REVIEW: Tweakerville

Alexei Melnick’s debut novel Tweakerville is a riveting tragedy that attempts to recover a kind of heroism for Jesse Gomes, the novel’s young, delinquent protagonist who is a drug dealer, murderer, lost son, loyal friend, and protector of his community. The novel (and perhaps the novelist?) is hung up on what it means to look and to see across the class and race lines that the novel, like Jesse, necessarily crosses. Sheathed in a cover that markets a voyeuristic and pleasurable look into Hawaiʻi’s seedy “Ice World,” Melnick’s novel does indeed work as advertised. However, what you get largely depends on where you are positioned in relation to the novel’s subject matter and characters. For certain audiences, Melnick orchestrates an empowering self-recognition through the wit and intelligence of his characters and their languages. For others, the novel works as a Trojan horse: indicting the very middle-class audience that is likely to pick up the book. Melnick forces his readers to stare in horror at the darkness of his characters’ lives, and then suddenly turns Jesse’s narration back upon those same readers, berating their privileged views of existences that at other moments readers may participate in misrepresenting or denying.

Through a paradoxical and impossible narrative (Spoiler: Jesse tells his story seemingly from the grave) Melnick allows Jesse to emerge as a tragic hero who knows how the system works and is empowered enough to choose his own destruction as the only honorable path. One might complain that Melnick thus formulates a situation with no hope, no future, and no options besides violence and self-destruction. Still, that Melnick’s novel allows Jesse to narrate his reality to the very audience that wishes to stereotype and consume him is no small matter considering the context of rampant structural violence inflicted on men of color in America and Hawaiʻi.

While the work thus stands in relevance to contemporary struggles around urban racialized violence, Melnick formulates the axis of oppression in Tweakerville in clearly marked class terms, emphasizing Jesse’s former working class home life and giving us very few clues about his or other characters’ ethnic backgrounds. It is clear that for Melnick, class is the relevant metric in Hawaiʻi, not race, and certainly not positionality with respect to settler colonialism. However, the characters that do carry clear racial markers are worth taking a closer look at. There is Vili, a friend of Jesse’s whose name, idyllic backcountry family life, naive open-heartedness, and eventual incarceration can be read as marking him as Polynesian and/or indigenous. While Jesse sees Vili as a victim and is enraged on his behalf at the abuses he suffers, Vili always seems a few mental steps ahead of Jesse in his understanding of what the score is. Is there more to Vili that Jesse cannot see and that we the readers are meant to understand?

Then there is Charlene, the overdosed dead girl whom Jesse finds after a party, and her trio of avengers (two military men and Charlene’s bereaved mother). These characters are all explicitly identified as white, and while they seem to work merely as the plot device that ensures Jesse’s tragic end, they function in the novel in at least one more important way. They summon up deep cultural resonances from the contemporary presence of white U.S. military personnel in the islands to the Massie case and racist fears of miscegenation and violence against whites. Or, we might connect Charlene and Jesse’s tragic stories in another direction. Melnick links two horrific scenes of bodily desecration, burial, and execution at the start and end of the novel that are vaguely reminiscent of the moʻolelo of Kahalaopuna, the deity of Mānoa known for her story of repeated murder and burial at the hands of her lover from Kailua. Kahalaopuna’s ʻaumakua the pueo with his healing tears is nowhere to be found in the novel, but Jesse and his buddies are linked in one scene to a school of hammerhead sharks, recalling the Kailua lover’s transformation into a shark in some versions of the story, and Kahalaopuna’s final death in his jaws. This connection is not apparent or easy, but the resonances are worth considering for their implications about the nature of violences of all kinds, whether gendered, self-inflicted, or structural.

There are a number of articles that might be written about the treatment of gender and sexuality in Tweakerville. Melnick has created a masculinist narrative if ever there was one, from Jesse’s idolization turned rejection of his father to the demise of his role model, Robby, the benevolent drug dealer and fighter. Then there is the madonna/whore dichotomy of Kapika and Amber; Kapika as a figure of sterile and infantilizing motherhood; the homosocial exchange of Amber and her status as a supposedly empowered prostitute. We could also consider the moments of casual homophobia; the treatment of Cutchies the enraged dyke lover as a respected/feared spectacle; and Jesse’s protective relationships with his mother and sisters. While Melnick has created a character in Jesse that is adept at theorizing the structures of power that oppress him, the narrative seems unaware of how Jesse’s investments in a certain kind of working-class local masculinity do violence to other subjectivities. Beyond that, these investments consistently foreclose possibilities that, it is implied, are simply, tragically, not possible.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the difficulties I’ve summarized here, Tweakerville remains, to me, an important novel of Hawaiʻi that deserves greater critical and scholarly attention.

