Thoughts on “Big Sur” by Jack Kerouac

Recently, I was in Carmel and visited an indie bookstore. While browsing, I found this book on the shelf. Since I have been to Big Sur, and I liked On The Road, I figured I would pick it up and give it a read, even though Kerouac’s Dr. Sax was one of the worst books I have ever read.

Truman Capote hated Jack Kerouac’s work, saying: “That’s not writing, it’s typing” (Source: Wikipedia). And I have to say, Capote has a point. As I was reading the text, it was full of typos, Kerouac did not appear to spend any time editing, and usually he opted to skip superfluous stuff like punctuation. In fact, according to sources, Kerouac “typed up” this entire book in a mere 10 days (Source: Wikipedia). But that criticism aside, I kind of liked the book. The story was interesting and stylistically it was like a blend of impressionism and stream-of-consciousness.

The protagonist in the book, Jack Duluoz, who is clearly a representation of Kerouac himself, expresses that he is tired of the role of “king of the beatniks.”

Because after all the poor kid actually believes that there’s something noble and idealistic and kind about all this beat stuff, and I’m supposed to be the King of the Beatniks according to the newspapers, so but at the same time I’m sick and tired of all the endless enthusiasms of new young kids trying to know me and pour out all there lives into me so that I’ll jump up and down and say yes yes that’s right, which I cant do anymore—My reason for coming to Big Sur for the summer being precisely to get away from that sort of thing—

(p. 109)

The issue that Duluoz soon discovers is that when you go someplace to escape your problems, you end up bringing your problems with you. And these problems edge the protagonist closer to a complete mental breakdown.

For me, the most powerful aspect of this book is Kerouac’s visceral description of the pain of addiction; in this case, addiction to alcohol. The sense of hopelessness and self-loathing permeates every word as he exposes his suffering to the reader.

—The mental anguish is so intense that you feel you have betrayed your very birth, the efforts nay the birth pangs of your mother when she bore you and delivered you to the world, you’ve betrayed every effort your father ever made to feed you and raise you and make you strong and my God even educate you for “life,” you feel a guilt so deep you identify yourself with the devil and God seems far away abandoning you to your sick silliness—You feel sick in the greatest sense of the word, breathing without believing in it, sicksicksick, your soul groans, you look at your helpless hands as tho they were on fire and you cant move to help, you look at the world with dead eyes, there’s on your face an expression of incalculable repining like a constipated angel on a cloud—In fact it’s actually a cancerous look you throw on the world, through browngray wool fuds over your eyes—

(p. 111)

While this is not the greatest work of literature, by any stretch, it is brutally honest, and that is what gives the book value. While this is probably not for everyone, if you like the beat writers, you will likely enjoy this book.

Thanks for stopping by.

11 Comments

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11 responses to “Thoughts on “Big Sur” by Jack Kerouac

  1. Big Sur is one of the books on the list of Jim Morrison’s favorites. He was really into Jack Kerouac.

    • Hmm. I could see why he liked it. Inner turmoil, restlessness, heavy drinking, and writing poetry, all set in the 1960s. I’m sure Jim saw a lot of himself reflected in the book. Thanks for the info. Hope all is well.

  2. I read Big Sur many years ago. I agree, it gives a raw,painful insight into the experience of addiction. I’m glad I read it, but I wouldn’t read it again.

    • Hah! Well put, Amber. Definitely worth reading once, but not one to reread. Hope you are well. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  3. I’ve never read Kerouac, although he’s on my shelf. The quote on addiction matches what I’ve seen in loved ones who struggle with it. It’s that sense of shame and hopelessness that undoes them and makes recovery seem so unreachable, and drugs so desirable, to take them, if only temporarily out of that despairing mindframe.

    • Addiction is a disease that causes pain to all those around the addict. It sounds like you have a strong personal foundation. I hope your loved ones find some recovery and ease from their suffering. Many blessings.

  4. I have never been able to get into Jack Kerouac. Not sure why. Your post is interesting.

    • Yeah, I don’t think he was a great writer, but he was an important writer because he captured the spirit of the time. I feel the same way about Kurt Cobain. I was never impressed with his music, but it was representative of the grunge genre. Glad you found the post interesting though 😀

  5. This brought to mind two things:
    1- The way that years after this, youth searched out and overwhelmed the next cryptic poet, Bob Dylan
    2- Just by way of location, the Big Sur poetry of Robinson Jeffers, who was still alive when when Kerouac typed that out.