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Jack Kerouac's Big Sur

"I am a language spinner..."

Kerouac in Big Sur

Towering cliffs, fog-banked canyon, roaring surf and the little cabin near the meadow and creek: Jack Kerouac went to Big Sur to escape his clamorous fans and the resulting circus of his life in Long Island. He went for peace and to write a poem about the sea sounds, a kind of Beat Jazz Serenade of Nature. Briefly, among premonitions of madness, he found a gentle peace.

Although Jack loves people and long talks, his new fame is incredibly stressful. As much as he enjoys rollicking orgies of booze and conversation, it seems to pull him down into mornings-after of despair.

"...Drunken visitors puking in my study, stealing books and even pencils ...Me drunk practically all the time to put on a jovial cap to keep up with all this but finally realizing I was surrounded and out numbered and had to get away to solitude again or die"

I wake up drunk, sick, disgusted, frightened, in fact terrified by that sad song across the roofs mingling with the lachrymose cries of a Salvation Army meeting on the corner below "Satan is the cause of your alcoholism, Satan is the cause of your immorality, Satan is everywhere workin to destroy you unless you repent now" and worse than that the sound of old drunks throwing up in rooms next to mine, the creak of hall steps, the moans everywhere --Including the moan that had awakened me, my own moan in the lumpy bed, a moan caused by a big roaring Whoo Whoo in my head that had shot me out of my pillow like a ghost."

Alone in the Big Sur cabin, he is able to shake off his demons here and there. But always, bittersweet and dangerous, there are people hunting him down, firing him up, but also exhausting him.

Big Sur also has a tender image of Dean Moriarty (called Cody in this story) in case you wondered about him some years on from On the Road. Cody seems relatively softened and clarified following two years in San Quentin prison (for marijuana possession) and a return to wife and children:

" the same cell with a murderous gunman...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 --and tho the wild frenzies of his old road days with me have banked down he still has the same taut eager face and supple muscles and looks like he's ready to go anytime --But actually loves his home, loves his wife in a way tho they fight some, loves his kids ...wants immediately to challenge somebody to a chess game but only has an hour to talk to us before he goes to work supporting the family by rushing out and pushing his Nash Rambler down the quiet Los Gatos suburb street, jumping in, starting the motor, in fact his only complaint is that the Nash wont start without a push --No bitter complaints about society whatever from this grand and ideal man who really loves me moreover as if I deserved it..."

Interestingly, even the madman Cody dislikes Jack's drinking to drunkardness, evidenced in Jack's mention of "...Cody who ponders a chess problem and says 'Drinkin again, hey?' (if there's anything he hates is to see me drink)." Although this doesn't stop a grateful Cody from bringing wine and partying to Jack's little cabin getaway.

Age and fame have brought changes to both:

"I can see in Cody's eyes that he can see in my own eyes the regret we both feel that recently we havent had chances to talk whatever, like we used to do driving across America and back in the old road days, too many people now want to talk to us and tell us their stories, we've been hemmed in and surrounded and outnumbered --The circle's closed in on the old heroes of the night..."

Jack and friends drop in on Cody working at his job that night, in a garage capping tires:

"There he is wearing goggles working like Vulcan at his forge, throwing tires all over the place with fantastic strength, the good ones high up on a pile, 'This one's no good' down on another, bing, bang, talking all the time a long fantastic lecture on tire recapping which has Dave Wain marvel with amazement --('My God he can do all that and even explain while he's doing it') --but I just mention in connection with the fact that Dave Wain now realizes why I've always loved Cody --expecting to see a bitter ex con he sees instead a martyr of the American Night in goggles in some dreary tire shop at 2 AM making fellows laugh with joy with his funny explanations yet at the same time to a T performing every bit of the work he's being paid for --Rushing up and ripping tires off car wheels with a jicklo, clang, throwing it on the machine, starting up big roaring steams but yelling explanations over that, darting, bending, flinging, flaying, till Dave Wain said he thought he was going to die laughing or crying right there on the spot."

There are more fabulous rides with Dave, with "The greatest driver in the world whoever he was and I never saw him again --Bruce something or other" (who drove Jack at over a 100 miles an hour through 3 AM San Francisco streets and hills) , and of course with Cody:

" feel safer with Dave Wain tho the reason Cody gives you a sense of dooming boom as he pushes the night out the wheels is not because he'll lose perfect control of the car but you feel the car will take off suddenly up to Heaven or at least just up into what the Russians call the Dark Cosmos, there's a booming rushing sound out the window when Cody bats her down the white line at night, with Dave Wain it's all conversation and smooth sailing, with Cody it's a crisis about to get worse"

When a group of the guys get together at Monsanto's Big Sur cabin, having a go at chopping up a log, Jack says:

"I realized you can always study the character of a man by the way he chops wood-- Monsanto an old lumberman up in Maine as I say now showed us how he conducted his whole life in fact by the way he took neat little short handled chops from both left and right angles getting his work done in reasonably short time without too much sweat --but his strokes were rapid --Whereas old Fagan pipe-in-mouth slogged away I guess the way he learned in Oregon and in the Northwest fire schools, also getting his job done silently, not a word --But Cody's fantastic fiery character showed in the way he went at the log with horrible force, when he brought down the axe with all his might ...He chopped off his log with the fury of a Greek god --Nevertheless it took him longer and much more sweat than Monsanto --'Used to do this in a workgang in southern Arizony' he said, whopping one down that made the whole tree trunk dance off the ground --But it was like an example of vast but senseless strength, a picture of poor Cody's life and in a sense my own--I too chopped with all my might and got madder and went faster and raked the log but took more time than Monsanto who watched us smiling..."