Review by Kelsey Amos

Kelsey Amos is a PhD student in the English department at UH Mānoa. A former managing editor of Hawaiʻi Review and small-time poet (published at, she values the literatures and writers of Hawaiʻi and wants to talk about, praise, criticize, and support them.


Juliet Kono’s Anshū: Dark Sorrow follows the life experiences of Himiko Aoki, the daughter of Japanese plantation workers in Hilo. Due to a premarital pregnancy, Himiko returns to Japan to live with relatives before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and ends up living through the suffering and deprivations of the wartime experience in Japan. Returning throughout to fire as a motif that structures the other symbolic elements of the story, Kono sets Himiko on a foreboding course that readers suspect (and are correct in their suspicions) will lead her to Hiroshima and the atomic bomb.

The story’s appeal to an audience in Hawaiʻi would seem to be the way that it connects the experiences of the Japanese in Hawaiʻi and America with the experiences of the Japanese in Japan during World War II. Kono leaves the story of the Japanese in Hawaiʻi and America mostly untold, alluding with the lightest of touches to what readers already know of Pearl Harbor and internment. Instead, her focus is on reuniting readers with their Japanese national cousins through showing us Himiko’s gendered wartime experiences–including starvation, the firebombing of Tokyo, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima–as a Japanese American in Japan.

Himiko also becomes a Hibakusha, or scarred survivor of the atomic bombings, and Kono seems concerned with telling the story of these survivors who carried a post-war social stigma. At the end of the novel Himiko eventually reaches a level of Buddhist detachment from ego in which she accepts and relinquishes authority over her scarred Hibakusha body. In a chilling final scene, Himiko allows herself to be objectified through the gazes of American doctors and the public eye of history, empowered in her transcendence of ego. At the same time however, she decides to author her own story (the first-person novel itself) to go along with the pictures of her body that are being given over to science and dominant history. This is the final ambivalence of the text–has Himiko accepted her subaltern role for the sake of spiritual serenity, or is she still struggling to speak through it? Will anyone hear her?

But beneath these projects of remembering and testifying, Kono tells a story in which Himiko struggles with Anshū–defined as “dark sorrow” that is linked to Himiko’s survivor’s guilt. Himiko struggles throughout the novel to deal with the guilt she feels as a survivor who witnesses various family deaths with which she is–to arguable degrees–complicit. She also experiences guilt from the point of view of being the object of guilt, as she struggles with her resentment toward a lover who betrays her. A central question seems to be how to deal with one’s Anshū–one’s sorrow, anxiety, and horror over guilt–especially given the recognition that asking for forgiveness only selfishly burdens others with responsibility for one’s psychic relief?

It makes sense that this complicated novel should return again and again to this question, as the Japanese American community in Hawaiʻi today is indeed a survivor’s community. Not only has this community survived the injustices of wartime and big five Hawaiʻi, most of the population avoided both the comprehensive internment that happened on the U.S. mainland as well as the more materially severe deprivations of the wartime experience in Japan. Today, some critical Japanese American scholars and artists take the further step of recognizing that this survival in Hawaiʻi has come through complicity with U.S. imperialism and at the cost of the occupied Hawaiian nation. Although these sufferings endured by others of close or distant relation may seem removed, they reach out to touch the Japanese community in Hawaiʻi in distinct and real ways. Himiko’s spiritual struggle with Anshū may strike a chord with survivors here and everywhere who grapple with questions of victimization, complicity, and the transformation–the literal and metaphorical scarring–that occurs when one survives trauma, and others do not.

