08.05.08

On Reading ‘Big Sur’

Posted in Kerouac, Writers at 8:14 am by Marion

At 8:30 p.m. last night I took to bed with my copy of “Big Sur” by Jack Kerouac and by 9:30 p.m. it was over.

Those last pages are unbearable, not only for what happens, but because of his profound emotions. He hooks up with one of “Cody’s” (Neal C.) girlfriends in San Francisco, starts drinking nonstop and sits in a chair at her apartment for a solid week. The goldfish die, the chair breaks and everything heads south.

When you think things can’t get worse, he invites her to the cabin, with her son and another couple. You can see how it’s going to go.

Though he’s clear that he’s the deluded one, there is real horror to the situation. The lady friend is a poor mom to her little boy, and in that 50s way she probably can’t be. The little boy represents this unspoken fear of abandonment, as he cries, whines, and torments Kerouac. Meanwhile, his friends are trying to cheer him up, but all he can see is sadness.

He becomes the Phantom of the Opera … once they arrive at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin, you can tell he just wants to be alone … and drunk … his head clears for a while but DTs erupting, he has a full-blown crisis, impossible for him to grasp the ax to cut wood, visions starting.

He remembers his first tranquil, blessed three weeks at the cabin, and those memories come back like a nightmare. The blue jays he fed each day are now harpies; the creek water tastes like kerosene; he believes his friends are trying to poison him. Indeed, the devil walks among them and is trying to send him to hell.

The last night there, he tries to sleep in the yard, but the full moon menaces him, images taunt him. When at last he falls asleep, it is to a vision of a cross.

…when dawn finally comes my mind is just a series of explosions that get louder and more “multiply” broken in pieces some of them big orchestral and then rainbow explosions of sound and sight mixed … the little boy somehow thumped his foot just at the moment of drowse, to instantly wake me up, wide awake, back to my horror which when all is said and done is the horror of all the worlds … being damn well what I deserve anyway with my previous blithe yakkings about the sufferings of others in books ….

TOMORROW: The music of “Big Sur”

08.04.08

Clean ‘slate’

Posted in Kerouac, Life in general, On writing at 6:45 am by Marion

Good morning in Fiction Dailyland from the dashboard of a new laptop. With a new, clean hard drive came an unexpected sense of lightness and freedom, as I leave behind the old one and all that unfinished business.

I overcame my grave fear of major purchases … plowed headlong into the secret, complex, inner sanctum of computer-speak … learned all about things like 64-bit v 32-bit, chips, DRAM, HD, indexing and partitions … and managed to make a decision!

What’s more, rather than keep it in the box long enough for my panic to settle, I actually took it out and began to use it right away.

Things have changed a lot from the early days, when a computer surely meant a headache. There are days when I get quite worked up over some glitch or bug, but it seems the brilliant folks who write programs and engineer chips and the like have done a good job ironing things out.

There were a few scary moments … I had to rebuild my iTunes library … that involved organizing everything on a hard drive, which I should have already done, but let’s face it, not a priority. I had random files of albums … Beatles, Beck, Madonna in one place, podcasts in another, French books yet another place. So I took two or so hours and rounded up all the cattle.

In the process of ordering things, I got rid of Songs of the Week I hated (goodbye, Discovery Singles!) and rediscovered bands I love, such as Boards of Canada. I trimmed away those old playlists and started making a new one.

The best part was saying Aloha to Outlook Express. I downloaded Thunderbird and feel immediately more human somehow. Don’t get me wrong … I applaud the Microsoft folks for their marvelous work creating operating sysetms, such as the 64-bit version of Vista I’m now using. But the human soul needs wildness, a sense of independence, and Mozilla offers a little of that.

Even worse … I had about 10,000 messages stockpiled. I never deleted anything! After a while, it became too overwhelming to start thinning things out, so I created bogus folders such as “2006 First half” and just dumped everything in it.

