It is sunny, no humidity in the late spring of 1960. A brisk breeze blows in Northport, Long Island where Jack Kerouac has made his home with his mother for two years now.
He sits in his yard reading his copy of Suranguma Sutra:
What suffers rebirth is not the individual, but the pain of individuality…
He is sober, for now, having taken upon himself a concerted effort to abstain once again, to hold together his unraveling sanity and to maintain the endurance necessary to write. The mail has stopped coming since he hasn’t published a new book since the previous summer. For now, there is Book of Dreams to which he was recently busy penciling edits (changing names) in his “blackboard onionskin private Dreambook” he has to return to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights in San Francisco. He also deletes dreams selected for publication by Ferlinghetti dealing with “ex-wives” so as to avoid libel lawsuits.
The momentum of On the Road slowed to a crawl, and the past three years had gone by in a blur, exacerbated by alcohol abuse and a hesitant dalliance with fame. Most of his important books written between 1952 and 1954 had already been published by publishers eager to snatch up a slice of the Kerouac pie, all released to little fanfare. There still is little regard for the merits of his unique writing and for the most part each book is panned by critics and shunned by readers. They bring royalty checks to cover the bills, but little else. Little by little, in America, they drop out of print, and since they had become forgotten, so was he.
He craves attention as much as he despises it.
So, for now, he sits in a lounge chair in his suburban backyard, bitterly remarking in his diary on the Soviets’ nuclear fallout from test bombing nuclear weaponry, that such men could ever “contaminate the freedom of eternity.” The previous night he had observed the rising moon. It reminded him of watching numerous rising moons in the northwest when he served as a fire lookout in the Washington Cascades. It makes him yearn for such an escape once more.
This night it rises again, bright and yellow as Kerouac watches from his yard with its stockade fencing, four trees and fresh-mown grass. He liked to think of himself as hiding incognito from the sufferings of fame and the nightmarish hellhounds of drinking. Or those who throw rocks at his door to get his attention. Here is serenity among his mother’s roses and daisies. To carry out his wish fulfillment of being like Henry Thoreau, he planted bean and corn plants. But somehow none of that is enough.
His mind is his means of making a living, yet he is barely driven to write. When he can’t write, he retrieves older work. This time he is under pressure to write another column for Escapade and another for True magazine. He considers using an abstract from an early draft of On the Road, his “Ray Smith ROAD” which he titles “The Loneliness of Doren Coit.” Finishing it means he could earn $1500.00 to buy a piano and take him to Mexico. But he doesn’t want to write it. To write his new column, Kerouac recited some of it into his reel-to-reel tape recorder. He knew what he wanted to say in it, but still felt like he didn’t want to. In the late 40s and early 50s, he was motivated by the truth of what he wanted to say, to describe, to confess, but all of that has faded into a memory as intangible as the dreams in Ferlinghetti’s fair copy of the manuscript he has sent him.
By June 9, he is more hopeful. When he wakes, the sky reminds him of Canada and he learns that he has finally sold Doctor Sax overseas to French publisher, Gallimard. Doctor Sax, he regards as his masterpiece. Its lack of acceptance in America means that he has another chance in the homeland of his ancestors.
By night he wonders, watching a full moon rising “cold & strange” over the sterile suburban Long Island landscape.
The next day Kerouac “knocked out” his jazz column for Escapade (which won’t be published until its December 1960 issue): “Ten years ago my good friend Seymour Wyse of London ran his finger across his throat and said: “Jass killed itself.”
It isn’t the piece abstracted from his “Ray Smith” working draft, but another utilized from his tape recording recital. But he still has the article to write for True. Another idea occurs to him where he imagines explaining “beat” to his old Lowell buddy, Mike Fournier. On several occasions, taking this creative tack helped him jumpstart his writing when he was starved for a method to move him through time. In April 1951, it was his second wife to whom he explained the story of the road and Neal Cassady. In a few years, it will be his third wife to whom he will write of his long-gone football youth, when everything was fresh and exciting and the road was still ahead of him (in Vanity of Duluoz). But who is there to speak to now? He reaches into his past, to a person he hadn’t spoken to in almost two decades and is confounded because it baffles him into futility.
He is proud of the fact that he hadn’t had a drop of alcohol in days now. But that spell of sobriety is broken by evening when he has acquaintances over: Tom Payne, his “millionaire girlfriend” Mickey, and Kerouac’s girlfriend Lois Sorrels. He gets drunk on gin. The ghost horrors of his heart resume tenancy.
