Monthly Archives: November 2013

Year of Kerouac: The Subterraneans

Here we are for the latest installment of The Year of Kerouac. Which is likely now the Year-and-a-half-of-Kerouac since it’s already November. Let’s ignore twisted temporal tiddlywinks for the moment, though, and focus back on the mission: I have set myself the project of re-reading (and in many cases, reading for the first time) the works of Jack Kerouac in one(ish) year(s). 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). For your further edification, 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)


Which brings us to The Subterraneans. I’d tried and failed to read this around the age of 19 or so. Which I can understand now, looking back, as it’s definitely more on the experimental prose side of his works. Not Doctor Sax or Visions of Cody experimental, but certainly given to his ongoing concern for capturing the flow of thought in motion. It’s a fairly straightforward narrative in a way, chronicling the beginning, middle and end of a love affair. Except that the end informs the beginning throughout, and sometimes the middle circles back on itself to reveal another layer of the same incident. So, it might have been a little advanced for literary larval me. More than that, I don’t think I had the ability at the time to understand all the forces at play in Kerouac’s life as portrayed here- literary disappointment, romantic disappointment  and an unsuccessful struggle with accelerating alcoholism and his conflicted views on women and relationships. As in, they are divine creatures who can transform and save your life, but you also have to not get hung up on them and know when to ignore them. It’s heartbreaking to see it in motion, especially heartbreaking since you can feel the earnestness of his love interest Mardou Fox. I’ve seen others write about how she’s portrayed as crazy, but I find her to be a damn sight more sensible and stable than he is throughout. It’s also chilling, knowing his own end, to see him already, in 1953, suffering alcoholic withdrawal nightmares in the morning. One of the other things I found interesting about the book, knowing how autobiographical most of his writing is, was seeing the things he choose to fictionalize. The personages, his relationship with them, etc. is all virtually verbatim. But the story is set in San Francisco, instead of the New York where it actually happened, and he even has himself fictionally having grown up in South San Francisco instead of in Lowell, Massachusetts. Did this give him the distance he needed to get the story out? 

We will leave ourselves pondering that, and see how much further in the list I can get before the end of the year!