Without a shadow of a doubt, Big Sur is the best book by Jack Kerouac I have ever read. It was the first of his many autobiographical novels entirely written (and about) his life after the publication of On The Road, which was released after many revisions in 1957. In the years to follow, most of his earlier, once rejected, books were published too. Ten books in 1958, ’59 and ’60 combined. Kerouac was famous. Kerouac was in demand. Kerouac didn’t have to worry about money, didn’t have to worry about getting published, didn’t even really have to edit his books any more, his name was so sellable… Kerouac was finally the novelist he had always dreamed of being. But he didn’t fucking like it.
In the Summer of 1960, Jack was fed up of the stream of beatniks turning up at his house expecting the man, the young man, fresh from On The Road to open the door:
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
For Kerouac had worked on his book for seven or eight years, and some of the events recounted in it had happened much longer ago than that. He was no longer young, he was constantly being reminded of that, he was irritated by the media circus his life had become, so he borrowed Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s rural cabin in Big Sur, California, and headed off for a few weeks of solitude. After one last bender in San Francisco, of course
But three weeks is enough to break Jack. Messed up by the death he sees in the natural world, the sobriety he can’t really handle, the sublime landscapes, the relentless noise of the Pacific… He considers himself mad, runs back to the city and drags people and girls and pot and port back to the former location of bucolic sanctity.
In this book Kerouac realises that his alcoholism is beyond his control. He realises that even sainted Neal Cassidy (Dean Moriarty, Cody Pomeray) no longer has the same hunger for “experience” that he does. He is ageing, he is successful, he is meant to be maturing. And though he has managed to (deliberately, not by accident) cut down on his drug use, he is unable to go very long at all without a drink.
Kerouac is broken. He slips into madness, slips into despair, paranoia, fear. Nightsweats, night terrors, visions, a loss of the spirituality he finds key to happiness. The demands and the consequences of fame have allowed him to see himself from the outside, and though he does not like what he sees he is unable to change himself. He treats more women like shit, and he knows he is doing it*, but has lost the will to justify it to himself. He is not young, he is still not happy. Repute and success have made his problems more apparent to himself. And attempting to withdraw from society drove him mad through cravings for behaviour he no longer wants to want to do.
This is a tragic and a frequently moving novel. Autobiographical novel, whatever. One reads Jack’s life fall apart on the page, fall apart at the point where it should be coming together. He is flawed, he is a poet, he is lost, he is damned. He will drink himself to death by the end of the decade.
Beautiful, haunting prose. Imagery to die for. Self-exploration, self-denial and self-hatred on a humongous scale. If you like Kerouac because he searches for a joy he never finds (and don’t think On The Road is great, yeah, coz they like smoke loadsa weed and bone sum babez), then I highly recommend Big Sur. I really recommend it a lot.
* I would really like to point out that I do not like Jack Kerouac. I enjoy the poetry and the tragedy of his prose, but I think he was a despicable person, particularly as regards his attitude to women.