Big Sur

Big Sur
by Jack Kerouac
   Jack Kerouac was ill equipped to deal with the strong responses that his work, especially on tHe road, evoked from both fans and critics in the late 1950s. Critical attacks that savaged both his work and his personal life, the sudden assault of celebrity status, heavy drinking, and the likelihood that he felt guilty about using his friends’ lives in his work combined to drive Kerouac to a breakdown in the summer of 1960. Big Sur, the novel he wrote about this breakdown, is a remarkable accomplishment, for in this work Kerouac traces the decay—and recovery— of his own rational mind.
   Kerouac was aware of the tremendous difference between himself and the image the public had of him after his work burst into print in 1957. In one scene in Big Sur, he recounts an afternoon when he is alone with an enthusiastic young man who obviously wants to impress the famous writer: “the poor kid actually believes there’s something noble and idealistic about all this beat stuff, and I’m supposed to be the King of the Beats 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—.” He goes on to say that notes on a book jacket (unnamed, but clearly a reference to Grove’s first paperback edition of The suBterraneans) mistakenly reported his age to be 25 when he is in fact nearing 40. More than nine difficult years had passed since Kerouac had slipped a roll of paper into his typewriter and hammered out On the Road. Big Sur works as a companion piece to this earlier novel; it develops a counterpoint to the Road story and underscores the message of disappointment with road life that readers often miss.
   Taken with The Town and the City as opposite poles of the Duluoz Legend (Kerouac’s fictional account of his life in novelistic form), Big Sur depicts the pathetic and perhaps unavoidable fate of the young man who hitchhiked out of the first novel, disillusioned with his past, into the adventures of On the Road, setting him on a course that promised joy and led to defeat.
   In Big Sur, Jack Duluoz (the Kerouac character) leaves his mother’s house for the first time since the publication of Road, which had lead to “endless telegrams, phonecalls, requests, mail, visitors, reporters, snoopers” and “drunken visitors puking in my study, stealing my books and even pencils—.” At the end of the novel he returns to his mother. At the conclusion of Big Sur, Duluoz responds to his mother’s question in earlier books: “Why can’t you stick to the religion you were born with?” Put in perspective, his mental anguish brought on by problematic drinking is another kind of adventure—certainly a dangerous one—from which he returns to the security of his mother’s house (and her religion, too) to write about the experience.
   As did Sal Paradise (the Kerouac character) in his first On the Road adventures, Duluoz heads from the east of his home to the west of adventure. This time, however, he rides a cushy passenger train that makes his hitchhiking days seem part of a distant past of hardship; yet fame, as this book will show, brings its own misfortune. Duluoz keeps his faith in westward travel. As a group of friends later heads to Big Sur, singing traditional American sing-along tunes, Duluoz recalls some of the spirit that enticed him to head west in the first place: We “lean forward to the next adventure something that’s been going on in America ever since the covered wagons clocked the deserts in three months flat—.” He plans to go to Lorry Monsanto’s (based on Lawrence Ferlinghetti) cabin near the coastal resort of Big Sur. In a gesture that symbolizes contrasts, he retrieves his rucksack with its essential survival gear from the bottle-strewn skid-row hotel room where he has crashed. He takes the bus and a cab to Big Sur, and he must walk the last several miles to the cabin through darkness. The troubling notion that “something’s wrong” constantly besets him, while the high cliffside road and the night’s impenetrable darkness scare him. Even his trusty lantern cannot breach the darkness. In the morning, he sees another scene that symbolizes the past of the Duluoz Legend: “the automobile that crashed thru the bridge rail a decade ago and fell 1000 feet straight down and landed upside down, is still there now, an upsidedown chassis of rust in a strewn skitter of sea-eaten tires. . . .”
   More than most of his books, this novel possesses a strong sense of structure and control. The task at hand presents a rhetorical dilemma for the writer, for Kerouac contends with the difficult task of describing a mental and spiritual crisis—a breakdown in his orderly thinking—in a well-structured book. Kerouac unifies the book one way by consistently undercutting the simple joys he finds in his first days at Big Sur with comments that hint at the dark future. For example, while he may enjoy the babbling playful sounds of the stream as it flows to the sea, he tells that reader that he would hear “in the later horror of that madness night . . . the babble and rave of angels in my head.”
