Like many American teenagers, I had a brief, intense infatuation with Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” The on-rushing prose, the recklessness, the celebration of freedom — all were remarkably seductive to an adolescent stuck in small-town, middle-class, high-achieving conformity. As with other postpubescent enthusiasms, initial intoxication was quickly succeeded by an almost embarrassed disdain, encapsulated by Truman Capote’s famous dismissal of “On the Road” as a product of one long, amphetamine-fueled creative sprint: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”
Now, inexorably, comes the Library of America’s release of the three mid-century novels — “Visions of Cody,” “Visions of Gerard” and “Big Sur” — that represent the heart of Kerouac’s mature fiction and an explicit appeal for reevaluation. Reading through these three novels in succession is a curious experience, for although Kerouac’s manifold limitations remain highly evident, they are counterbalanced by depths that seem downright fresh, even revelatory.
Edited by Kerouac scholar Todd Tietchen with admirable restraint, the volume is nonetheless overt in arguing for Kerouac as not just a relic of a faded countercultural moment but as a major American voice, a judgment fully consonant with its subject’s sense of himself. “My work,” he wrote in 1960, “comprises one vast book,” adding that “in my old age I intend to collect all my work and . . . leave the long shelf full of books there, and die happy.” He thought of himself, with a plangent mixture of hubris and wistfulness, as an inheritor of the Proustian tradition of classical high modernism. In this, his ambition definitely outstripped his abilities. Although “Visions of Cody” achieves an intermittent grandeur, with its fascination with ur-beatnik Neal Cassady “grown big and rocky and gaunt and manly in his doom,” much of it is almost unreadable: slipshod, repetitive, hysterical.
The signature Kerouac style, with its breathless run-on sentences, neologisms and portmanteau words, appeals to romantics and teenagers because it simulates excitement. It’s a prosodic parlor trick that dazzles at first but eventually grows shrill and monotonous. Capote’s put-down is memorable because it strikes at an essential truth: Kerouac had neither the patience nor the craft to polish his fiction, and he lacked the conceptual sophistication to cast his experiments in the austere purity of a proto-Warholian experiment. Instead, Kerouac buys a tape recorder, noting that “I can’t think fast enough,” in order to record “this lifelong monologue . . . excitements and thoughts of mad valuable me,” but the resultant transcript proves only that people on drugs don’t make much sense.
“Visions of Gerard,” meanwhile, comes as a pleasant and underrated surprise. A novella detailing Kerouac’s childhood as refracted through the prism of the death of his older brother Gerard at the age of 9 , the book has a winning simplicity and sweetness. It also contains a warm portrait of the French-Canadian immigrant culture of 1920s-era Lowell, Mass., where “smoke sorrows from red dusk roofs in winter New England” and shadows fall on “brown frozen grass.” Its evocation of the essential purity of childhood perception is sensitive, nearly Wordsworthian: Gerard appears to his little brother “inward turned like a chalice of gold bearing a single holy host, bounden to his glory doom.”
“Big Sur,” in contrast, is a harrowing and scathingly self-aware account of a catastrophic trip Kerouac made to California in 1960, when his quicksilver mind was already becoming muddled by alcoholism and paralyzed by self-loathing. Its depiction of the “insane revolving automatic directionless circle of anxiety” that accompanies an alcoholic crackup makes for disturbing, if fascinating, reading. An anti-road novel of claustrophobia, paranoia and insanity, “Big Sur” chronicles the sour, ashy underside of the old bohemian dream, with all the glamour sweated away now that “the circle’s closed in on the old heroes of the night” and the camaraderie of the road has been replaced by the company of sycophants, fame-seekers and hangers-on. That teenager who was thrilled by the velocity and cosmic wonder of “On the Road” would have had a much harder time with this novel, with its despair and inertia, its expression of “a guilt so deep you identify yourself with the devil and God seems far away.”
Michael Lindgren is a writer and musician in New Jersey.
Visions of Cody, Visions of Gerard, Big Sur
By Jack Kerouac
Library of America. 800 pp. $35