on 22 February 2009
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.
on 13 March 2004
By the time of writing "Big Sur" Keoruac had developed this style of spontaneous writing and had a certain confidence in his work that payed remarkable dividends. His discriptions of the coastal retreat "Big Sur" are lively and poetic. For example "But there's moonlight fognight, the blossoms of the fire flames in the stove - There's giving an apple to the mule, the big lips taking hold" Many sections of this text are poetic, and indeed there is a poem entitled "Sea" at the back of this edition. Early on in the novel Kerouac understands from a letter from his mother that his beloved family cat has just passed away, he explains his grief in such a way that you actually feel pity for him and excuse him for getting nasty drunk to the cat's memory.
Big Sur is a very personal novel, a cry from a man on the edge of a alcohol induced nervous breakdown. It is somwhat sad in parts, altough there are many more jolly and even funny moments penned by Jack probably in less sober conditions. This book is all about getting behind the myth and understanding the real Jack Kerouac. As such, this novel will give a better insight into Kerouacs life than any biography, or even perhaps any other Kerouac novel.
on 5 August 2001
Like most of Kerouac's other works, this is autobiographical. Kerouac writes of his attempts to get away from the pressures of fame by hiding out in a friend's cabin, out in the wilderness of Big Sur. Unfortunately he finds himself still sinking into old habits and cracking up.
This is, in all honesty something of a difficult book in places - Kerouac's prose is somewhat unorthodox and may require some getting used to, yet this book is so vivid in some places that it is well worth the effort. It's like nothing I've ever read before. Although it's not a happy book, there are parts of it that are oddly sweet and touching.
I'd recommend reading On The Road first to put this all in some kind of context.
on 7 July 2000
I enjoyed "Big Sur" more than any of the other Kerouac books I have read. All his books were suposedly "fiction" but, as anyone who has studied the man will know, they are largely among the most honest, open, autobiographical writings that have been published anywhere! Big Sur is no exception. It charts the painful breakdown (largely due to his alcoholism) of this very complex man. The other characters in the book are present but I found they took on an almost dreamlike quality. Kerouac has the ability to communicate and involve us so that we are truly experiencing the nightmare with him. To me it has to be the most painful, honest and enlightening account of descent into mental illness that has ever been recorded. By all accounts Kerouac,in life, was a complex,difficult and often unpleasant man but those who have read him know otherwise! He communicated best through his writing, which he was passionate about, and through this we have a greater insight into the flawed, but beautiful, person that he was.(spoken from the heart!)
By the way, if you want to read a moving and stunningly beautiful episode of a fleeting Kerouac romance try "The Subterraneans".
on 31 July 2006
This is a book written by Kerouac several years after On the Road had made him famous. Fame did not sit easily with him and most of this book is his attempt to escape from fame and the notoriety it brings. I found this a sad book after OTR because although Kerouac exhibited a certain amount of youthfull insanity in the story of his crazy trips across America, in Big Sur the realisation has hit him that he may actually be insane. This is a very troubled book, but none the worse for that, just sad when you know that Kerouac died a few short years later, in his early forties, from the results of his drug and alcohol fuelled life.
Kerouac's novel "Big Sur" (1962) is a painful, self-lacerating portrayal of the writer's deterioration and nervous breakdown from alcoholism and a look back at the better days and friendships recounted in "On the Road". "The circles close in on the old heroes of the night", the narrator, Jack Duluoz, says as he visits Neal Cassady (Cody). The characters in the novel are thinly-disguised friends of Kerouac's from San Francisco's bohemian literary community of the 1950s.
The book's setting during August -- September, 1960 alternates between a remote cabin in California's Big Sur and the lively streets and bars of San Francisco. Kerouac could never decide where he wanted to be and was unable to be happy either alone or with others for long. Kerouac, exhausted by the publicity he received after "On the Road" and increasingly dependent on alcohol, accepts the offer of a friend to stay at his Big Sur cabin and recover his strength. While Kerouac responds to the wild beauty of the scenery, he also is frightened for himself. He writes the book looking back to the events and often addresses the reader directly about the breakdown that will occur at the book's end.