This survivor’s experience is also decidedly gendered, though there may be a sexist undercurrent in this story. The figures that stand outside of the novel’s compassion are both female: Harue Auntie and Sā-chan are small-minded, vain, mean, resentful, and nationalist. Meanwhile Himiko looks to paternal authority figures like Shiichi Uncle and two different Buddhist reverends for spiritual guidance and support. This goes on despite a subplot in which Himiko befriends Hamada-san, a neighborhood mother who turns to prostitution after her husband dies. Himiko at first rejects Hamada-san but after the Tokyo firebombing realizes that she was wrong to condemn Hamada-san’s courage in supporting her starving children. This dabbling into the history of prostitution and sexual slavery in wartime Asia feels stunted when we consider the extent and organization of it, and its repercussions for women throughout the Pacific today who call on us to move past distance and guilt.

Review by Kelsey Amos

Kelsey Amos is a PhD student in the English department at UH Mānoa. A former managing editor of Hawaiʻi Review and small-time poet (published at, she values the literatures and writers of Hawaiʻi and wants to talk about, praise, criticize, and support them.

REVIEW: A Wild Sheep Chase

The sooner you put the comparisons to Raymond Chandler out of your mind, the sooner you can come to grips with the prose of Haruki Murakami, especially with regard to this novel. “Chandler-esque” has become a cliche by Western reviewers to describe Marukami’s storytelling style. It is also wrong.

Though A Wild Sheep Chase is predicated on a mystery, its concerns aren’t those associated with the mystery fiction genre: violent crime, questionable motives, shady, uncertain alliances, betrayals, or any kind of conclusion that satisfies a reader’s sense of logic. Likewise, there is nothing hardboiled to be found in the proceedings. A hardboiled story implies a great struggle on behalf of the protagonist–against his enemies, against his own limited means, against the dangerous environment in which he finds himself–but in this novel, the protagonist has it exceptionally easy. All the cards fall his way, when favors aren’t being done for him outright. This protagonist encounters few hardships. He is supplied with great sums of money to complete the quest that is bestowed upon him. In fact, there is so little conflict in this book it seems, at one point, the author felt compelled to throw some kind of strenuous task into the mix–near the climax of the novel, the main character and narrator (unnamed) feels he has gained too much weight from the food left for him at a scenic cabin in the mountains, and takes up running. 

There are no stakes in A Wild Sheep Chase, whether they be lives, reputations, jobs, money-nothing that anyone really cares about enough so that losing it would affect them in any way. A MacGuffin (the death of a woman eight years previous to the beginning of the story) does appear in an early section, though whether this was consciously placed to manipulate with the perceptions of the reader is not obvious.

A Wild Sheep Chase starts with the description of a love affair between the narrator and a woman he knew in his youth. Eight years later she’s died. The same morning he returns from mourning her death via heavy drinking, the narrator’s wife leaves him. Thus unencumbered (just as Toru Okada was conveniently unencumbered by his spouse early in The Wind Up Bird Chronicle) the narrator, an advertising executive in a small company, begins to have an affair with an ear model who’s done some work for his firm, a plain woman in every sense except for her fantastic ears. Per Murakami’s penchant for the bizarre, these ears are attributed with vague, superhuman powers, though the ears have nothing to do with the rest of the story. There are some long, momentum-eroding discussions between the narrator and his ear model girlfriend, and this sort of thing carries on until the narrator is tasked with finding a supposedly magical sheep that has appeared in one of the ad company’s photos. The representative of shadowy, powerful figures in Japan has determined the sheep must be found.

The photo, which was given to the narrator by a recently disappeared friend, is the point at which A Wild Sheep Chase really begins: the narrator will search for the sheep with the implication that in finding this beast, he will also find his friend. The representative of those shadowy figures provides the narrator with a large stack of money to fund his search. If he doesn’t find the sheep, there will be consequences–but consequences are of little consequence to the narrator, who happily quits his job, is already separated from his wife, and is pretty bored with life in general.

The narrator and his girlfriend leave the city to find the sheep, come to a strange hotel where they meet a man who has had a psychically disruptive mind meld with the magical sheep, which has left him a distraught shut-in. Based on that this man tells them, they then locate a shepherd who can transport them to the area depicted in the photo from the advertising agency. 

