From the late forties to the beginning of the sixties, Jack Kerouac chronicled almost every important event of his life in his novels. He began with the collegiate and post-collegiate adventures of The Town and the City and On The Road and continued with the soul-searching journeys of The Dharma Bums and 'Desolation Angels' and the sordid romantic misadventures of The Subterraneans. Big Sur marks the end of this fifteen-year cycle. It takes place during the summer of 1960, and by the end of this summer Kerouac's mental state will have deteriorated so badly that he can no longer subject himself to the hot spotlight of his own introspection.
Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kerouac was able to write about his crack-up almost as it was taking place. This is one of his best books; it even received decent reviews from the literary critics of that age, who loved to trash anything Kerouac wrote. Unfortunately, the nervous breakdown that this book describes was real. Kerouac lived for nine years after the events of this book, but he did not allow himself to ever write as honestly about anything again. This is the last book by the Kerouac who tried for enlightenment, who still believed there was hope for his soul.
The Story of a Nervous Breakdown
Going somewhere and returning and going back and returning again ... this has always been the rhythm of Kerouac's fiction. This book chronicles three trips to a rustic cabin in Raton Canyon (in real life, Bixby Canyon) in Big Sur on the California coast. These sections are interlaced with scenes of life in San Francisco. The Kerouac character is Jack Duluoz, who appears in several other Kerouac novels as well. It is generally accepted that the book describes the events nearly as they occurred in real life.
Jack Dulouz arrives at City Lights
Jack Deluoz, a Beat celebrity, badly needs peace and quiet and sobriety. Close friend Lorenz Monsanto (in real life, Lawrence Ferlinghetti) helps him plan a 'secret return' to San Francisco so he can avoid being tempted into a typical drinking binge with admirers and hangers-on. But Duluoz foils his own secret entrance:
"... instead I've bounced drunk into his City Lights bookshop at the height of Saturday night business ... and 't'all ends up a roaring drunk in all the famous bars the bloody 'King of the Beatniks' is back in town buying drinks for everyone -- Two days of that, including Sunday the day Lorenzo is supposed to pick me up at my 'secret' skid row hotel (the Mars on 4th and Howard) but when he calls for me there's no answer, he has the clerk open the door and what does he see but me out on the floor among bottles, Ben Fagan stretched out partly beneath the bed, and Robert Browning the beatnik painter out on the bed, snoring ..."
Lorenzo insists that Duluoz needs to get back to nature to sober up. Duluoz agrees. He takes a cab to Big Sur, wanting to face nature alone, to write poetry and find the inner peace he'd lately lost.
The First Trip to Raton Canyon
He arrives at night and has a hard time finding the cabin. His mood isn't right, and the isolation and darkness immediately begin to scare him. Instead of filling him with peaceful happiness, the wild nature around gives him bad vibes. During the next few days he tries bravely to find Buddha in the sound of the crashing ocean and in the leaves of the dark trees, but the feeling isn't right. He makes a wan attempt at capturing the 'voice' of the Pacific Ocean on paper (this becomes the poem 'Sea,' included at the end of the volume) but he finally hears the ocean saying "GO TO YOUR DESIRE DON'T HANG AROUND HERE." In the Buddhist religion the single most important instruction is to break free of the prison of desire, and so this statement, to a Buddhist like Kerouac, is quite a perilous one. Nevertheless Duluoz goes to his desire; he rushes back to San Francisco to drink himself into oblivion.
Back in San Francisco
Though he left Big Sur early, he did manage to salvage some kind of spiritual meaning out of his stay there, if only because he so badly needed to believe he was having a spiritually meaningful experience. But this fragile veneer of happiness (for Kerouac, is there any other kind? Think even of the ecstatic moment on the mountain at the end of Dharma Bums, how thin that happiness felt) shatters when he returns to City Lights, reads a letter from his mother, and learns that his cat Tyke has died. Tyke was a symbol, for Duluoz, of an older brother who died in early childhood. Duluoz is deeply upset, and can't help but feel like the victim of a cruel cosmic joke: as he was trying to commune with nature in Big Sur, nature was dealing him a new and unexpected tragedy. His only response is to run to the nearest bar and get shit-faced drunk.
He hooks up with Dave Wain, another hard partier and apparent lost soul (Dave Wain is based on Lew Welch, a talented poet who is believed to have killed himself in 1971). They visit a friend, George Baso, who is dying in a hospital, and there is a very tender, poignant scene of Duluoz saying goodbye to this friend. Cody Pomeray (Neal Cassady, of course) has joined them, and Duluoz asks Monsanto if he can go back to the cabin in Big Sur, this time with Wain and Pomeray. Monsanto, apparently not willing to let the three wild "boys" go unchaperoned, proposes a bigger outing, including himself, Pat McLear (Michael McClure) and his wife and child, a young Beat-wannabe (wannabeat?) named Ron Blake, and Monsanto's friend Arthur Ma. Duluoz would prefer to be alone with Wain and Pomeroy, but he immediately likes Arthur Ma when he meets him. Ma is Chinese, and Duluoz sees him as a symbol for the dying George Baso, who is Japanese. (As always, Kerouac's habit of categorizing by race doesn't translate very well into our current age -- especially when he keeps referring to Arthur Ma as "little Arthur").
