Just been re-reading this, and it's so good to remember how wonderful it is. If you're an aspiring writer and you want to see 'how it's done' when it comes to characterisation, atmosphere and pathos, this is the book you ought to read. It almost made me weep in parts, it's so brilliant. Perfect. Oh, and it breaks all the boring old creative writing course and 'how to write' blog article rules, too. Hurrah ;)
The Town And The City tracks the lives of the Martin family (5 sons and 3 daughters) growing up, living loving and discovering themselves, the world and others in the small town of Galloway in Massachusetts in the early 1900's. From the football star, to the lonely scholar, to the forever wandering heartbreaker of a truck driver, Kerouac deals with each of the siblings separately, describing their very different lives and in doing so, gives us the readers, a glimpse into each of their souls. The book can be read as a largely autobiographical account of Kerouac's life, with each of the Martin sons representing alternative parts of himself, his feelings, thoughts and personality. Alternatively, the reader can lose themselves in the lives of the Martin family without concerning themselves with the real or the elaborated. Kerouac reaches the reader with soaring, descriptive writing, which transform the mundane and everyday into feelings and emotions which describe the things you've always thought and felt but could never articulate into words... "He was sick now with a crying lonesomeness, he somehow knew that all moments were farewell, all life was goodbye." Kerouac himself describes the book as, "The sum of myself as far as the written word can go." The great American novel? Possibly, but this book is definately an essential for all Kerouac fans, people who have ever wondered what somebody else was thinking and all those who have raged on into the lonely night looking for an 'angelheaded hipster' to give them meaning.
Oddly enough, and against poplular criticism, I feel that by far this is Kerouac's best book. Rather than the 'travelogues' of his later work (which I don't mean to denigrate--they are spectacular), this is a thought out, true 'novel'. I've felt ever since I read it years ago that if he would have continued in this vein he'd be right up there with Hemingway et al, instead of a genre writer. Not that he was a mere 'genre writer' mind you. Without giving away any plot, the scene with his father at the end is the only thing I have ever in my life read that moved me to tears. There are hints of his later style as the book moves on, but the pure emotion, the feeling...he never equaled this book, and I think that affected the rest of his work. A true masterpiece; a couple of more like this and he'd have won a Nobel Prize. Just an amazing book.
This is Kerouac as you’ve never seen him before. The Town and the City is his debut novel, and he wrote it long before he developed his trademark stream-of-consciousness style – here we see a different man entirely, a more thoughtful and introverted spirit who nevertheless shows plenty of signs of the potential that he eventually lived up to.
In The Town and the City, Kerouac attempted to create his ‘Great American novel‘. Arguably, he was successful, but I’m not bothered about titles like that – to me, it’s just a fantastic piece of work in its own right, a little long perhaps but well worth persevering through.
To begin with, I’ll admit that it is plagued a little bit by that nemesis of every sweeping novel before it – there are so many characters that it’s difficult to tell them apart, to begin with. It doesn’t help that they’re all from the same family either, but you do get to know them over time; I’d argue that if anything, that ends up as a good thing overall, because it means that you can re-read it and gain a better appreciation and understanding the second time round.
It’s also one of those books in which nothing seems to happen over a long period of time, but that’s the mastery that the writer is showing here – time doesn’t seem to drag, and the characters do develop even while nothing much is changing around them. Anyone can create character growth out of deaths and diseases, but it takes one hell of a writer to create it from conversations and exposition.
In fact, I’d argue that this is one of Kerouac’s better works – perhaps not his best (after all, I’m not crazy), but it’s still pretty damn good read, and an impressive debut novel from a man who would later become a legend. The characters are pretty likeable too, once you get used to them, even if they don’t seem quite as interesting as thinly-veiled caricatures of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg.
I still think you’re better off starting with On the Road, or perhaps with Vanity of Dulouz, which I personally think is probably his finest piece of work. The Town and the City can wait until you’re ready to delve a little deeper, but don’t forget it altogether – it’s a hidden gem, but it’s a hidden gem that’s better read with a little bit of context.
And so I leave you with a quote: “He had never felt anything like that before – yet somehow he knew that from now on he would always feel like that, always, and something caught at his throat as he realized what a strange sad adventure life might get to be, strange and sad and still much more beautiful and amazing than he could ever have imagined because it was so really, strangely sad.”