The shepherd drives the couple to a mountain estate that matches the scene in the narrator’s picture. The house is empty but has been recently inhabited, stocked with out-of-date books, a freezer full of food, cases, of beer, and a formidable record collection. The narrator’s girlfriend leaves him unannounced–he remains in the house eating the food, drinking, listening to records, and waiting for something to happen. 

Soon he is visited by the Sheep Man, who tells him that he (the Sheep Man) has been in contact with the narrator’s long lost friend. One midnight a few nights later, his now deceased friend appears, and reveals to him the insidious power of the sheep. According to his friend, humans are a host to its corrupting influence–to escape the poisonous consciousness of the sheep taking over his will, his friend has killed himself.

At the conclusion of the novel, the narrator receives a check from the representative searching for the sheep (though the assumption is that the being known as the sheep is dead, having been trapped in the friend who’s killed himself). The narrator learns that his girlfriend is alive but that her ears no longer have any special power to attract him. Ultimately, he uses the money he’s paid to become partners with an old friend in owning a bar.

I’m not saying there aren’t any intriguing ideas brought forth in A Wild Sheep Chase. That the spirit of a sheep could be capable of bending humans to its will has implications on a metaphysical level. But the context in which this concept is presented is so preposterous (not absurd, preposterous) that I hardly felt motivated to explore what the author was trying to suggest thematically.

A scene where the narrator confronts his dead friend in the dark, back to back, while drinking beers with him, is affecting–he can’t see his friend, but the ghost’s lone voice in the darkness communicates a great deal about missing someone, about how grief is addressed and processed. However, the gravity of the scene is deflated somewhat when we learn this dead friend had already been present some chapters before as the Sheep Man, a short humanoid figure who smokes and speaks so quickly his words are jammed up together on the page. Had the author allowed the conversation between the two characters progress organically, the novel and this scene in particular might have had a greater emotional resonance.

The primary problem with the story, which far supersedes the irrelevant conversations and set pieces, is that the main character, the narrator, desires nothing, not even some kind of deeper understanding of his friend’s struggle. When a character wants nothing–no crime to solve, no love to avenge, no lost friend to see again–the credulousness of the reader to buy into any of the protagonist’s actions is compromised. In this case, we hope the narrator is actually looking for the sheep for a reason that goes beyond filthy lucre (which means little to him anyway), that he actually wants to find his friend, there’s little in the story that suggests this friend had any real bearing on his life, except a few correspondences. There’s nothing to prove he loves the girl with the ears (and when she goes away he doesn’t care), just as when he leaves his partner at the advertising agency, it turns out he’s had nothing invested in this livelihood for years. He even has no reservations in giving his cat to strangers to care for–but then again, he doesn’t have any friends.

I don’t have to have fictional characters exude verisimilitude, with exaggerated quirks and complexities that let the reader know they’re “realistic.” But in order for a novel to function we have to hang our expectations on somebody. A blank slate, a guileless character who chalks everything up to a preordained destiny and keeps plugging along makes for a story that, in the end, has little resonance.

Review by Jeffery Ryan Long

Jeffery Ryan Long is the Chief Editor of Hawaiʻi Review.

REVIEW: A Voyage to Arcturus

Although there is a journey by human beings, via a crystal spaceship, to a distant, alien world, David Lindsayʻs A Voyage to Arcturus is hardly science fiction. It’s something more, and also something less–the prose styling is mostly godawful, and while it does try to extrapolate how beings might live if they embodied a particular philosophical characteristic (a la science fiction), the novel’s expression and examination of these philosophies is so rushed and feverish that its ideas (unless you’ve been thoroughly schooled in the principles of Gnosticism) appear and disappear incoherently.

In short, the general plot is thus: the Black Sabbath-ly named protagonist Maskull, disgusted with the machinations of his home world, travels with consciousness-hopping buddies Krag and Nightspore to the planet Tormance, which revolves around the solar Arcturus. After he’s separated from his companions, Maskull traverses the plains and mountains and chasms of Tormance (think of the of Avatar planet mixed with the crumbling dream world of Inception) searching for Surtur, who is also called Shaping, aka Crystalman, for some reason. Along his way, Maskull encounters the varied inhabitants of the planet. Each encounter, which ultimately ends in death, involves Maskull acquiring a new sense of life–although on Tormance, where people do not love, and have six eyes, and three arms, and are named things like Spadevil and Tydomin, a new way of life hardly has any context. If I were to boil the plot down further, I would put it this way: man travels to weird world, sees some crazy stuff, and proceeds to kill everyone, usually by breaking their necks. Maskull’s body count is nearly one per chapter, whether the victim deserved it or not. 