The eager young man who wanted to tap Jack's knowledge of writing a decade and more before, still has what Jack considers:

"Mighty genius of the mind Cody whom I announce as the greatest writer the world will ever know if he ever gets down to writing again like he did earlier" [--the only recent writing being letters from prison, Cody figuring that any actual writing he created there would be confiscated by prison officials when he left, commenting --himself-- about writing:] "...and the trouble of course and as I say and you've heard a million times is the mind flows the mind rises and nobody can by any possible c---oh hell, I dont wanta talk about it"

to which Jack reponds:

"--Besides I can see from glancing at him that becoming a writer holds no interest for him because life is so holy for him there's no need to do anything but live it, writing's just an afterthought or a scratch anyway at the surface --But if he could!"

This book deals with intense honesty with Jack's experience of alcoholism, his sensitivity and love of all sentient being, and his pain and despair and inability to get past an angry futility when contemplating suffering or death of any kind, his drunken binges, the degradation and pain of the process, and a detailed explication of delirium tremens. Most interesting of all, though, is the way that Jack's symptoms can sometimes clear up miraculously when he is able to re-gain solitude and quiet. A little more of that might have given a happier path to Jack's life.

There are some gentle depictions of friendship: patient and unperturbed Ben sitting with an exhausted Jack in a park --giving him the sense of safety needed to finally sleep, Dave and his gentle small talk during Jack's rollercoastering paranoia at the cabin, Monsanto's ever-ready offer of the cabin. One of the most piquant is Jack and Dave's visit to their friend George, now in a Tuberculosis hospital. The visit is lifeless and awkward, but at parting, Jack playfully creates a sweet goodbye that lures his friend from his apathy:

"...Finally I start to make a joke of it by ducking around a corner and peeking out and waving again --He ducks behind a bush and waves back --I dart to a bush and peek out --Suddenly we're two crazy hopeless sages goofing on a lawn..."

The goodbyes go on in silly and tender detail for a good page and a half. I really enjoyed that part, it's a very likeable side to Jack.

In a rare description of a woman that acknowledges some value in addition to her body, Jack acknowledges Dave's girlfriend Romana as:

"She's a big beautiful brunette anyway in the line of taste you might attribute to every slaky hungry sex slave in the world but also intelligent, well read, writes poetry, is a Zen student, knows everything, is in fact just simply a big healthy Rumanian Jewess who wants to marry a good hardy man and go live on a farm in the valley,"

Well ...for Kerouac, that's as big an intellectual tribute as a woman is ever likely to get. In this book, too, he emphasizes his respect and love for Evelyn (Cody's wife), her intelligence and just talking to her, as well as making love to her.

Through Cody, Jack begins an affair with Cody's current mistress. Once again, I am disturbed by Jack's superficial concept of love and women: he loves Billie's physical appearance (just like a young male friend of Jack's) and he loves the sound of her voice, but he finds almost everything she says of the utmost disinterest and boredom. However, he does speak more eloquently of lovemaking here then anywhere I've read of him elsewhere, saying:

"Lying mouth to mouth, kiss to kiss in the pillow dark, loin to loin in unbelievable surrendering sweetness so distant from all our mental fearful abstractions it makes you wonder why men have termed God antisexual somehow--the secret underground truth of mad desire..."

Taking, as usual, the path of least resistence, Jack becomes deeply involved --even promising marriage-- and begins to fear the consequences of Billie's needs and dependence. In a desperate grasp for sanity, Jack takes her and her young son, along with his friend Dave and girlfriend, to the Big Sur cabin --just in time for Jack's delirious crisis.

"...this poor haunted canyon which again gives me the willies as we walk under the bridge and come to those heartless breakers busting in on sand higher than earth and looking like the heartlessness of wisdom --Besides I suddenly notice as if for the first time the awful way the leaves of the canyon that have managed to be blown to the surf are all hesitantly advancing in gusts of wind then finally plunging into the surf, to be dispersed and belted and melted and taken off to sea --I turn around and notice how the wind is just harrying them off trees and into the sea, just hurrying them as it were to death --In my condition they look human trembling to that brink --Hastening, hastening ---In that awful huge roar blast of autumn Sur wind."

I would not recommend Kerouac, in general, to anyone with a predisposition to melancholy. That certainly goes for this, often lovely, story. For myself, Jack's descriptions, of feelings and places, are evocative and haunting. In some ways, I found this one of his most simply readable stories.

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