But if we forgive him this and move on, there is an interesting motif of death and renewal here. Years ago Duluoz's older brother died and was symbolized by the cat Tyke; now Tyke is dead. And now George Baso is dying but is symbolized by Duluoz's new friend Arthur Ma. And the waves keep crashing into the shore under the bridge at Raton Canyon.
The Second Trip to Raton Canyon
Dulouz is much happier with a crowd of friends sharing the cabin with him. McLear reads some poetry, they all clown around and drink and eat, and they visit the hot tubs (where Duluoz and Pomeray, the two old-time Catholics, cannot feel comfortable removing their clothes). Duluoz and Ma stay up into the late hours of the night creating spontaneous Zen poems.
Everybody has to go back to San Francisco, but Duluoz stays behind, apparently hoping to finally capture the fragile peace he'd sought in his previous three weeks there. The wannabeat Ron Blake stays too, annoying Duluoz. McLear comes back with his wife and daughter, and then Cody Pomeray bursts in with his wife and children. Pomeray wants to take Duluoz back to the city; first they have to all go to a "hiss-the-villain play", an embarrassingly suburban kid's theatre production that Pomeray's wife has been involved with. The scene at the play is sad; the kids hiss the villain, Pomeray endures it all patiently, and Duluoz is barely able to endure the poignant mess.
(The emphasis on children and parenthood is there to forebode the next event in the book; contrary to what many believe, Kerouac's books did have structure).
At Billie's Place in San Francisco
Cody wants Duluoz to meet a woman named Billie. Billie is actually Cody's girlfriend, but Cody won't leave his wife for Billie, and in any case he always gets a kick out of sharing his women with his male friends. Duluoz and Billie hit it off immediately and are making love within hours, but there's one problem: Billie has a little boy, Elliot. Elliot takes one look at Duluoz and, with that uncanny perceptiveness some kids have, realizes that Duluoz is not going to work out as a father figure. Billie doesn't seem quite as perceptive, and she and Duluoz start talking about marriage. Duluoz, with all the paternal instincts of a sack of shit, proposes to send little Elliot to stay with his mother in Lowell. Things don't look too promising, although little Elliot seems to be the only one who realizes this.
To test their ability to live together, Duluoz decides to take Billie and Elliot back to Big Sur with him for a week. He invites Dave Wain, who will bring along his girlfriend Ramona Swartz (in real life, Lenore Kandel, later a famous psychedelic-Sixties-scene poet).
The Third Trip to Raton Canyon
Back in Big Sur, the chemistry is all wrong. Dave Wain seems to be in a better frame of mind than Duluoz, and even he begins to suggest that Duluoz is drinking too much. Nobody knows what to do with little Elliot, and Billie is whining about Duluoz's increasing reluctance to marry her. Bugged out, drunk and unable to find any inner peace, Duluoz starts to crack up and think that everybody is plotting to destroy him. Maybe Cody set him up with Billie so she could marry him, kill him and steal his money for Cody. Dave tries to cheer everybody up by ceremonially cooking up a big fish, but then Dave and Ramona fall asleep in the best spot and Duluoz decides they're in on the plot too.
The climax of the book is the night that follows, a horrible sleepless night for Duluoz. Wriggling in a tight sleeping bag with the whining and miserable Billie, Duluoz has hit bottom and knows it. He knows he needs to sleep but can't. The few times he comes close to dozing off, Elliot thumps his foot and wakes him. Duluoz goes outside and has a vision of a cross, but even the vision is anti-climactic, and doesn't stop his ghastly horrors from tormenting him.
The next morning is the worst of all, because Duluoz demands that they all go home, cutting their getaway short and putting everybody in a terrible mood. (I've had vacations like this, actually, though I guess not as bad.) They dig a hole to bury the garbage before they leave, and this freaks Duluoz out even more, because the hole is just the right size for a little Elliot-sized coffin, which sets off all kinds of Freudian tremors within Duluoz's soul. Billie yells at him "Oh, you're so fucking neurotic!" and that seems to sum the situation up as well as anything anybody else says.
By the end of the book nothing has been learned and much has been lost. At the beginning of the story the narrator (that is, Kerouac) believed that nature (self-reliance, Buddhism, spiritual purity, truth) might still save his soul. By the end of the book that hope is exposed as a naive dream. It is difficult to imagine this narrator ever venturing into nature alone again, or ever having the courage to truly examine his soul again. To be afraid of nature is to be afraid of yourself, and that is the state the narrator is in at the end of this book.
The book concludes with 'Sea', the poem in which Kerouac/Duluoz tried to capture the sounds and words of the Pacific Ocean. It's an interesting experiment, and it's nice that Kerouac finds a way to end this very depressing book on a note that is not a complete downer. This poem reminds us that this book is not just a downer -- it's a cosmic downer. As if Kerouac got bummed out for all our sins. That's what I get out of this fascinating and important book, anyway.
Big Sur was originally published by Farrar, Straus and Cudahy in 1962.