In some ways, with its nightmarish landscape and its sad anecdotes related by isolated spirits, the novel comes across like a Divine Comedy, if Dante happened to murder the unquiet dead along his journey through Hell. Or like a Simpsons episode where Homer eats something disagreeable and takes a vision quest.

Review by Jeffery Ryan Long

Jeffery Ryan Long is the Chief Editor of Hawaiʻi Review.

REVIEW: Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes

The United States of America is a curious place. Its citizens are taught a common history punctuated by wars, but the intentions that built this history are are contested a million different ways, in a thousand different places. Unlike the temples of Thailand, the English rain, the long winters of Iceland, the steppes of Russia, the mangrove coasts of Pohnpei, or the ramshackle recording studios of 1970ʻs Nigeria, there is no singular, dominant feature of the United States–it is a big, broad space of death elevation deserts, tropical islands, mountains that caress those big blue cheeks of sky, low-income housing, buildings full of computers on desks, forests so deep the sunlight doesnʻt quite come through, and suburbs so dull they must be what heaven is like. And Americans themselves are furiously disagreeable about what happened when and why, and will wade through the sewage of daytime talk shows and internet comment threads so that they can speak their piece. Americans are a race of beings who have been conned and hustled since the words “that all men are created equal” were posited in a letter to a failing king; and instead of transcending the con, Americans perpetuate it, reinforce it, believing that through inelegant rhetoric they can hustle their fellows into the philosophical holes they think theyʻve dug for themselves, but which have been dug for them a long time ago.

There are times, though, when concordance is achieved in this great nation, when pilgrims and artists unite in like-minded sentiment, a shared dream in which neuroses, fetishes, and unconscious Freudian drives are reproduced through one anotherʻs imagination and misshapen characters–Americans, all of them–from unfinished stories ooze from the the deep pits of collective memory. Where these freaks live, where these fatalistic hopes and discarded masks engage and make love, is in the interstitial America of murders and gossip, a landscape of banjo-playing miners, electric guitarists and extraordinary alcoholics. The arcs of these American lives, as fragile as they are, may only be recalled in fragments. Where these freaks live is Greil Marcusʻs Invisible Republic, also known as The Old, Weird America, and sometimes called Smithville, sometimes Kill Devil Hills. The truth in the Invisible Republic is not the ever-present con, the current American sophistry of political stances– the only thing worth mentioning is that everybody will die, either by murder or something more awful. The rest is all sublime nonsense.

Greil Marcusʻs argument, in Invisible Republic, is that Bob Dylan weirdly, with a group of Canadians who paid their dues through endless tours behind an Arkansas rockabilly singer, was able to summon this great American spirit of inevitable death, and the perpetual churn of nonsense that surrounds it, in the summer of 1967, in a basement in West Saugerties, New York. All of them beautiful singers with terrible voices, Dylan and the Band gave testimony of the Invisible Republic on tape, their minds and tongues all twisted in the same way by what theyʻd witnessed through the summoning. 

“Iʻm hittinʻ it too hard / My stones wonʻt take / I get up in the morning / But itʻs too early to wake,” they sang–then, together, “Nothing is better / Nothing is best / Take care of yourself / And get plenty of rest.” Also “They say everything can be replaced / But every distance is not near.” It was the weird, old America of nonsense, of cowboys riding cyclones, a steel driver in a fight to the death with a machine. Dylan and compatriots espoused riddles, koans, sometimes little bits of helpful advice Blues singers might flick off at the end of a 12th bar, what hobos might imprint on the fence of an unfriendly residence. Itʻs this death and nonsense, Marcus proposes, that perpetuates the ineffable mysteries of a place both tall and wide, where everything canʻt simply be explained away through dissenting opinion. There ainʻt no use in speculating, even–only letting be. 

