Big Sur, by Jack Kerouac

I am the king of bad influences. As a high school student I idolized Dylan Thomas and read his biography annually, from his start as a charming Welsh poet to his reported last words before his death at 39: “I had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s a record.” Yes, every mother’s dream role model.

And then around my junior year I discovered On The Road and joined the army of young men who thought that literature revolved around Kerouac. The freedom of the writing, the sense of motion, the women, the drinking and drugs hit me at my most malleable. I learned, among other things, that a benzedrine inhaler could be cracked open for its amphetamine effects. Experience, however, taught that a Vicks inhaler was built like Fort Knox so that even running over it with a ’66 Mustang wouldn’t crack it and that once opened and swallowed the user belched menthol through the sleepless hours.

Maybe if I’d started with this book I would have made better and less self-destructive choices while my prefrontal cortex was still developing. This book was published in 1962. Kerouac was still floating on the income from On The Road but was burning out. His mother in Lowell, Massachusetts, had to block her front door with furniture after beatnik wannabes tried to break in to meet her son.

The book is written in three parts. In the first Kerouac travels west to San Francisco and arranges the use of a cabin at Big Sur owned by his friend Monsanto (Ferlinghetti). In some of his sharpest writing Kerouac describes a three-week Walden experience. In part two Kerouac returns to the cabin but this time drags along a woman with a young son and some friends and proceeds to go through a maniacal alcohol-fueled breakdown choked with anger and massive paranoia. He’s convinced that tourists are pouring kerosene into the water source to run him out, that his friends are communist agents. The third part is a try at a James Joyce-like prose poem using onomatopoeic ocean sounds. Blessedly brief.

What I’ve grown out of in Kerouac is the empty center. Raised Catholic he adopted a barely understood Buddhism and still managed to live it poorly. He was fascinated by people and the act of observation but was never grounded in much, which I suppose is part of how alcoholics are made.

What I still love about him is the drive of his prose. It’s a language designed to describe the kind of rabbit action of the people in his books. A short sample from chapter 4:

I go ambling seaward along the path by the creek and see this awful thin white line of a bridge a thousand unbridgeable sighs of height above the little woods I’m walking in, you just can’t believe it, and to make things heart-thumpingly horrible you come to a little bend in what is now just a trail and there’s the booming surf coming at you whitecapped crashing down on sand as tho it was higher than where you stand, like a sudden tidal wave world enough to make you step back or run to the hills — And not only that, the blue sea behind the crashing high waves is full of huge black rocks rising like old ogresome castles dripping wet slime, a billion years of woe right there, a moogrus big clunk of it right there with its slaverous lips of foam at the base

Damn. Talk about active voice.

I’ll keep going back to Kerouac like a friend with a Cassidy-like story to tell, but I’m a little jaded in my old age. I’m way past wanting to hop in the car but I’m happy to hear about the trip.