This was Jack Kerouac’s earliest and straightest novel, published in 1950 by Harcourt Brace. The author, known as ‘John Kerouac’ for the last time in his life, looks extremely pensive in the combed-hair-and-necktie jacket photo. Reading this book feels like snooping into somebody’s private life, because the persona Kerouac presents here is so different from the one he would soon adopt before a larger public.
And now for the big surprise: this is an excellent book. It’s extraordinarily touching, warm, honest, sometimes pathetic and sometimes joyful, and just as crammed with the electric thrill of simple experience as ‘On The Road‘ or ‘Visions Of Cody.’ No wonder Allen Ginsberg loved this book and begged publishers to accept it. Kerouac bares his young soul’s agonies and joys here as he never would again.
So why is this book so rarely read? Mainly because it is written in a fusty, nakedly sentimental style reminiscent of Kerouac’s favorite author, Thomas Wolfe. Take the first lines:
“The town is Galloway. The Merrimac River, broad and placid, flows down to it from the New Hampshire hills, broken at the falls to make frothy havoc on the rocks, foaming on over ancient stone towards a place where the river swings about in a wide and peaceful basin, moving on now around the flank of the town, on to places known as Lawrence and Haverhill, through a wooded valley, and on to the sea at Plum Island, where the river enters an infinity of waters and is gone. Somewhere far north of Galloway, in headwaters close to Canada, the river is continually fed and made to brim out of endless sources and unfathomable springs.”
It’s easy to make fun of an opening like this (Frothy Havoc — didn’t he pitch for the Red Sox?). But I felt a lot less inclined to make fun of it after I got further into the book. After about three chapters of this stuff I started to feel that broad and placid river. Suddenly those endless sources and unfathomable springs were inside my heart. And if frothy havoc is what Kerouac remembers, then frothy havoc it will be.
The town of Galloway represents Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell, and this book is, like all of Kerouac’s books, highly autobiographical. The only major conceit on the author’s part was to separate himself into three characters, Joe, Peter and Francis, and to give himself a pack of sisters and little brothers as well. (In real life Kerouac had one older brother who died at the age of nine, and one older sister.)
The three facets of Kerouac’s personality are:
The good-hearted working-class truck-driving beer-drinking good-time-Charlie who doesn’t go to college and watches his younger brothers surpass him in acheivement. There is some of Neal Cassady here, as well as some of Kerouac himself.
The opposite of Joe: a soulless intellectual and cynic who scoffs at his family’s small-town all-American values. Kerouac dislikes this character very much, and yet there are sad, tender moments in which we see beyond this character’s obvious flaws. As a teenager he is embarrassed when a girl he likes shows up at a gathering with another boy. Francis rides away on his bike, but then realizes that the girl will be driving by and will see him. He impulsively pitches himself into the weeds and waits, hidden, until he hears her drive by asking where he could have gone.
I dunno what it is, scenes like that just kill me.
Peter is the most like Kerouac. He wins a football scholarship (the personal struggles and triumphs on the gridiron are detailed wonderfully here; we now know exactly how Kerouac felt about his football career). He wins a scholarship to an Ivy League college (Penn instead of Kerouac’s Columbia) and drops out in a fit of despair after receiving a poignant letter from his father. He has good-hearted small-town friends like Alexander Panos (based on Sammy Sampas, whose sister Kerouac would marry much later), and city friends like Leon Levinsky (based on Allen Ginsberg), Bill Dennison (William S. Burroughs), and Kenneth Wood (Lucien Carr; he is implicated in the murder of an older gay man).
The book details the painful breakup of the honest, doomed Martin family, whose father cannot bear the burden of maintaining their standard of living. He courts financial disaster as if furtively thrilled by it: when the disaster finally comes the father seems almost relieved to descend into a pathetic state, but his children are devastated. (The theme of the impact of a father’s bankruptcy on his children was also the theme of George Eliot’s ‘The Mill on the Floss.’)
The onset of World War II makes life seem even more hopeless. The despair young Peter feels in the midst of all becomes the main thrust of the book. Peter throws away his promising football career, just as his father had thrown away a stable if unsatisfying occupation. Peter’s act almost seems to be an imitation of his father’s. ‘Orphaned’ by his parent’s failure, he is thrown to the wolves of the city, Leon Levinksy and Bill Dennison and Kenneth Wood. He accepts them as his true friends, even as he yearns for the innocence he’s lost. The last page finds him going ‘on the road’ for the first time, an almost spookily perfect seque into Kerouac’s second novel.
The book displays a deep conservative streak, a prim belief that small-town values are good (although perhaps unrealistic) and city values bad. It is shocking to realize how subversive and unwholesome Kerouac’s soon-to-be famous friends must have seemed to him, even as he embraced them. He is Oliver Twist and they are all Fagins and Artful Dodgers. I have felt this feeling myself, although in a different way. I remember the sinking sensation as I grew older and realized that the callous, insensitive self I often became to fit in with my peers had somehow become my real self. I’d think back to my childhood and realize that many of my ideals had shrunken and disappeared from simple neglect. This is the feeling Kerouac captures in this book.
All of Kerouac’s works to come seem to grow organically from the roots planted here. The ambivalence about wild living (‘On The Road’), the inability to enjoy personal success (‘Big Sur‘), the yearning for spiritual cleansing (‘The Dharma Bums‘), and the stubborn political conservatism and nasty prejudices of his years of decline (his later essays). This book is a must-read for anybody who wishes to understand the fascinating knot of contradictions that was Jack Kerouac.