Having finished reading Jack Kerouac’s classic The Subterraneans, one feels as though one has been embraced and punched in the guts at the same time. Harmonious near-poetry one minute, it becomes a phonetic cacophony the next. The book is the on-again off-again love story of Leo and Mardou, San Francisco bohemians in the midst of the beat movement in the 1950s. Told in Kerouac’s trademark style: stream-of-conscious run-ons – a single sentence sometimes taking up the better part of a page, it’s the story of the search for reciprocity in human connection or lack thereof. Kerouac’s wild use of language is apropos to Leo’s hunt to satisfy the soul. His writing is fast and fierce, one feels a rush here and there, like a shark has passed by swimming forward as it must to keep from drowning. That Kerouac can sustain an honest expose in his prose and not sink into more-hip-than-thou verbosity is remarkable.
“…O God the whole host and foolish illusion and entire rigmarole and madness that we erect in the place of onelove, in our sadness – but now with Mardou leaning over me, tired, solemn, somber, capable as she played with the little unshaven uglies of my chin of seeing right through my flesh into my horror and capable of feeling every vibration of pain and futility I could send, as, too, attested by her recognition ‘Are you sincere?’ as the deep-well sounded call from the bottom – ‘Baby, let’s go home.’…
With Kerouac, nothing is finalized, everything is fluid, in motion, coalescing and retreating. The Subterraneans is without a doubt a work of brilliance, but the problem with brilliance is that one is expected to be brilliant consistently from page to page. It may be unfair to expect so much from any writer, any artist, any person, but there it is. Kerouac manages to pull it off more often than not, the inevitable slow-going passages soon follow with lively keepers. Leo after a fight with Mardou:
“…both of us actually hysterically smiling and as tho nothing had happened at all and in fact like happy unconcerned people you see in newsreels busy going down the street to their chores and where-go’s and we’re in the same rainy newsreel mystery sad but inside of us (as must then be so inside the puppet filmdolls of screen) the great tumescent turbulent turmoil alliterative as a hammer on the brain bone bag and balls, bang I’m sorry I was ever born…”
Kerouac steps about as close to indulgence as one can get and still recover with a semblance of equilibrium.
Page after page of wordplay this raw and revealing runs the risk of becoming a sort of self-plagiarism, a denouement at one point in the story can start sounding quite familiar in another when baring the flesh with such wild abandonment.
It’s doubtful that one can find a better starting place to get introduced to Beat writing than to read The Subterraneans. Find an edition with Henry Miller’s preface. It’s every bit as good as the book itself. – David Hartzheim
Also available by Kerouac: On the Road; The Dharma Bums; The Haunted Life; Big Sur; Desolation Angels; The Town and the City; Visions of Cody; The Sea is My Brother; Lonesome Traveler; Jack Kerouac: Collected Poems; The Scripture of the Golden Eternity; Mexico City Blues; The Portable Jack Keroac; Vision of Gerard; Vanity of Dulouz; Maggie Cassidy; Dr. Sax; Tritessa; Scattered Poems; Windblown World; Some of the Dharma; Book of Blues; Kerouac: Selected Letters Vol. 1 and 2; Book of Haikus; Sioc Maidine/Morning Frost; Book of Sketches; Satori in Paris & Pic; Good Blonde; Book of Dreams; Old Angel Midnight; Heaven and Other Poems; Trainsong.