Year of Kerouac: Vanity of Duluoz, Atop an Underwood

Presented here for your edification (and possible emancipation) is the latest installment of The Year Of Kerouac, my year-long project of re-reading (or in some cases, reading for the first time) the works of Jack Kerouac. As a quick refresher on the ground rules, I’m reading them not in the order of when they were written (the years on the left below) but rather in order of the subject matter most of them cover, Kerouac’s own life (the years to the right below). I’ve highlighted what I’ve read thus far, and put in links to my earlier reviews. 

Visions of Gerard             1956       1922–1926

Doctor Sax          1952       1930–1936
Maggie Cassidy 1953       1938–1939
 Vanity of Duluoz               1968       1935–1946
Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings    1936–1943           Various
The Town and the City   1946–1949           1935–1946
On The Road      1948–1956           1946–1950
Visions of Cody 1951–1952           1946–1952
The Subterraneans         1953       1953
·         Mexico City Blues (1955; published 1959)
Tristessa              1955–1956           1955–1956
The Dharma Bums           1957       1955–1956
·         The Scripture of the Golden Eternity (1956; published 1960) 
Desolation Angels            1956–1957 
Book of Dreams   1960    1952-1960
Lonesome Traveler, short story collection (1960)
Big Sur (novel)   1961       1960
Satori in Paris     1965       1965
·         Pic, novella (1951 & 1969; published 1971)

Vanity of Duluoz is a book I’d actually been quite curious about. I knew it was one of the last things Kerouac wrote, finishing and publishing it the year before he died. I had also heard that it was one of his worst books, and showed the signs of having been written by a late-stage alcoholic. So what’s the verdict? No. And yes. At first I actually quite liked it for perhaps exactly those qualities that others had keyed in on- a relaxed informal flow, rather like hearing a story from the guy on the bar stool next to you, asides, garrulous outbursts, and all. And it really is an interesting text in some ways- presented as an explanation of his younger days to his wife, Stella, and keeping many of the trappings of fictional narrative, but continuously aware of the author as a subject, even occasionally pausing to give the real names behind the “fictional” characters. I found it to be quite engaging much of the way through (despite the preoccupation with football stories in the author’s younger life), but eventually it turns and starts to feel sloppy. This actually reminds me of my own experience of writing while drinking in days gone past- at first it loosens up the flow and actually improves things, until you hit the inflection point where impairment starts to outweigh dis-inhibition. It’s especially unfortunate that the sloppiness really starts to set in around the time period I was most interested in, the formation of the proto-Beat movement in the late 40s. It does give you quite a sense, though, of the ambition and innocence of the younger man behind the bitterly burned-out older man, and the beginnings of the restless wandering that would dominate his life. Which becomes even more heartbreaking when you read…

Atop an Underwood. This is one of a few select violations on my reading list of a policy of only reading things Kerouac actually published in his lifetime. Especially as interest in Kerouac re-grew in the 90s, there have been a string of posthumous releases, some of which have a great deal of integrity as literary products. And some of which, well… In this case, we have a collection of his work as a neophyte writer before he began work on his publishing debut, The Town and the City. It seemed worthwhile, as I was interested in this phase of his development, and it is, after all, what he was actually writing while living the life covered in Vanity of Duluoz. Some of it is certainly stilted and formulaic, and shows the signs of the imitative “how do I do this?” stage that young writers often go through. It reminded me of my own teens and early 20s writing in that way. But it also shows that, even as a very young man, he was amazingly talented, and possessed of an impressive depth of mind and broadness of vision. It is also shot through with a desire to achieve great things and produce something new in the world. It makes quite a contrast with the narrator of Duluoz, embittered with life and thoroughly disenchanted with his own literary legacy. I think he could have benefited from reacquainting himself with the optimism, vision and drive of his youth. Perhaps we all could!      

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