YOU COULD say that I’m on a bender…literary one. Just filed a piece about Jack Kerouac and so am sort of still bobbing in the rhythms of this book. I can’t remember what year it was that I first read Big Sur but it was after The Subterraneans and perhaps before I gave On the Road a try again. I know it wasn’t in chronological order. But Big Sur’s imprint was different from anything else I’d experienced — of his or anyone elses. His desperation, his fight to stay-standing, in this harrowing book that was more horror story in that it was not supernatural but hyper-real. It’s what happens when you get what you wish for and then don’t have a Plan B.
On the Road hit the pavement and Kerouac’s life transformed, not in the way he’d expected. In her evocative and resonant, Minor Characters, Joyce Johnson writes about the New York morning that she and Kerouac trudged down to pick up a fresh-off-the-presses Times and how, with one review, the world changed.
She recalls the moment in a 2007 Vanity Fair article: “As we stood by the all-night newsstand on 66th Street and Broadway, Jack looked at me and said doubtfully, without excitement, “It’s good, isn’t it?” And I, a 21-year-old aspiring novelist at the time, actually had to assure this 35-year-old writer that it was great, the kind of review every writer dreams of getting.
I have always been puzzled by Jack’s weirdly flat response . . . . As the years went by, I wondered whether he’d had a premonition then that the kind of attention he was about to receive would be his undoing.”
His “undoing” has been on my mind for the last week as I’ve been thinking about this book and a newish CD/DVD compilation that arrived in time for the 40th anniversary of Kerouac’s death. The project, One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur, is collaboration between Jay Farrar (of Son Volt) and Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) and Curt Worden director of the doc of the same name. I’ll leave the review for when the review arrives but I once again can’t get this book — or sad, mad, desperate Jack out of my head. Long exhales of paranoia, irrational thought, then the light of hope — through friends, Zen, the memories that break through.
I hadn’t read a book about someone so at the end-of-things since F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack Up which was like an after-a-liquid-lunch walk around the Paramount lot compared to this veering off into the chasm. Big Sur is a hard, ugly beauty of a book. Honest, big-hearted, fueled by a different search this time: peace of mind.