By the following morning, Kerouac is sick, not only because he is hungover, but with pangs of remorse. There is, he realizes, a pattern to his illness, and though he can identify this pattern, he does little to stop it. He continues drinking into the next day with Lois, his woman for the moment. Though she fulfills his sexual needs (under Gabe’s roof no less, crudely telling Ginsberg that she “comes to fuck and suck”), she is helpless to aid him in other ways.
By June 13, a Monday, he sinks to a gloomy funk. By Tuesday, he feels that his brain has gone “soft” and the labor of writing is the furthest thing from his mind. He has fallen into the same old trappings and no amount of reading the Surangama Sutra was going to save him. He only had to turn to his own “Dharma” notebooks for guidance:
“The reason not to drink any alcohol at all is to attain permanently to the shivering bliss of pure blood. To keep the mind from confusion.” [see also Some of the Dharma, 94].
“Drink,” he writes in his “Dharma” notebook on January 30, 1955, “is the curse of the Holy Life.” Five-and-a-half years later he is battling the very same demons, this time in his house with the “reverend mother,” Gabrielle (as he referred to her in a Lowell interview a couple of years later). But that can’t shield him from his personal demons. There is little to do to wile away the long hours of a springtime slowly growing hotter into summer. Most times he makes “tape records” from jazz playing off the radio. In his heart, he craves to write another novel by candlelight, like he did with Visions of Gerard when he penciled it in the candlelit darkness high on benezedrine in the wintry nights of January 1956 on his sister’s table top in Rocky Mount, North Carolina (addressing it to Lucien Carr).
He craves the impressionistic rush of holy words that came to him effortlessly, unhampered by brain fog and boredom, bowing to the great Buddhawork of his holy mission, salved by St. Paul’s Corinthians: “Neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase.”
He is in need of a “secret trip” he tells Allen Ginsberg in a letter written to him in Peru on June 20. Mexico is his first choice: “if only I could have a month alone, and smile and talk to myself quietly in French in a flowery sad Mexican midnight study, with a big garden wall of lizards maybe …” He feels that he nothing more than a “hairy loss old man with not-thought and no-talk almost.” [letter to Ginsberg, June 20, 1960]
By mid-June, not much has changed. Writing is the furthest thing from his mind. He feels sick and brain soft. He obsesses on the idea of going away by himself for a month. North port, its humdrum normalcy is driving him mad. When he wakes in the morning, he is “horrified” at that prospect of facing his mother … or anybody. Sitting in his midnight yard he self-analyzes what his problem is and what he should do about it. He is disturbed by the darkest depths of his depression to the degree that it tears him away from those life choices that brought him solace and joy. He doesn’t want to write or read. He doesn’t want to pray or meditate. He doesn’t want to “believe in anything any more.” He craves a “holiday to rediscover my heart.”
By mid-month agent Sterling Lord writes that Italian publishers have purchased the rights to Doctor Sax and Maggie Cassidy. More earnings he can count on when the years grow lean.
He yearns respect. It was Dan Talbot’s June 1958 New York Times review of Tristessa that last lauded Kerouac as a writer worthy of seriousness:
“The true importance of Kerouac is that he rekindled the Super-Romantic tradition at a time when it needed rekindling. He is a born writer, as against an Academy-trained smithy. He loves language, and he obviously has a profound feeling for the human race. Never having been trained, since he didn’t care, to use prose as a sociological weapon or a Czerny exercise, he became a vaudeville bard. At times he sounds embarrassing, even sloppy. In the end he is more truthful, entertaining and honest than most writers on the American scene.”
But that seems like an eternity ago. He needs to reverse his thinking, to grasp an elusive mindset to write for himself and not for magazines and novels. He needs to find his own “private groove” like he did sketching in doorways and beat diner counter-tops in ’52, when he could describe the artificial affects of a Manhattan society girl with the same winsome ease as he writes of a junkie Mexican prostitute.
He gets drunk again on his latest favorite pairing: Schweppes and gin. He pours the delicious clear tonic over his mother’s ice cubes popped from her ice tray and hits it with a splash of gin and soon he is blissfully high, turning the radio knob higher the drunker he gets.
