Big Sur is, arguably, Jack Kerouac’s finest novel. With the Beat Generation writer’s works remaining in print as we approach the 50th anniversary of his death, much has been made of On the Road, the Dharma Bums, and others such as Doctor Sax, which have a lyrical quality peddled along by a stream of consciousness style of writing.
Kerouac never made much money out of his career, but he did find fame thanks to On the Road. A shy and introverted man, he struggled with the attention which was forced upon him through his success, turning to alcohol as a means of escaping the endless socialising he felt he needed to be a part of. As a result, whilst On the Road et al dealt with the heady, energetic joys of youthful energy and excess, Big Sur (1962) proved to be the crashing comedown – illness, misery, and delirium tremens (DTs).
Kerouac’s writing style, particularly in Big Sur, is unique and many readers may struggle with it to begin with. It’s a singsong, poetic, often cryptic mass of creative whimsy and cultural references. In part, it reflects Kerouac’s shattered frame of mind as, in Big Sur, he comes to terms with his literary status and deterioration into chronic alcoholism.
The story is classic beat generation stuff, however; the writer is confronted with a need to escape his rampant socialising and drinking. His friends set him up with a trip to a cabin in California’s Big Sur – a beautiful stretch of coastline and sweeping countryside. Solitude is what the writer needs, but it’s all set to come crashing down around him.
Gritty the novel most certainly is. It’s a highly personal implosion story, set in one of the most gorgeous regions of America. Whilst initially enjoying his time alone in Big Sur, loneliness soon drives him back to the city and, before he knows it, old Dean Moriarty himself is back on the scene and the party kicks up again – to Kerouac’s astonishment, and ire, he seems incapable of effectively dealing with his problems.
Kerouac isn’t self-pitying or narcissistic, though, as we’ve seen one critic dub his antics in this book – he openly criticises himself and his inability to overcome his foibles. He also doesn’t shy away from detailing the horrors of what he has to face when he overindulges, with many segments of Big Sur reading like a paranoid psychological horror story.
As such, Big Sur, with its candid accounts of the shocking results of DTs, provides a mixture of gritty, poignant, but ever-intriguing writing. As a coda to this tale, it must be noted Kerouac never did conquer his inner demons, ultimately dying in late 1969 as something of a shell of what he’d once been as a younger man – carefree Sal Paradise from the youthfully hedonistic and energetic On the Road.
Addendum – Sea: Sounds of the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur
As an addendum to this post, we should note there’s a poem after Big Sur closes on a relatively optimistic note (if a naive one). Whilst at the location, Kerouac would take to sitting by the ocean, where he’d write down what he felt the ocean was saying to him as the waves lapped at the shore. It’s a lovely poem – we can dig it a lot.
Above is a rare clip of him being interviewed on the Steve Allen show; the nerves mentioned in this (so visible at first, although he clearly calms down later in the interview), along with his appearance on the show, are directly mentioned in Big Sur. This is also, however, a fine example of the lyrical, poetic quality of his voice and writing style. So, if you’re put off his style at first, stick with it a bit longer and see if it clicks.
With Kerouac remaining such a popular writer, it was time for another film adaptation in 2013. The result isn’t terrific, with lots of brooding, staring into the middle-distance, and grumbling interspersed with shouting around fireplaces. As with the On the Road film, though, it’s beautifully shot and fans of Kerouac may find something of interest here.