By 1962 alcohol had become the combustible propellent of Jack Kerouac's saturated imagination. Like matches to the wick, binges could last weeks. 'Big Sur' brings a much different narrator than the frenetic idealist of 'On The Road'. When that was published, years after it had been written, he was touted as the bard of a new generation, a moniker he grew to deeply resent. Popular culture soon trivialized the 'Beats' into a parody of bongo drums and bad poetry. He became perceived by critics as a passing fad. A wounded Kerouac, his attempts to be recognized as a serious writer in disarray, hoped to dry out in a solitary retreat at Lawrence Ferlinghetti's cabin at Big Sur. It would be his last genuine effort at sobriety, and this book would become his last great novel.
Much of the book was written in the afterglow of hangovers, or the buzz of the day's first drink. There is weariness here, a sedated fatalism. His spirituality struggles with morbidity. Still, Kerouac's sensual, sensitive poetic prose might have reached its most sublime character in 'Big Sur', even in its fevered sparks of delirium tremens. It drifts, as Kerouac was drifting, in the disillusionment of the post-Beat rancor, then swirls into eddies of luminous energy. The flow of consciousness is viewed as if through a prism which gives experience a subjective, surreal semblance of order. It seems so tantalizingly close to grasping some illusive meaning, that talisman Kerouac had followed through friendships, terrestrial and spiritual wandering, hardscrabble existence, inebriation, all his life.
There is a little quip at the start of the book about the copyright problems he was having with previous publishers, regarding the use of the various names he had attributed to the pantheon of his 'beatnik' friends. The group who became the century's most legendary collection of literary iconoclasts. He describes all of his books as a single Proustian comedy of raging action, folly, sweetness. He whimsies spending his old age reinserting a consistent nomenclature. Of course, the old age would never be. A coherent structure, though, might have robbed the books of their intrinsic spontaneity, the root of their innocence. With all this, there is still a persistent, if subdued, cadence (a beat!) and a wry, if exhausted, humour. Lament or comedy, the roaring storm of On The Road, came crashing ashore at Big Sur, leaving the author a crumpled wreck on the beach. But from these bookends you can glean Kerouac's exhilarating, sad odyssey. 'Big Sur' is its most wrenchingly personal and expressive chapter.