I’m leaving behind all those old projects … and on this computer, will only keep current projects of the moment. Everything else is banished to the external hard drive!!

Meanwhile, I am closing in on the end of Big Sur by Jack Kerouac. Things are getting bleaker with each page … you can see what’s coming … I remind myself that he not only underwent that breakdown, but then, wrote about it … he had to relive every sorry moment to capture it with immediacy, artfulness and desperation.

07.30.08

Off-‘Road’ travels

Posted in Kerouac, On writing, Writers at 9:06 am by Marion

On a lark, yesterday at Sheppard Memorial Library here in Greenville, N.C., I checked to see if a copy of “Big Sur” by Jack Kerouac was included in the collection. This book, published in 1960, is Kerouac’s epic tale of a several weeks’ stay in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s remote California cabin to recapture his sanity when he was falling apart after the success of “On the Road.”

Guess what? No copy.

My query came after learning that a FD reader and blogger was unable to find “Big Sur” in his county library. How can that be? I thought.

Indeed, it is a more pervasive problem that you’d think.

There is a misconception among many people — including the so-called writing community, the literati if you will — that “On the Road” is the only work by Jack Kerouac that really matters.

Nothing could be further from the truth. “On the Road” is the centerpiece, most certainly. But it is only the first chapter in a long, fertile, literary opus that covers far more ground. The adventures of Sal and Dean in “On the Road” are an enthusiastic opening round by Kerouac, but he was a writer of so much more vision, heart and production.

Each book is a perfect jewel of prose and expression (with the exception of Pic, which is just a mistake of his later, drunken years). You’ll never read a more pathetic, hilarious and bumbling scene than when the trio of friends in “The Dharma Bums” tries a mountain hike, one in Sunday shoes, overweight and huffing, Kerouac full of dread and fears, and Japhy strong and fearless. It’s powerful, and if you’ve read “A Confederacy of Dunces” you can imagine how Kerouac may have handled that kind of unbearable comedy.

In “Big Sur” we have a moving confessional, in the tradition of Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground,” Kafka, even Charlotte Perkins Gilman (“The Yellow Wallpaper”). Nothing is as it seems — it’s hyper-beautiful for the man suffering a drunken nervous breakdown; it’s hyper-ugly, too.

Yet “Big Sur” is rarely cited when talking about Kerouac’s masterpieces, unless by readers like me who have soaked up nearly every word he wrote. We’re often jeered as “fanatics” with no literary discretion.

I beg to disagree.

07.24.08

‘Lonesome Traveler’

Posted in Kerouac, On writing, Writers at 9:52 am by Marion

Today, a last post on Jack Kerouac before I break to finish reading ‘Big Sur.’ Instead of looking at that book, I wanted to spend a few words on another, often overlooked, confessional, ‘Lonesome Traveler.’

‘Traveler’ captures the endearing sentimentality that colors Kerouac’s works, a prose that’s tempered — and saved — by Kerouac’s agitated soul that’s always searching for meaning, for experience, and for a place to call home.

The book starts with his classic ‘Author’s Introduction’ — a resume of his life as a “madman bum and angel.”

Though it’s labeled a novel, the stories are pure Kerouac. The Railroad Earth captures the lonely moments waiting for work, where he was a brakeman, and the meaningful details of his simple monkish life at that time.

Alone on a Mountaintop reveals what happened on Desolation Peak, an experience in many ways like his Big Sur stay, where the peace and solitude — instead of refreshing him, drove him mad.

Big Trip to Europe is his tale of going to France to track down something of his French-Canadian heritage. It is a great companion to Satori in Paris, a later book.

TOMORROW: FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING FRIDAY

07.23.08

Music of Kerouac

Posted in Kerouac, On writing, Writers at 8:23 am by Marion

Everything about my understanding of Jack Kerouac changed when I heard him reading his work.

It was the three-disk set, the Jack Kerouac Collection, purchased sometime in the 1990s. I had little spare money and so the boxed set was a hardship, but having three CDs of Kerouac himself reading was an epiphany.

