Big Sur by Jack Kerouac

Big Sur by Jack Kerouac
Big old Sur.

Big Sur is, arguably, Jack Kerouac’s finest work. 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 and the Dharma Bums.

They 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 success.

Alcohol was his means of escaping the endless socialising he felt he needed to be a part of.

As a result, whilst On the Road 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 Insights on DTs at Big Sur

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. 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.

Before he knows it, old Dean Moriarty 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, although we’ve seen one critic dub his antics in this book that way. We think they’ve missed something, as he openly criticises himself and his inability to overcome his foibles.

“I feel like the most disgraceful and nay disreputable wretch on earth, in fact my hair is blowing in beastly streaks across my stupid and moronic face, the hangover has now worked paranoia into me down to the last pitiable detail.”

It’s not like he’s enjoying the process, he’s just stuck in an addictive loop. He’s trying to stop, but as he explains:

“Any drinker knows how the process works: the first day you get drunk is okay, the morning after means a big head but so you can kill that easy with a few more drinks and a meal, but if you pass up the meal and go on to another night’s drunk, and wake up to keep the toot going, and continue on to the fourth day, there’ll come one day when the drinks won’t take effect because you’re chemically overloaded and you’ll have to sleep it off but you can’t sleep any more because it was alcohol itself that made you want to sleep those first nights, so delirium sets in.”

And that’s not a pleasant world for alcoholics to enter into. It’s the final horrors—the dreaded DTs.

He doesn’t shy away from detailing what he has to face when he overindulges, with many segments of Big Sur reading like a paranoid psychological horror story. As Kerouac chillingly puts it:

“Sleeplessness, sweat, trembling, a groaning feeling of weakness where your arms are numb and useless, nightmares, (nightmares of death) … well, there’s more of that up later.”

Addiction literature is rife with these descriptions, but there’s something about Kerouac’s blunt descriptions of his issues that gets to the core of the matter.

You can compare it to the likes of Hubert Selby Jr. and his Requiem for a Dream (1978), or another beat writer in Burroughs with Junky (1953).

But we think Big Sur is better than both.

And that’s down to its candid accounts of the shocking results of DTs, provides a mixture of gritty, poignant, but ever-intriguing writing.

It’s an illness Mike Figgis’ 1995 film Leaving Las Vegas went on to portray with unflinching honesty, with an outstanding performance from Nic Cage.

And as a coda to this tale, we must note Kerouac never did conquer his inner demons. His death came in late 1969 at the age of 47. 

It was a direct result of his alcoholism, which caused sudden liver failure one morning as he sipped from a glass of whiskey.

By then, he was something of a shell of what he was as a younger man—carefree Sal Paradise from the youthfully hedonistic and energetic On the Road.

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 naïve 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 host mentions Kerouac was nervous before recording. The writer denies it, but he clearly still is—it’s so visible at first, but he calms down later in the interview.

This interaction, along with his appearance on the show, are directly mentioned in Big Sur.

The clip is also a fine example of the lyrical, poetic quality of his voice and writing style. So, if you’re put off his style, stick with it a bit longer and see if it clicks.

Big Sur’s Film Adaptation

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.


  1. Excellent review! Also, thank you very much for the clip of him on the Steve Allen show. That was most fabulous!
    I sure have a lot of catch up reading to do.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Big Sur is the only Kerouac I’ve read. Think I got a copy free with the paper donkey’s years ago. Don’t remember a great deal about it, but the early scene where he’s got fans knocking on his mothers door wanting to meet the young, hip author of On The Road and finding someone much older really set the tone for me. That post-fame angle intrigued me.

    Afterwards, I went through a brief, smug phase of only reading books by big name authors I hadn’t yet tried which weren’t their masterwork. I was young and thought time was on my side!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Books free with a paper!? I’m not sure if that happens anymore. I wish it did, although you can get plenty of free Kindle books these days I suppose.

      Big Sur is very good, just not his most accessible work. Well worth another look, I think, as I didn’t get it when I first read it (at 20), but by 24 it made a whole heap o’ sense.

      Liked by 1 person

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