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.