Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Beat Travel Guide

Big Sur

A novel by Jack Kerouac
Penguin Books, 1992
First published in 1962 by
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

When ever I plan a trip I always like to research it thoroughly. There is a paradoxical relationship between commercial guides and “accidental” ones. While the commercial ones are good at lists, the more outré endeavors give much better impressions. This ersatz travelogue is the penultimate entry in Kerouac’s autobiographical Duluoz Legend, 15 books that chronicle his life from the late 1940s to the mid 1960s. While not usually considered his finest work, Big Sur has flashes of brilliance and displays a greater maturity on the part of the author—relatively speaking. Jack remains the eternal adolescent. As always in Kerouac’s writing the names have been changed but it is easy to find out who’s who.

This novel was written after his great success of On the Road, a fact which plays an important part of the genesis of this book. “Lorenzo Monsanto” (Lawrence Ferlinghetti) is the owner of City Lights (the San Francisco bookstore) who learns of Jack’s troubles with fame and drinking. Lorenzo suggests that Jack exchange his east coast hassles for a bucolic stay at Lorenzo’s Big Sur cabin, about eighty miles south of San Francisco. Jack boards a sleeper train and arrives in California three days later. He immediately goes on a bender with some of his old drinking beat buddies and misses his ride to the cabin. He sobers up, regroups and does finally, in the middle of the night, find the cabin. So begins Kerouac’s flirtation with wilderness.

The novel’s locations alternate between Big Sur (reflective and insightful) and the Bay area (drunken and disheveled.) He finds it hard to endure the solitary life in the Big Sur country but he also finds that his fame distorts his relationships with those people he meets in the city. Jack’s old pal Cody (Neal Cassady) hooks Jack up with one of his mistresses (who has plenty of issues of her own including a disturbed young son.) Jack slides into a disastrous drunken affair with her that ends in a fit of alcohol-fueled paranoia. Fun times.

The best part of the book is when Jack lets loose with his stream-of-consciousness internal monologues—there are some gems—and some very nice nature writing. Kerouac’s DT visions are harrowing, but it is hard to develop much sympathy for such a wastrel.

The verdict is still out on our Big Sur vacation; this book didn’t help any.

By Professor Batty


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