Big Sur is one of my favourite Kerouac books, mainly because in parts its tone is so haunting. As Kerouac descended further into alcoholism and his will for self-negation increased, he wanted to get away from his mother, friends and the circus of fame to write in solitude, as he had tried to do (with varying degrees of success) before. So the poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Lorenzo Monsanto in the book) lent him his isolated cabin at Bixby Canyon on Big Sur for several weeks.
This is the premise of the book, which develops as an autoboigraphical account of his time there, with Kerouac alternately loving the solitude and desperate to escape his own company. He comes across as a man incapable of self-possession, both hating society and yet craving it. Despite his new-found (and hated) 'King of the Beats' tag, and his recent literary success, in Big Sur Kerouac seems to know that he is coming to the end of something, and there's an air of melancholy and desperation about his experience. At one point, he sits hitching on highway one, waiting forlornly for a lift back to San Francisco and civilisation. But he's out of touch with the road, and all that goes past him are tourists and family sedans wary of the ragged traveller and we realise how divorced he now is from the freewheeling young hitchiker of 'On the Road', and all things seem out of reach, even hope.
Kerouac fictionalises his San Francisco circle of friends, but the biggest characters are the Pacific Ocean and Big Sur itself. This is where the book is really so haunting - with the huge cliffs and roaring sea, Kerouac is literally at the edge of both the world and himself, and he's terrified of it all. On arriving, Big Sur frightens the hell out of him, and at one point he tries to listen to what the Pacific Ocean is saying, writing it down, as if it is the only way he can understand the enormity of it. For me, this particular aspect was so powerful that whenever I hear about, or see pictures of, Big Sur, my mind goes back to this lonely book.
Big Sur is not flawless by any means - it jumps and digresses like most Kerouac stuff, and varies wildly in intensity. But I would not discourage you from reading it even if you are new to Kerouac - Big Sur was the first Keoruac book I read, and it still says more to me than a lot of his earlier work. To a large degree, Kerouac withdrew from the world after this book. He wrote 'Satori in Paris' before he died, but I still regard Big Sur as the swansong of a troubled genius.