After three weeks, Kerouac finds he cannot bear the loneliness at Big Sur and tries to hitchhike to Monterrey. When he cannot thumb a ride, he realizes that America has changed from his younger days. Jack has a reunion Cody, who has just been released from two years in jail for possession and with his wife Evelyn when he reaches San Francisco. He is devastated upon learning that his pet cat has died and returns to heavy drinking with his friends. Thoughts and dreams of the death of cats, mice, otters, snakes, fish, and people pervade the narrator's mind. The book zig-zags back to Big Sur, where the narrator comes close to a breakdown and back to San Francisco, where Cody fixes up Jack for what will be a tumultuous relationship with one of Cody's mistresses, Billie, who has a four year old son, Elliott. They are together for a week, before Jack feels hemmed in. Jack, Billie, Elliott and another couple return to Big Sur for the third time where on a chilly September evening, Jack goes mad from delirium tremens in a vividly and frighteningly realistically described scene.
"Big Sur" is written in Kerouac's "spontaneous prose" style with its lengthy stream-of consciousness sentences and paragraphs. With all his difficulties with alcoholism and breakdowns, the writing is convincing and often beautiful. Even the long, rambling poem written at Big Sur that concludes the book effectively shows the author's mental state. The book is also well-organized as its story develops clearly and inexorably. From the opening pages, the reader is left in no doubt of direction of the book and of its catastrophic confusion. The book has many descriptive passages and discussions of literature, Buddhism, nature, and of the narrator's dreams juxtaposed against the harsher reality of alcoholic deterioration. In an early passage, the narrator describes delirium tremens as follows:
"But anybody who's never had delirium tremens even in their early stages may not understand that it's not so much a physical pain but a mental anguish indescribable to those ignorant people who don't drink and accuse drinkers of irresponsibility -- 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.... "
The narrator shows self-pity as he tells his story, but most of the time he makes a painful attempt to be honest and to describe his life and his failures to live up to his dreams -- particularly his alcoholism, self-centeredness, inability to find peace, and inability to establish a lasting relationship with a woman. The book offers a harsh but moving self-portrayal of the author in his latter years who has lost his way.
"Big Sur" is one of Kerouac's better books and will interest readers who know "On the Road", "The Dharma Bums" or "Tristessa". In 2013, Michael Polish directed and wrote the screenplay for a flim version of "Big Sur" which is worth seeing but does not capture the anguish of the novel. The title of this review, "Kerouac's Book of Interior Chaos" is taken from William Everson's book "Birth of a Poet" as used in Tom Clark's biography of Kerouac.
on 14 October 2012
A story filled with an array of characters from the beat period. Helps if you've been to California and have driven past Big Sur, taken in the air, smelt the forests and sea breeze, but a very interesting account into the everyday lives of the gang that hung out with Jack et al nonetheless. A journey back to the solitude of the woods in order to get away from the pressures of fame and recoonect with nature.
on 29 April 1999
This book is a way for Kerouac to try and come to terms with the new life that he found himself leading after the phenomenal success of "on the Road". The novel deals with his need to be alone, in a cabin in "Big Sur", so he can come to terms with his own life, and face the darker side of his personality. This is an excellent book, and I recommend it to anybody who wants to know more about Kerouac.
on 10 April 2001
This is the first Jack Kerouac I have read, and will most certainly not be the last!
I feasted on his writing with such relish and satisfaction. Jack was truly a master of his times. His writing is down to earth and his intelligence subtle but most definitely there. I felt privileged at being allowed the indulgence of his mind and thoughts and raw honesty that must be hard to pen, but yet he achieved so perfectly.
The story is not a major epic of wondrous fantasy. It is real life, quotidian activities that should not be anymore exciting than ones own life. But, you are reading about the King of Beatniks, the one and the only - the walking cranium hanging out with his friends, self destructing on booze, having literary discussions that sound so that much more right.
on 20 January 2000
I have to admit that I had my doubts about this book when I read the back cover.
I'd read a fair bit of his work but suffered from what could be called "Road syndrome". Reading "On The Road" first kind of colours you to an opinion of the man which he was at pains to shake in Big Sur.
Here we see Kerouac laid at his most bare; having shaken as much character wrapping off the "hero" of the book as he dare. We see Kerouac mutilated by his reputation, suffering with a mental and physical alcoholism fuelled in part by his eternal image to his friends and fans as a drunken beat writer-idol.
No other book contains such brutal honesty. It is almost a final declaration to his peers and fans that he barely deserves, wants or needs the accolades and adoration laden upon him.
Undoubtedly, the highlight of the book is the prose-poem at the end after which the book it titled. This is beautiful free-form storm of the senses affair confirming his worth as a poet and providing a fitting epilogue to what I consider as his best work.