The Portable Jack Kerouac

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Jack Kerouac is still the most famous fictionist of the Beat Generation of the 1950’s, even more than a quarter-century after his death at forty-seven, and here Ann Charters has collected representative samples from his major works into one large “portable” volume. Unfortunately, and as with any collection such as this, the reader gets only a taste of Kerouac from all the fragmentary excerpts and will need to turn to one of the complete novels, probably On the Road (1957), in order to get a fuller sense of what makes Kerouac an important American writer.

In addition to a half-dozen introductions and appendices, the body of The Portable Jack Kerouac consists of seven sections, including selections of poetry and letters, essays on jazz and Buddhism, and theoretical pieces and applied examples of Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose” writing method. Yet the bulk of the volume, and nearly three-quarters of its length, consists of eighteen short stories and excerpts from the major novels which form the “Duluoz Legend” master work, written between 1951 and 1967, and arranged in chronological order, from Kerouac’s birth in 1922 (described in Doctor Sax in 1959) to an excerpt from Big Sur (1962), when Kerouac was visiting the California coast and fighting the alcoholic paranoia that followed on his fame.

In the introduction to Big Sur, Kerouac described the grand plan behind his fiction:

My work comprises one vast book like Proust’s except that my remembrances are written on the run instead of afterwards in a sick bed . . . just chapters in the whole work which I call The Duluoz Legend. . . . The whole thing forms one enormous comedy, seen through the eyes of poor Ti Jean (me), otherwise known as Jack Duluoz, the world of raging action and folly and also of gentle sweetness seen through the keyhole of his eye.

Charters allows readers for the first time to see this scheme unfold in one volume, and her arrangement of the different pieces reveals just how autobiographical all of Kerouac’s prose essentially was. With little changed except the names, Kerouac writes of the trauma of the death of his older brother Gerard when Jack was four—Gerard will become a Christlike figure hovering over the later novels—of growing up in Lowell, Massachusetts, in a French-Canadian family, starring as a high school athlete, and going to Columbia University on a football scholarship. After a knee injury, Kerouac dropped out of college, joined the Merchant Marine during World War II, and landed in New York City right after the war—and into the middle of an explosion of the arts that Kerouac both participated in and helped to chronicle. At this point in the volume, sections from his best novel, On the Road, take readers across the country in Kerouac’s descriptions of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty’s explorations of what the author called “the holy road.”

It was drizzling and mysterious at the beginning of our journey. I could see that it was all going to be one big saga of the mist. “Whooee!” yelled Dean. “Here we go!” And he hunched over the wheel and gunned her; he was back in his element, everybody could see that. We were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move. And we moved!

From this fictional peak in 1957, the decline is swift, through fame, drugs, travel to Tangiers with William Burroughs (“Bull Lee”), and Kerouac’s struggles with alcohol and loneliness. At the time of his death in 1969, he had been living with his mother in a trailer park in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Kerouac’s prose was always a mix of fact and fiction, and the arrangement of the seventeen pieces here puts the chronology of his life, from his “confessional picaresque memoirs,” together. Kerouac did not write his life story with such historical neatness, which is why Charters’ method is useful in putting it into some order. It is also helpful because Charters can insert short stories (such as “Jazz of the Beat Generation,” 1955) into the appropriate places in Kerouac’s life story.

Charters is also right to emphasize the importance of the “spontaneous prose” method that Kerouac created and that aptly characterizes the style of his books. “He developed a literary style,” she writes in her introduction,

to enable him to write...

(The entire section is 1837 words.)