Big Sur is often ignored by critics and Kerouac fans alike. We all want the freedom of On the Road, the craziness of The Dharma Bums — the celebration of the Beat lifestyle. We want young Jack living his American Dream of the road. But Big Sur shows what happens to Kerouac as fame and age taint that dream. “I’m just plumb sick and tired…of the whole nerve-wracking scene,” he says, and means it. Reading this novel is vital for anyone who wants to know what happens to an adult who lives on the edge when faced with responsibility and success. I have many friends who need this novel — friends who think they are challenging a system, when really they are living a permanent adolescence.
The celebrity author, harassed by fans at his home, flees to the West Coast to write in a relaxing atmosphere, free of the troubles of the real world. Lawrence Ferlinghetti lends him the Big Sur cabin in Bixby Canyon that should have been his salvation, but instead fuels an alcohol-induced breakdown. Near the beginning of the book, Kerouac’s beloved cat dies, prompting him to begin a fantastic drunk that lasts weeks. In the midst of this self-destruction he starts a twisted love affair with Neal Cassady’s mistress, “Billie.” But Kerouac’s descent into the depths of alcoholism ruins this love affair, his friendship with the other Beats, and most of all his appreciation for the beauties of the world around him, signified by the backdrop of Big Sur itself.
“Oh the sad music of it all, I’ve done it all, seen it all, done everything with everybody…The whole world is coming on like a high school sophomore eager to learn what he calls new things, mind you, the same old sing-song, sad song truth of death.” Big Sur is about this realization, that death waits for everyone, even those who seem the most full of life. “Something good will come out of all things yet,” he states at the end of the biographical novel, but anyone who knows the author’s story after this book knows that disintegration and death indeed triumph. We don’t want this. We want the romance of youth and the endless road ahead. Nevertheless, if Kerouac can face the loss of his dream, then so can we.