When Vanity of Duluoz: An Adventurous Education, 1935-46 was written in 1967, an overweight and severely alcoholic Jack Kerouac had only two years to live. Chronicling the years just before his adventures with Neal Cassady, his last complete volume takes Jack from the football fields of high school, to the dangerous seas of World War II, and finally to a New York City brimming with the Beat movement. Although the substance is youthful and energetic, and the witty tone addressed to his last wife is entertaining, a clear and strong resentment of the human condition pervades the book. “Nothing came of it. All is vanity” is the acidic conclusion.
As we read, it becomes clear that the days of satori and mythic revelation in On the Road are long over. There is something uncompromising about this book, and though it looks back to an earlier time, it is full of death: Kerouac’s doomed shipmates on the Dorchester, the murdered David Kammerer, and the author’s broken father. His friend Sabby Savakis dies during the war, and when Kerouac sees “flowers of death” in his eyes at the Boston dock as they say farewell, we sense perhaps the author is seeing them in the mirror twenty five years later.
A version of similar events appeared in Kerouac’s more clearly fictional first novel, The Town and the City. So, why bother rehashing these years? For the author, it became a question of truth. He states, “Everybody’d begun to lie and because they lie they assume that I lie, too….but I do believe lying is a sin.” The project of Vanity of Duluoz: An Adventurous Education, 1935-46 is to set records straight, to complete the great “Duluoz legend” in its memorial entirety. We can hope that someday a future scholar will put all these books together in one great Proustian novel, as was Kerouac’s dream.
Appraising this final piece of autobiography, the reader almost believes Kerouac sensed his own impending doom, and valiantly attempted to complete this ambitious narration. He mentions a woman’s letter written to him recently that stated: “You are not Jack Kerouac. There is no Jack Kerouac. His books were not even written.” It is against this great nihilistic denial that the author fights, swinging his great fists of prose. And against his own feeling of bitter defeat he places another, greater feeling: I am.