As a text where one might become acquainted with Dylan and his influences, Invisible Republic isnʻt the place to start. A working knowledge of The Basement Tapes is required, even those tracks not released on the bastardized official album from 1975. But the lyrics of these songs are only half the story–the music that elevates those words should be learned, absorbed, their melodies evident in the line breakdowns into text. Between these lines Marcus evokes the ghosts of the Old, Weird America: Dock Boggs, Bobbie GentrySister Rosetta Tharpe, and, essentially, Harry Smith, that last great seer of American truth and hypocrisy.

Invisible Republic is not a bible, an encyclopedia, or a piece of creative non-fiction. It is a glimpse into the cosmic machinery that produces the voices of great artists, a view of the invisible under the visible, a vista both dark and brilliantly mad. It is a keyhole. The reader, with all the buried failings and imaginative power to see through the con laid upon the land by the hustlers of reality, is the key.                   

Review by Jeffery Ryan Long

Jeffery Ryan Long is Chief Editor of Hawaiʻi Review.  


If you’ve ever wondered how the handsome, up-for-anything Jack Kerouac became the soggy drunk from the William F. Buckley programs of the late Sixties, you need only read Big Sur. Published in 1962, after all the trips had been taken, Big Sur is the definitive kiss-off to the exploration, the partying, and, perhaps most tragically, the characteristic openness that withheld judgment during Kerouac’s well-documented youth. The road he so celebrated in previous work is in Big Sur treacherous, the destination an incessant nightmare, the people that formerly fueled his inspiration and life force now parasites, sucking away even the energy that allows Kerouac to suffer.

In Big Sur, the false antidote to all this disillusionment is alcohol, specifically a sweet wine that burns in the blood stream all day. More than dread, more than the impossibility of an unconditional love or friendship, more than the fear of death, Big Sur is a novel about the effects alcohol has on the body and soul. Kerouac’s description of the paranoia and existential disconnectedness he feels during his marathon binges is as terrifying as anything from Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend. Though liquor at first buoys him and electrifies the fading friendships with others in the Beat scene, it eventually buries him in a despair that’s both monumental and microscopically personal, a despair that no one else in the novel can even begin to comprehend.

Big Sur eschews the almost Transcendentalist hopefulness of On the Road for the most negative kind of existentialism. There is no majesty in the waves against the rocks as Kerouac looks out at the ocean, only a horror at his life and all of its meaning cut off, as abruptly as the coast of California disappears into the water. Not only does the landscape fill him with a sense of impending doom–friends also reach out, pulling from him things he can no longer provide. In this kind of indifferent or hostile universe one might expect the person with her shit together to imbue her life with its own meaning, to take responsibility for, or change, the surrounding conditions. But what of the man who can’t help himself? To whom does he justify the futility of his existence?

The answer to these questions arrives at the end of the novel, and is probably not what you expect. But it does partially explain how a bright-eyed Sal Paradise living on the on the road became a dulled, incoherent Jack Kerouac living with his mother.

But let’s not talk about the end of Big Sur until we’ve gone on about the beginning. Before reading the novel, you should take into account that the context for Big Sur is Jack Kerouac’s life, not just a series of previously released books that features his surrogate/narrator, Jack Duluoz. For instance, when he describes getting drunk and buying a new sports coat for an appearance on television talk show, Kerouac is talking about Kerouac, not something that happened to the fictional Duluoz. Jack Duluoz is a grown-up Sal Paradise (as he is Kerouac), just as Cody Pomeray in this novel is Dean Moriarty from On the Road is Neal Cassady from real life. Reading Big Sur as biography is a far more harrowing experience than reading it as fiction–in his most ghastly portrayals of events, Kerouac reaches the grim elevation of Edgar Allan Poe.

Other aspects of the writing are not so strong. I had a sense that Kerouac unsuccessfully reaches, at times, for the bopping, rolling, ever-sure rhythms of his past work. The kind of wordplay that seemed poetry in On the Road in Big Sur appears as posturing–Kerouac keeps trying to burn a nugget that has long since been cashed. One might say, by the naked way he attempts at and fails the language and prosody of his former voice, that the novel successfully expresses the dissolution of a worldview via an inability to sustain that worldview through language. Here, the words are not concerned with hope and possibility–here, the words evoke the gradations of fear.

