gayness is always appropriate, particularly since my visit to Big Sur hinged upon whether I would hike to the hot springs or not (the same ones I cannot be sure):

"The boys reassure me the hot springs bath will do me good (they see I'm gloomy now hungover for good) but when we arrive my heart sinks again as McLear points out to sea from the balcony of the outdoor pools: "Look out there floating in the sea weeds, a dead otter!"--And sure enough it is a dead otter I guess, a big brown pale lump floating up and down mournfully with the swells and ghastly weeds, my otter, my dear otter I'd written poems about--"Why did he die?" I ask myself in despair--"Why do they do that?"--"What's the sense of all this?"--...--The hot water pools are steaming, Fagan and Monsanto and the others are all sitting peacefully up to their necks, they're all naked, but there's a gang of fairies also there naked all standing around various bath house postures that make me hesitate to take my clothes off just on general principles--In fact Cody doesnt even bother to do anything but lie down with this clothes on in the sun, on the balcony table, and just smoke--But I borrow McLear's yellow bathing suit and get in--"What ya wearing a bathingsuit in a hot springs pool for boy?" says Fagan chuckling--With horror I realize there's spermatazoa floating in the hot water--I look and I see the other men (the fairies) all taking good long looks at Ron Baker who stands there facing the sea with his arse for all to behold, not to mention McLear and Dave Wain too--But it's very typical of me and Cody that we won't undress in this situation (we were both raised Catholics?)--Supposedly the big sex heroes of our generation, in fact--You might think--But the combination of the strange silent watching fairy-men, and the dead otter out there, and the spermatazoa in the pools makes me sick....." (91-92).

Shortly after that is a mention of Nepenthe, which is where I rushed to catch a bus off of Big Sur to Monterey, and another mention of generals because there was something "sinister" about the fact that he had never met any general in his life and now he had met two of them (the third would be in a passage quoted above).  Henry Miller is also mentioned two or three times in the novel, apparently lurking somewhere around Big Sur, but unfortunately he does not make an appearance.  I went to Big Sur and attended a wedding at the Henry Miller Memorial Library and Museum, so that would have been the icing on the cake for me.

Later everyone leaves and he has a dream:

"Then I turn my rumbling attention to a couple of unknown Fin du Siecle poets called Theo Marzials and Henry Harland--I take a nap after supper and dream of the U.S. Navy, a ship anchored near a war scene, at an island, but everything is drowsy as two sailors go up the trail with fishing-poles and a dog between them to go make love quietly in the hills: the captain and everybody know they're queer and rather than being infuriated however they're all drowsily enchanted by such gentle love: you see a sailor peeking after them with binoculars from the poop: there's supposed to be a war but nothing happens, just laundry...." (102)

Perhaps you can tell from these passages that Kerouac paid scant attention to punctuation--there are probably more em-dashes in the novel than periods, and apostrophes in certain contractions are omitted.  This just shows Kerouac's increasing comfort in his own prose-style, and I do not think the style ever hinders the readability of the text.  In fact I think it makes it more readable, and perhaps this is why I like it better than On the Road.

But to be fair, I have not read On the Road in many years now (6 maybe?) and perhaps it is time for another reading and a new perspective on it.

This marks the end of Flying Houses book reviews for a while now--while I may attempt to review Americana by Don DeLillo, classes have started again today, and sadly (and for the last year) Flying Houses will experience significant hiatuses, and only include Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress columns, or other writings not deemed publishable by those outlets to which I submit.

Bottom line: Read Kerouac.  And don't just stop at On the Road--even if you don't like it all that much.

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