The conventional thing to say is that readers only familiar with On the Road will be shocked by this novel. Conventional views are not always wrong but, in this case, I feel it would miss some subtleties. Those who regard On the Road as a cultural landmark and Kerouac as a kind of guru may well indeed be shocked by Big Sur. Those who read On the Road as a novel and view Kerouac as an artist will be saddened by Big Sur but hardly surprised.
I didn’t really think much of Aram Saroyan’s foreword to the Penguin edition of Big Sur. It seemed pretty thin and unnecessary but he did have one great insight. At the very end of the foreword, almost as an afterthought, Saroyan wrote: “Above all, he [Kerouac] was a tender writer. It would be hard to find a mean-spirited word about anybody in all his writing.” While I can think of a few sharp words, Saroyan’s point is hard to deny. Kerouac, as an author at least, was a man of almost bizarre empathy. In fact, if there is a problem with his writing, it is his inability to limit his affections. While this attribute is admirable, it sometimes prevented Kerouac from sifting through his own feelings. This leads to a form of aesthetic chaos that somewhat damages the later chapters of Big Sur.
Despite this, the writing is, as usual with Kerouac, beautiful and haunting. And perhaps this confusion was part of a plan. Reading this book, I was struck by its resemblance to the writings of Japanese haiku poet Matsuo Basho. I’d read that Kerouac admired Basho and the poet is actually mentioned in Big Sur. Still, the connection is noticeable even before Kerouac’s reference to Basho. The preoccupation with nature’s grandeur and indifference, the overpowering but strangely reserved registering of emotions, and the longing for connections with friends all have a Basho-like aura about them. Of course, these had always been concerns of Kerouac’s and he has his own unique take on them. Reading Basho, however, seems to have helped Kerouac become more aware of the things that mattered most to him as a writer. Perhaps unfairly, I had always thought of the Beat movement’s interest in Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies and religions as fleeting and shallow. There is certainly plenty of confusion and faddiness in much Western understanding of Eastern thought. I haven’t read the most famous Beat document in this vein, Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums, which I know has been criticized by some Buddhists. However, in Big Sur at least, Kerouac’s approach to Eastern thought is mature and artistically fruitful. We can’t always expect authors to be scholars. They might be inspired by ideas but misunderstand them. Sometimes this can be problematic, other times their mistakes can be glorious as long as they are viewed as their own insights and not sharply compared to their original inspirations. In Basho, Kerouac found a glorious way to help him understand and explain his own misery.
Make no mistake, Big Sur is a tragic and, at times, devastating novel. It is probably one of the most notable explorations of an emotional collapse by a major writer. Such a collapse could hardly have been avoided by a man like Kerouac. As this novel makes clear, there probably never was a human being less suited to celebrity and yet, due to a quirk of his times, Kerouac became a celebrity and it crushed him. He was not an angel. He contributed to his own downfall and, as Big Sur intriguingly makes clear, he was well aware of the paths that might have saved him. In the end however, he was simply incapable of taking the long, hard walk to a form of peace. You do not have to consider Kerouac a martyr to find this unbelievably sad.
There is joy in Big Sur, however. Kerouac’s disdain for Herman Hesse makes for hilarious reading. His discovery of a copy of James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson in a toilet is a marvelous comic passage that helps dispel the myth of the Beats as scowling hipsters. Even more surprising is his enjoyment of Boswell’s work unless I missed some sarcasm there. Finally, the moments where Kerouac glimpses the kind of happiness he never found are stunning, albeit deeply disturbing since we can tell, even early in the book, that it will never be attained.