Early on, the plot of Big Sur suggests a forthcoming redemption. Duluoz returns to California after some time away, following up on a proposition from Lorenz Monsanto (Lawrence Ferlinghetti). Monsanto offers an opportunity for Duluoz to dry out and maybe find some inspiration at Monsanto’s isolated cabin at Big Sur. But Duluoz blows it right away–instead of setting out for the cabin posthaste, he wakes up in a cheap motel after an all night drunk in San Francisco, having missed his ride. Duluoz takes the bus north, arriving wherever the driver drops him deep into the night. He can’t navigate the narrow cliff paths from the road to the cabin in the darkness, so he sets up his backpack as a pillow and sleeps on the edge of the world, the unseen ocean raging below.

When he awakes, he comprehends the imminent danger of the path he’s been walking, the terrifying drop to the rocks (the skeleton of a car is wrecked upside down just above the water). He continues toward the cabin, built in the middle of a pasture on the mountain.

Duluoz soon establishes a routine in his solitary home–trips for water, mouse and donkey feeding, ocean transcribing into a long poem at the end of the book. Just as quickly, though, he grows bored and lonely (as always seems to happen when this guy tries to be alone to write). The waters from which he draws new poetic imagery becomes to him a dramatic and undeniable symbol of his mortality. Solitude gets to Duluoz, and the rest of the novel he’s looking for excuses to plug up all the solitude, no matter how much of a toll it takes on him.

The primary excuse is alcohol. In one brief scene he smokes a joint with Cody, admitting that weed does nothing for him but make him paranoid. Naturally, this leads to other excuses, the men and women in whom he can find no sustainable joy. At first, these relationships are healthy and productive (word games, visits to old friends in the TB ward, log chopping contests), but they, like the cabin and its immediate environs, become malignant and oppressive. Some friends he lets down just by his general drunkenness, others (specifically, Cody/Neal, the person most responsible for the esteem Kerouac has as a writer) turn on him because, in many cases, he’s a total bastard.

The novel vacillates between Duluoz inebriated and terrified at Big Sur to Duluoz inebriated and terrified in the city, culminating in an especially horrific scene at the Big Sur cabin. Having invited to the cabin a couple and a ladyfriend (with annoying child) for whom he has no great affection and much distrust, Duluoz regrets his decision as soon as the party lands. He wants to escape, but he’s asked these “friends” to drop everything for a week-long getaway.

First Duluoz is merely uncomfortable, but his mental health deteriorates rapidly to desperation. At a ceremonial fried fish dinner to which everyone is asked to eat of the body, Duluoz is certain he’s been drugged and will forthwith have no control over his actions nor his state of mind. Not only does he alienate everyone within the confines of the cabin with his sickness, fear and disgust, he effectively motivates his supposed girlfriend to hate him (she’s no angel, but she’s stuck with him thus far). After a final breakdown, Duluoz tries unsuccessfully to sleep, thinking whatever curse has been placed on him will be broken with just a little rest. The alcohol coursing through his veins, Duluoz hallucinates a giant cross before him, floating in nature.

Duluoz’s witnessing of the cross is where the greater part of Kerouac’s mythos ends. Though he may have intended the symbolic cross to signify a kind of peace, an inner acceptance and release, the author eventually forswore the values and excesses of his Beat contemporaries (by then old men, either lionized or dead), becoming something of a conservative clown. Neal Cassady, to great physical harm, carried on the quest for drug-fuelled transcendence with the later generation Merry Pranksters, while Kerouac killed himself in private.

If anything, Big Sur is an important biographical touchstone in the life of an artist possessed by all the archetypal artistic dispositions–ultra-sensitivity, insecurity, recklessness, low self-esteem, a need for solitude, a hatred of solitude, and a deep depression that chemical indulgence only exacerbates. This is a portrait of the artist throwing in the towel. Duluoz realizes the lifestyle upon which much of his greatest work has been based is unhealthy and peculiar. There’s no use in going down that road again.

Could Kerouac have carried on one without the other? Alas, the great man could not. When Kerouac chose the Cross over the Horror, life and art converged into one weak stream, and then his life was no more.

Review by Jeffery Ryan Long

Jeffery Ryan Long is Chief Editor of Hawaiʻi Review.