The discs are “Poetry for the Beat Generation,” Kerouac and Steve Allen; “Blues and Haikus,” with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims; and “Readings by Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation.”

Each disc has its own flavor, but unfortunately, you can also hear him become sloppier and more intoxicated, especially with Steve Allen.

Most of the time, however, the readings are transcendent. San Francisco Street Scene is unmatched for evoking the poetry of an ordinary morning, echoing Thoreau’s “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” when he says,

There was a little alley in San Fransisco back of the Southern Pacific station and Third and Townsend in redbrick of drowsy lazy afternoons with everybody at work in offices in the air you feel the impending rush of their commuter frenzy as soon they’ll be charging en mass from Market and Sansome buildings of foot and in buses and all well-dressed thru working man Frisco of Walkup ?? truck drivers and even the poor grime-bemarked Third Street … so hopeless and long left East … and now all they do is stand there spitting in the broken glass sometimes fifty in one afternoon against one wall at Third and Howard.

Hearing Kerouac read his own work awoke me to the sublime sonority of his voice and his phrasing. There is music in his words. When reading, he lingers on the “o” sounds, making them long and resonant with deep sadness; other times, he races through vowels on his way to consonants and every three or four words there is a melody, if you can hear it.

Now, when I read Kerouac’s prose, I hear that marvelous voice of his wrapping itself around paragraphs and phrases.

So it is reading “Big Sur” again this week. I can taste the music of phrases like these:

It’s all marvelous — and at first it’s so amazing to be able to enjoy dreamy afternoon meadows of heather up the other end of the canyon and just by walking less than a halfmile you can suddenly also enjoy wild gloomy sea coast, or if you’re sick of either of these just sit by the creed in a gladey spot and dream over snags….

If you hear Kerouac read, his voice is forever in mind, breathing song and life into every word.

07.22.08

Sinister Solitude

Posted in Kerouac, Writers at 7:45 am by Marion

Read a few more pages of Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur yesterday … My evenings have been consumed (guilty as charged) watching DVDs of “Six Feet Under.” Not as good as “Dexter,” but still riveting. I’m disturbed by some product placement in the show, but it’s a cheap thrill, so why complain.

Once Kerouac gets to the cabin offered for a restful stay by his friend Monsanto (Lawrence Ferlinghetti), he has a fitful night’s sleep and wakes at 3 a.m. The creek sounds — at first so soothing — have become “the babble and rave of evil angels in my head.”

He picks up the copy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde left behind, perhaps for him or maybe it’s just a staple for any of Ferlinghetti’s guests.

He finishes the book at dawn, and goes to the creek again to prepare breakfast, and it seems a brighter day at last. Maybe things are looking up, as he writes about making his first meal, washing the dishes and napping to “the rapturous ring of silence.”

Before the next day, he will have more problems with his sleeping bag and begin to develop the “nostalgia for cities.”

So busy today I wonder when I’ll have a chance to read, but it’s sitting on my desk for any spare moment.

07.21.08

‘Big Sur’

Posted in Kerouac, Writers at 9:04 am by Marion

Found my copy of Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur — It was buried in the attic along with my original copy of On the Road.

Reading those first pages I remembered just why I loved this book so much. The time is after publication of “Road:”

the book that “made me famous” and in fact so much so I’ve been driven mad for three years by endless telegrams, phonecalls, requests, mail, visitors, reporters, snoopers… Drunken visitors puking in my study, stealing books and even pencils — Uninvited acquaintances staying for days because of the clean beds and good food my mother provided — Me drunk practically all the time…

Kerouac has been invited to spend three weeks in the deep solitude of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cottage at Big Sur, California, where Kerouac believes he can find peace, clarity and an end to the crazy boozed life that’s trapped him.