   The romantic nostalgia that he feels for his childhood, his tight relationship with his mother, his production of confessional, romanticized novels— all these seem out of place in a modern America that sends rockets into space and builds superhighways to conduct travelers quickly and innocuously to their destinations. Unable to find comfort either at Big Sur, where the sea’s voice commanded him to find human company, or in the city, where people expect him to buy drinks and meals, he escapes by hitting the bottle. At the time of the events chronicled in Big Sur, neal cassady had been recently released from San Quentin for a marijuana-possession conviction. Although Kerouac denied complicity in Cassady’s arrest and faulted instead Cassady’s high profile in San Francisco’s North Beach bars, Kerouac may have felt some guilt for the arrest since his On the Road had made Cassady notorious. Now Cody Pomeroy (the Cassady character) in the Big Sur has also changed. Although Cody is not bitter about his time in prison—in fact, Duluoz remarks that he seems “more friendly”—the two men do not have the opportunity or perhaps even the energy to launch into the kind of conversation that they enjoyed in the past. Because of their fame, they have been “hemmed in and surrounded and outnumbered— The circle’s closed in on the old heroes of the night.” Cody also regrets Duluoz’s heavy drinking, sensing that the alcohol is another factor that creates distance between them. Duluoz outlines a matter-of-fact description of the onset of delirium tremens, and in the sections that follow, the reader can trace Duluoz’s passage through each stage. After a series of drunken parties in the city, Duluoz returns to the Big Sur cabin, but this time he brings a gang, only to find that the noise and clamor of the group “desecrate” the purity of the wilderness. The late-night gab fests find a sarcastic natural parallel as Duluoz observes that a “sinister wind” blows that seems too big for the small canyon. Images of death abound, from a series of nightmares to a floating dead sea otter and the mouse that died after Duluoz left out a can of rodent poison. Kerouac infuses every description of events or scenes with a powerful undercurrent of turmoil and threatening portent.
   Events make increasingly less sense to Duluoz, and he begins to suspect the motives of everyone around him. After a lengthy buildup, Kerouac concludes the section with a chilling line: “And this is the way it begins.” Duluoz’s state of mind deludes him into all manners of paranoia, from his friends deliberately plotting to make him crazy to the upstream neighbors he suspects of poisoning the creek water. Duluoz cannot hide in anonymity, as he had done during his On the Road days; his name is in the newspapers Monsanto left in the cabin, recent gossip columns have already reported his elopement with a local woman, and he imagines the vacation goers at Big Sur see him as a decadent author “who has brought gangs and bottles and today worst of all trollops.” He finds no solace in the city; he regrets instantly his decision to return to Big Sur, and the road between has none of its old romantic charm or power to spirit him into the moment.
   As Duluoz’s faith in books and writing continues to wane, he notes that for Cody, living life has always been more important than writing about it since “writing’s just an afterthought or a scratch anyway at the surface—.” On the other hand, Duluoz has often said that writing is the purpose for his existence: “if I don’t write what actually I see happening in this unhappy globe which is rounded by the contours of my deathskull I think I’ll have been sent on earth by poor God for nothing—.” In his descending madness Duluoz begins to see his earlier attempts at writing as finger exercises and dabblings at a serious business. He vexes himself for having been a “happy kid with a pencil . . . using words as a happy game”; now he faces mortality and sees the tremendous seriousness of life as if for the first time. He feels that while he had written the proper words when describing the sensations of life, he has never before plumbed the depths of life’s emotions. In the worst of his mental breakdown, he realizes that “the words I’d studied all my life have suddenly gotten to me in all their seriousness and definite deathliness, never more I be a ‘happy poet’ ‘Singing’ ‘about death’ and allied romantic matters.” The justification for writing Big Sur comes on the last page when Duluoz vows to forgive the people he has been with during his madness “and explain everything (as I’m doing now).” The final sentence in the book sounds a note of completion and finality, since “there’s no need to say another word.”
   In the morning, Duluoz finally falls asleep for a short time and finds that “blessed relief” comes to him almost immediately. His torture has passed, becoming only a memory from which he will create another book. The paranoia that possessed him disappears with neither a trace nor an explanation. Duluoz is as puzzled as Doctor Sax was when “the universe disposed of its own evil” in the novel doctor sax. Almost as a teaser to his subsequent work, Duluoz allows Buddhist images to filter like a mirage across his strong image of the cross as he notes that he feels “Simple golden eternity blessing all,” a softened blend of Buddhist and Christian phrases. Readers may wonder whether Kerouac heightened the drama of his night in Big Sur, since the awful nightmares pass so quickly. Yet he himself admits that he does not understand the suddenness of its passing. Again, he has been in the backseat of his own experience, the “Observer of the story,” much as Sal Paradise had been in On the Road. Kerouac takes himself to the edge of experience, whether that experience is sexuality, drugs, fast cars, bop jazz, religious and spiritual epiphanies, or madness and records the sensations that he feels. He cannot always explain what he sees there. In a sense, he is an American foreign correspondent, if one refers to the unknown interior of human consciousness as “foreign” territory. In Big Sur, Kerouac probes deeper and more dangerous depths than in previous works, yet his role is essentially the same.
■ Theado, Matt. Understanding Jack Kerouac. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
   Matt Theado

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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