On TV he watches the 1934 film starring Will Rogers, David Harum. In the mail, he receives letters at last from Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso and Henri Cru then traveling in Genoa, Italy and scheduled to come to Northport in a few weeks. Desperate to finish his article for True, he starts to write again and stops. Beneath the stars he watches the universe reel a silent dance and for once, feels good. He remembers James Weschler’s essay that states that Kerouac was irresponsibly apolitical. Kerouac concedes because he is more attached to the freedom of eternity. Doesn’t one’s personality belie sufferance with life and death without ever being truly involved with either?
People, he realizes, only tended to get bored with “final things”; they sought a means to an end, striving to get there without being present in the moment. He rejoined the Prajna understanding of life and death and emptiness. Inspired he composed several sonnets:
“The world’s more / complicated than / an essay.”
There it all was, and he could have died that day knowing that he’d at least brought into manifestation his life’s sole mission, his life’s work. The Legend of Duluoz. Wrestling with mind and body for most of his life was yet to defeat by his sense of artistic responsibility. When he returned to New York City on June 22 (with Lois) he fell into a drinking binge. On the train back to Northport (Tom Payne was supposed to pick them up but didn’t) he experienced strange “benevolent” visions of the passengers.
At home, he sobered. He poured boiling water on poison ivy in the yard and read Norman Mailer’s book at the advent of New Journalism, Advertisements for Myself, picking up on the writer’s humility and sense of humanity. Yet, Kerouac also picked up on the fact that Mailer misidentified “hipster” as a word from 1952. The term reached further back, Kerouac wrote in his diary, as far back as 1932. The word “beat” went possibly further to 1910 (“I’m sure”) to the black South and up to the more recent exchange between Jack Teagarden and Louis Armstrong (“I sure is beat”). Mailer, Kerouac realized, had only chosen to take one side “righteously.” Mailer called Kerouac “dishonest.” This so disturbed him that his hand began to shake with dismay: “I just can’t take all this sea of sinister human hate engulfing my head.”
Having received his “original manuscript” of On the Road that day, Kerouac realizes that he could have published something far greater than Mailer’s essays such as “The White Negro.” It didn’t happen because On the Road was “horribly” marked-up and “castrated” by Malcolm Cowley. In Kerouac’s opinion, it would have been a far greater book had it been left intact in its original April 1951 incarnation — a long, single confessional paragraph of breathless American wonderment. (Stowing it away in his carefully-maintained archive, Kerouac made plans to republish it in its original form in 1970.)
Kerouac had endured being maligned by the American press both over- and under-handedly. The day he struggled with Mailer’s denouncement of his character, Newsday published a cartoon of a bearded, coffee cup/bongo holding beatnik smiling at a headline:”IKE VISIT CANCELLED.” Also pictured was a “Jack Kerouac” book. A drunken Gabrielle wrote Newsday declaring that the Kerouacs were Republicans: “We like Ike.” She called the staff liars and bums.
Jack, for his part, did nothing. He never expected to be hated for writing honest-to-life books. He just wanted to be loved for his work. He allowed criticism to wound him because, like a child, he craved encouragement. Children, Kerouac noted, cannot thrive on hatred, nor could any human. Did this sinister encroachment arrive from Eastern Europe? Was it from the nuclear fallout? What of the recent riots storming Tokyo over U.S. occupation to such a violent extent that Eisenhower was forced to cancel his trip? Do people really want peace at all?
He recalled his Desolation Peak satori: “I don’t know, I don’t care, and it doesn’t make any difference.” It didn’t even make a difference to go to Heaven, or the work it took to get there. There is no connection to what we are doing now and what we’ll be doing in Heaven. On earth, there is no “honest justice” so one is forced to hang in the balance in the great Void existing between Heaven and Earth.
Death haunted, Kerouac pictured his gravestone and its epitaph:
I DON’T KNOW
I DON’T CARE
AND IT DOESN’T MAKE
Kerouac daydreamed of his death, of dying alone in the whirling Void, of the futility of a vainglorious funeral. He feels wiser because he sees the humor of it all. It wasn’t the death of Self that brings you closer to Heaven, but the “not-Self.”
From June 23 to the 29th, there comes another long drinking binge. This time he graduates from gin to whiskey, leering, laughing, shouting with a house full of people. He calls his mother “ugly” in front of an encyclopedia salesman tries to get him to buy a $300.oo book set. Kerouac signs on the dotted line, “Go Fuck Yourself.” He drunk-dials newly jail-sprung Neal Cassady because he is afraid to do it sober. (Carolyn Cassady has written Kerouac in 1959: “You must banish any thought of any guilt as must Neal. There is none anywhere. Certainly your book would have had nothing whatever to do with his present circumstances!”
