Litkicks Message Board Archive


Posted to WritersAndGenres

Krista touched on BS as the sort of resentful-sounding, post-OTR book that it appears to be on one level. I'd like to expand on that a little, although I'm guessing you've already written your paper by now.

BS was a documentary of Jack's life after he became famous. It is also a record of what he refers to as "my first nervous breakdown" (Selected Letter, Volume 2, 1957 to 1969, ed. Charters).

Reading through BS it's easy to follow Jack's decline. He has lost his anonymity and privacy; fans camp on his lawn, come through his window, steal things off his desk, bother his mother. He can't hitchhike anymore; he's too famous. He rides the train to the West Coast instead of hopping a freight or working on the railroad and feels weird in the luxury of it. His cat, his "brother" Tyke, dies as soon as he leaves home, and he thinks it's his fault.

When he gets to SF, he is surrounded by weirdos, the "beatniks" who are trying to be "him." He is also betrayed and used by his friend, Neal Cassady. Neal wants to have an ongoing affair with Billie, and wants Jack to marry her so he has easy access to her whenever he wants, so Carolyn won't catch on.

Billie is a piece of work. She is neurotic as hell and can't see what's wrong with allowing her 4yo son to watch from the foot of the bed as she has sex with men. The kid is very messed up and weird as a result of her negligent parenting and Jack can't stand him, sadly. These people he's hanging around with have stretched the concept of freedom into some incredible lapse of morals, up to and including allowing the local pedophile to mess with their children.

Jack tries to get away from it all in a retreat to Ferlinghetti's cabin at Big Sur, but for various reasons, he can't do it. Everyone wants something from him. No one can see he's coming apart at the seams.

This is an entirely different Jack than the young man who hit the road repeatedly with Neal in 1948 and onward. Innocence is lost. Jack, undoubtedly a sufferer of bipolar disorder, has seen too much of the world since those days, had too many rejections, too much ridicule, too little money, and way too much alcohol. He has his first serious manic episode, replete with hallucinations, at Big Sur.

In the end of the book, he chalks it up to drinking whiskey instead of red wine, but that's just a gloss. In the letters he writes before and after his actual trip to Big Sur, it's easy to see he is starting to fall apart. After the crackup, there are fewer letters in SL2, and those that are there generally make reference to what happened to him there.

People make much of the fact that Kerouac took only two books with him to Big Sur: Dwight Goddard's Buddhist Bible and a copy of Jekyll and Hyde. There is certainly an interesting thematic dichotomy here, as well as the obvious jekyll/hyde metaphor. But again, that's gloss.

The simple fact is that BS is a book about a man whose life has been destroyed by fame. Jack was painfully shy and withdrawn (unless he was drunk) and the spotlight was painful for him. OTR was such a popular book, but he didn't intend for it to define him, or to typecast him as a reefer-smokin', hard-drinking, kicks-seeking reprobate he was characterized by the media.

In a way, his success was built out of people's misconceptions of him. His audience seemed to fail to notice that Jack had developed a new style of prose, and that no American writer would ever write quite the same way again because of it.

I've heard it said that a psychology professor requires Big Sur to be read as a "textbook" description of a manic-depressive having a breakdown. I believe it. Whenever I read it (and I've probably read it 10 times), I feel that incredible pain, as Jack's life goes from unbearable to incomprehensible.

He was never the same after Big Sur. He withdrew, stayed drunk, and died 10 years later.

I just re-read OTR and was struck by his optimism and relative innocence, compared with Big Sur, Vanity of Duluoz, and Satori in Paris. He really did write his mind, and write his life, and it is both wonderful and painful to read.

I'd recommend that anyone who wants to understand any of Jack's books read the two books of letters that are available, by date, coinciding with publication or writing dates of these books. It's a real eye-opening experience.

in jack's name,

diane de rooij