Big Sur by Sir Kerouac: The inevitable end of an icon, a dream, of all things
Unedited, raw, poetic, philosophical, mad, dark, and real: words to attribute to Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur, a book that contemplates the ephemeral nature of everything: from fame, fortune, dreams fulfilled, a generation, to life.
Big Sur is the second last instalment in Kerouac’s series The Duluoz Legend, covering the stretch of 1960 and published in 1961. Surrounding Jack’s descent into delirium as he attempts to escape alcoholism, Big Sur concludes his status as the icon of the Beat Generation. The content parallels the style in which the novel is written: jagged, unedited, raw.
Penguin Books has even appropriated the book’s pages to its contents with jagged edges.
Kerouac’s style reflects his own breathing and candid thoughts: uncensored and ragged, Big Sur is as raw as if Kerouac were to vomit his intellect and have it materialize on the spot. It is as celebratory of spontaneous creativity and non-conformity as the Beat Generation. Typographic errors, incorrect punctuation, misspellings abound in exchange for a sense of urgency and realism.
The careless abandon of conventional style guides and adherence to literary rules gives way to spontaneous philosophical reveries and epiphanies. To read Kerouac’s work is to be absorbed into the world of the Beats. It is listening to a friend tell you an unbelievable party that happened last weekend, which you regrettably missed. Kerouac doesn’t introduce the culture; you “wake up all woebegone and goopy, groaning from another drinking bout” beside him.
To me, the magic of his prose is how seemingly casual and careless he handles the profoundest subjects. My favorite passage illustrates this perfectly (please excuse the length!):
At first it’s beautiful to just watch that white line reel in to Willie’s snout but when I start looking around out the window there’s just endless housing tracts and new blue factories everywhere—Sez Dev “Yes that’s right, the population explosion is gonna cover every bit of backyard dirt in America someday in fact they’ll even have to start piling up friggin levels of houses and others over that like your cityCityCITY till the houses reach a hundred miles in the air in all directions of the map and people looking at the earth from another planet with super telescopes will see a prickly ball hangin in space—It’s like real horrible when you come to think of it, even us with all our fancy talks, shit man it’s all millions of people and events piling up almost unimaginable now, like raving babboons we’ll all be piled on top of each other or one another or whatever you’re sposed to say—Hundreds of millions of hungry mouths raving for more more more—And the sadness of it all is that the world hasnt any chance to produce say a writer whose life could really actually touch all this life in every detail like you always say, some writer who could bring you sobbing thu the bed fuckin bedcribs of the moon to see it all even unto the goddamned last gory detail of some dismal robbery of the heart at dawn when no one cares like Sinatra sings ” (“When no one cares.” he sings in his low baritone but resumes):—“Some strict sweeper sweeping it all up, I mean the incredible helplessness I felt Jack when Celine ended his Journey To The End Of The Night by pissing in the Seine River at dawn there I am thinkin my God there’s probably somebody pissing in the Trenton River at dawn right now, the Danube, the Ganges, the frozen Obi, the Yellow, the Parana, the Willamette, the Merrimac in Missourie, too, the Missouri itself, the Yuma, the Amazon, the Thames, the Po, the so and so, it’s so friggin endless it’s like poems endless everywhere and no one knows any bettern old Buddha you know where he says it’s like “There are immeasurable star misty aeons of universes more numerous than the sands in all the galaxies, multiplied by a billion lightyears of multiplication, in fact if I were to go on you’d be scared and couldnt comprehend and you’d despair so much you’d drop dead,’ that’s what he just about said in one of those sutras—Macrocosms and microcosms and chillicosms and microbes and finally you got all these marvelous books a man aint even got time to read em all, what you gonna do in this already piled up multiple world when you have to think of the Book of Songs, Faulkner, Cesar Birotteau, Shakespeare, Satyricons, Dantes, in fact long stories guys tell you in bars, in fact the sutras themselves, Sir Philip Sidney, Sterne, Ibn El Arabi, he copious Lope de Vega and the uncopious goddamn Cervantes, shoo, then there’s all those Catulluses and Davids and redio listening skid row sages to contend with because they’ve all got a million stories too and you too Ron Blake in the backseat shut up! down to everything which is so much that it is of necessity, dont you think of NOthing anyway, huh?” (expressing exactly the way I feel, of course).
And to corroborate all that about too-much-ness of the world, in fact, there’s Stanley Popovich also in the back mattress next to Ron, Stanley Popovich of New York suddenly arrived in San Francisco with Kamie his Italian beauty girl but’s going to leave her in a few days to go work for the circus, a big tough Yugoslav kid who ran the Seven Arts Gallery in New York with big bearded beatnik readings but now comes the circus and a whole big on-the-road of his own—It’s too much, in fact right this minute he’s started telling us about circus work—On top of all that old Cody is up ahead with HIS thousand stories—We all agree it’s too big to keep up with, so we center it all in by swigging Scotch from the bottle and when it’s empty I run out of the car and buy another one, period. (Kerouac, 52-54)
If you read the entire thing, congratulations. If not, shame on you! Go back and read it. I promise it’s worth it.
Kerouac creates an uninterrupted block of run-on sentences, creating a rhythm. Replacing periods with long em-dashes, the author leads the reader to listen in on the free flow of his thoughts. His thoughts, written in this prose, induces the reader to hold in his/her breath; while the reader reads this pack of text, he/she absorbs the overbearingness of the subject matter. Only when the “period.” is reached can the reader take a puff of breath, blurring the physical need for one with the necessity for rest after the mental/emotional strain due to the subject’s weight. He conveys the weight with repetition as well, as in “city City CITY” and “more more more”.
The narrative follows Jack’s move from a cabin in Big Sur, away from it, and back,during which time he feels the initial omen of delirium, the heightening of it, and its peak. Similar to the steep slope that leads to his cabin at the bottom of Big Sur, Jack descends into madness. Ragged, unforgiving, and deep and vast describe Big Sur–as well as Jack’s alcoholism.
Big Sur can be seen as a symbol of his alcoholism or a call to responsibility. In the latter sense, madness, is his inebriation and literally his drunkenness of life: in On the Road he’s achieved his dreams and his stories progressed positively. Now Jack faces mortality in Big Sur, for himself, and for the animals that he saw dead or posed to die, and this forces him to consider the other side of life: death, and the gradual progression toward it. He sees the abhorrence of the Beat culture, the recklessness and its priorities.Jack suffers the disadvantages of unwanted fame: harassment from fans, insincere friends, short-lived affairs while he’s really unable to get the woman he longs for.
In Big Sur, where all his previous luxuries are dimmed by Big Sur’s shadow, he opens his eyes; he undergoes a
metamorphosis that leaves him mad. Jack sees the inadequacy of a relationship based on physical attraction, he suspects his friends of malice, and he sheds the poetry attached to the majesty like that of Big Sur. He becomes disillusioned. He is no longer the face of the American Dream or American Liberty, or the icon of a generation.
Jack is reborn as human, and returns home, and soberly faces the death of their pet cat.
Big Sur teaches the reader the necessity and inevitability of maturity, and moving on.
This book is for those who are not afraid to face reality and the negatives necessary to compose a full picture of one’s life. Those who need comfort: if Jack Kerouac can get off his Beatnik culture, so can we all walk away from victories and failures.