He continues drinking until he has difficulty breathing.
He wants to get a cabin and read more; to become a Thoreau of the Mind and a Buddha of the spirit. In the mirror he sees himself growing flabby and fat. The muggy weather makes him feel even more miserable. There is no more solace in Jesus or jazz.
What lies truly around him? Long Island is a jungle waiting to devour him alive. He begins to despise even the springtime leaves and is scared of the birds on his mother’s feeder. He is suffering, he feels, from being hexed by “everybody.”
He is going mad.
Kerouac reads Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, in which one presumes Kerouac might find some solace in authorial kinship. Hesse writes, “He belongs to those whose fate it is to live the whole riddle of human destiny heightened to the pitch of a personal torture, a personal hell.” Instead, Kerouac finds Hesse’s pronouncement “absurd” and that the German writer is no more than a “shameless old relic of the 19th century.” Furthermore, he feels that Hesse is an imitator of Dostoevsky. Bitterly, Kerouac is especially vexed because of Hesse’s winning of the 1946 Nobel Prize.
And where was he? What had he earned for all of his troubles? Toward what aim did he sacrifice? He had forsaken two wives and one daughter, and of late, had even reacted badly toward his mother who in turn enabled him with her own drinking. He leans into his pencil, aghast at his naked diary confessions yearning for the Mexican night, of the lean tanned legs of “Tristessa” Esperanza and the swarming shadows of the Market Thieves. Not for him is the soft breeze of Parisian evenings, but that of the hot muggy Catholic guilt he witnessed all over Mexico City as potently as Lowell, Massachusetts. It was all sickening. In his books, critics and readers failed to see the scope and purity of his intent.
He is a martyr. He is Christ ascending Calvary. He is Buddha beneath a tangerine tree.
He wants a hideout of his own, maybe somewhere in New England, and to leave his mother to grow old in Northport. He wonders, in this state, why nobody bothers to help him, to take him away and allow him to be left alone. For now, he has an attic where the air conditioner pumps in dry air and keeps him away from the stifling summer heat that drops upon the Long Island shore by the end of June.
John Clellon Holmes comes to visit. They sit in the attic and have a long talk. Kerouac shares details of his horrible state of mind. At 2 AM he tries to write but the dense silence of the suburbs affects him to such a degree that he has to turn on his fans to cover the sounds of his scribbling.
“I HATE IT SO MUCH IT’S UNBELIEVABLE THIS HOUSE.”
Kerouac always feels eyes upon him, peering through half-closed drapes, from the street, through the doorway and into his mind. Time shows its emptiness throughout the “shit American Suburban horror” he sought to avoid.
On the morning of July 1, Kerouac wakes with stomach cramps so bad that he writhes on the floor. He shits black blood.
He feels better once it passes until more people come to his door, this time Charlie Byers and his cousin. Kerouac tells him that he’s sick, that his nerves are shot. Byers tries to talk him into a boat ride with his family. He says he’ll even hide the booze so Kerouac isn’t tempted. Kerouac is ashamed that such an offer even has to be made.
Then his sister and nephew come to visit. Lois wants to come over, and Henri Cru. Ginsberg is expected in a few weeks too.
The film The Subterraneans is about to have its premiere. MGM had taken liberties with his book, subtitling the fillm “Love Among the Bohemians.” It’ll start all over again, his peace and quiet, what little he has of it, to be shattered and his will to live disrupted.
He needs to be alone. Craves it with all of his heart’s desire.
In the first week of July, Ferlinghetti, all too aware of Kerouac’s problems, offers him the use of his cabin at Big Sur, California. Kerouac writes back on July 8:
“What I need now is a rest, is sleeping in my bag under the stars again, is quiet meditative cookings of supper, reading by oil lamp, singing, sitting by beach with note book and occasional wine.”
Fearing a railroad strike, he leaves earlier than planned.
He’s ready to start anew, brooding new promises to himself.
To find Buddha in sea waves and Christly temples in the Redwoods.
The Church is blowing
a sad windblown
“Kathleen” on the
bells in the skid
But there is nowhere to go, he is caught between Heaven and Earth, whirling in the Void waiting to be set free at last.