Instead, when he makes a “secret visit” to San Francisco, he gets totally drunk with several friends and isn’t there when Ferlinghetti comes to pick him up, awakening in a seedy hotel room with liquor bottles everywhere.

He does make it to the cottage in the dead of night, and his description of taking the dirt path that night takes you to the emotionally tangled state of mind he brought to Big Sur.

I’m only a few pages in as yet but already captured, as I was the first time I read “Big Sur.” I believe it’s one of literature’s greatest confessionals.

06.17.08

Who’s reading, anyway

Posted in Kerouac, Life in general, On writing at 9:07 am by Marion

I read a disturbing article in the Atlantic Monthly yesterday at the bookstore. The title was, Is Google Making us Stoopid? : What the Internet is doing to our Brains

The article read a little bit like a whiner’s rundown of problems with his own ability to focus these days … something we can all relate to … but the article is one of the first to take on the effects all these computers are having on our ability to think.

The author, Nicholas Carr, asserts that the ways we absorb information have rewired us. For instance, we tend now to bounce among sentences rather than reading long chains of them; we hunt for information that interests us and overlook the rest.

One person quoted says he has lost the ability to read “War and Peace.”

There may be some real truth in the article. When I lived in Prague for two years, I had no TV, no Internet and very little radio even.

My mind changed dramatically during those two years … I read everything with immense focus and absorption. Every paragraph had Dickensian consequence for me. I read complex nonfiction books, as well as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pynchon.

Yet, I’ve also done those things in America. I have been reading books by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, among the most complex books I’ve ever opened. I’ve read The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina and poetry.

Lately, however, I have noticed the Internet more than anything makes me anxious.

I’m learning to shut down the computer unless I’m actually working on something. I’ll often sit with paper and pen, notes or manuscripts, and work in peace.

Have we lost something in this country? Yes, no doubt. But we are a consumer-capitalist nation whose strength lies in the ability to sell things. As long as those are our values, we will bombard our citizens with ads and create desire.

What better media to do those things than television and the Internet. As they give us new worlds of information, they also take away a little of our inner peace.

NOW ON PUBLIC RADIO EAST: A trip to New York to see the original manuscript-scroll of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”

NOW AT REFLECTOR ONLINE: “Mythic Miles” – A reflection on the novel.

Plus a look at Kerouac’s eastern North Carolina home

06.09.08

Posting on Kerouac

Posted in Kerouac, Life in general at 1:48 pm by Marion

MB at the New York Public Library Inside the New York Public Library, the original 120-foot long scroll for “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac awaits

ARE YOU LOOKING FOR MORE POSTS ON JACK KEROUAC?

Please visit the special Kerouac section of my Web site here.

You can find lots of photos, biographical information and posts about Jack Kerouac and the New York Public Library exhibit, “Beatific Soul.” I’ve also described Jack Kerouac in Rocky Mount, N.C., and visited his house in West Mount. A public radio audio diary of a visit to New York and reading “On the Road” is available here.

06.04.08

Kerouac in Rocky Mount, N.C.

Posted in Kerouac, On writing, Writers at 5:30 am by Marion

There’s still one detail regarding Jack Kerouac’s time in Rocky Mount to settle … and that’s the fate of the house on West Mount Drive where he lived in the mid-1950s with his sister, Nin. It’s referred to as “Big Easonburg Woods” in his work, as that was how the crossroads was known then.

Thanks to John J Dorfner, who lives in Raleigh, N.C., we know the whereabouts of the house. I’ve been speaking with him and we’re trying to now figure out what the future holds for this house.

He and I, and perhaps other Kerouac fans out there, would like to see this little farmhouse preserved and protected. There’s a risk, however, that it will change hands before that can be done.

In the development frenzy that sweeps like Sherman through eastern North Carolina, who knows how long a Depression-era farmhouse could hold out?

Meanwhile, in the next few days I’ll make some updates to the pages on this site about Jack Kerouac.

2008-06-04 12:17:01 GMT

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