If I’d read this cold, without knowing who the author was, I don’t think I’d ever have come up with Jack Kerouac. Knowing him as I do primarily from On the Road and the Beats in general, I was astonished to discover this wonderful traditional novel, a real masterpiece of American writing, a contender for The Great American Novel, and a real joy which kept me enthralled from beginning to end. It’s the timeless story of a small-town Massachusetts family, the Martin family, from the early years of the 1900s to the troubled post-World War II era. It’s a large family, with 5 sons, all of whom in some way represent Kerouac himself, for this is very much an autobiographical coming-of-age novel. However, you don’t need to know anything about Kerouac to relish this long, rambling family saga, as the writing is so good and compelling that I don’t see how any reader could fail to be carried away by it. The characterisation is excellent, observant and perceptive, the dialogue convincing, the descriptions as vivid as though you’re watching a film, and the atmosphere spot-on. You feel as though you are there – at the ball game, at Thanksgiving, at Christmas – all the rituals of American family life. And then we see the war, and the seamy underbelly of New York, where life is raw and sometimes desperate. Life is certainly no idealised sweet dream, although there are moments of deep joy, and a persistent thread of sadness and nostalgia runs through the novel. I closed it with a new respect for Kerouac as a writer and a deeper understanding of him as a man. Excellent.
Before there ever was the Beat generation there was Jack trying to write. This is a book which proves to those who claim that Kerouac couldn't write properly that he was a capable writer. His prose is excellent and the characterisations lack the weirdness of his later novels. The novel is based on small town America, and chronicles the life of what to Jack would have been an average American family, in the years upto and during the second world war. It is also full of personal observations of Jack's life, for those who want to know more about the writer. To us in the UK it is more like a history lesson, and a chance to glimpse what living in America used to be like before McDonalds strode across the world. If you like stories that deal with relationships of you will like it, I promise you.
Kerouac, the man and the author, is often accused of many things by detractors, ranging from a poor/sloppy writing style, to emotional immaturity, not being a 'proper' authority on Buddhism, helping usher in the licentiousness and debauchery of the 60's, and so on. I imagine most of these nay-sayers only know of his more famous 'beat' writings. Personally I'd wager that - assuming prejudices can genuinely be overcome - they might do well to read this.
For a first novel it's very impressive: it's a big volume, and, by comparison with some of his later writings, pretty conventional in writing terms. But, to those who know and love Kerouac, it has some of the key qualities that make the best of all his varied writings worth reading.
One key feature that is mentioned in the excellent DVD What Happened To Kerouac? is that - like almost all Kerouac's work - the view is one backwards in time-focus. Ultimately Kerouac is a nostalgia man, and his nostalgia mostly stems from watching the '40s disappear. So, as someone observes in the aforementioned DVD, Kerouac's more a writer of the '40s than the '50s, and almost all his writing has an elegaic quality, as if he's mourning the passing of a world he loves, but knows he's losing.
In the end it's probably true that this retrospective focus and deep-blue melancholy helped unravel his life and mind, so that apathy and booze saw him descend into a sad oblivion, and then death. But what this book captures magnificently, is the youthful zest and energy of his begininngs, and the wonderfully poetic eye for detail he has, writing beautiful passionately detailed passages on family, food, neighbourhoods, buildings, and people, that, to my mind, make some of the more usually lionized writers of such domestic details (who will, for the time being, remain unnamed!) seem positively anaemic.
Despite reading this many years ago, this novel has stood out in my mind as one of Kerouac's best. It's almost certainly his most underated as the author himself later disowned the lyrical Wolfean narrative style in which it was written. In many ways it is a far more pleasing read than his better known 'spontaneous prose' style of On The Road and his other later works. This story has a real charm and beauty of its own, and brings to life the 1920s & 1930s of Kerouac's childhood in New England.
Full of colour and sounds, rivers, woods, abandoned lots, mysterious back-alleys, steamy lunch counters, brooding brick factories, and the ever-present looming churches and cemeteries... This novel has a real feeling of depth of place and a true sense of the working class characters of depression era America which fill it. As a debut novel I think it clearly shows the literary class which Kerouac undoubtedly had, though possibly failed to broaden with some of his more disjointed later work. A rewarding read.
I first read On the Road while a student in 1982 and liked it immensely. I ignored The Town and the City assuming that it would be a crummy Pre-Beat first novel by Kerouac. Big mistake! It is a wonderful book in the Tom Wolfe/Jack London tradition that Kerouac so loved. (Kerouac was originally John not Jack.) It tells the story of the Martin family in a sprawling but sensical way. I prefer parts 2 and 3 where Francis Martin meets strange men like Engels in the Galloway library. The prose at this point is truly magnificent - it is all rain and evocative descriptions. A wonderful book I recommend it to readers of all ages.