“Jack Kerouac drank himself to death, and I just ain’t that high.”
We don’t talk about American writers too often because, well to be honest, a distressingly high percentage of our staff has never read anything longer than a Jack Daniels label. Yes, we rocked you some Ernest Hemingway knowledge way back when, but come on. Look at the guy. Doesn’t Hemingway look like the type of man whose ghost you’d not want to piss off?
That being said, there is one writer in particular who was badass enough that he was able to warrant his own fun fact even though our 1950’s predecessors virulently hated the social group he inspired. A man who didn’t so much “write books” as he did “describe his drug and booze fueled crime sprees.” A true American who drank so much his stomach exploded.
This man, of course, is Jack Kerouac.
“Fuck you, literature, here’s some Kerouac coming right atchya.”
Jack Kerouac was born on March 12, 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts to French-Canadian parents the Statue of Liberty. Like any good American who didn’t learn how to speak English until the age of 6 (wait, what?) Kerouac decided to ramp up his Americanness by becoming a scholarship earning football player during an era playing football was less a “contact sport” and more a “who can die faster” contest. After having severed the spines of dozens of young men (allegedly) Kerouac joined the football team at Columbia University, until he cracked his tibia during his freshman season. For those of you who are medical professionals, or have broken a tibia before, that bone is known as either “the strongest weight bearing bone in the body” or “OH MY GOD IT’S BROKEN OH MY GOD THIS IS THE WORST PAIN IMAGINABLE.”
With his football career derailed, Kerouac dropped out of school because school is for losers (prove us wrong, kids. Prove us wrong). While living on his own in New York, he began associating with people who would, with him, form the backbone of the Beat Generation, including Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and William Burroughs (a habitual heroin user that once accidentally shot and killed his wife while they drunkenly tried to do a William-Tell-like party trick. Seriously).
This is the face of a man who took so much heroin in his life that his legal gender was “Narcotic” by 1970.
After serving for eight days in the Navy (getting honorably discharged for being of “indifferent character”) he went on to be what we all dream of being- a material witness in a murder case. Because why the hell not. During this time, Kerouac often wrote about his exploits, and when your idea of a good time involves getting drunk on wine and hopping in a car to drive across the country to listen to some jazz music, there’s no need to try to fictionalize what happens to you.
Every novel that Kerouac wrote was autobiographical, with the names of himself and his friends changed. That’s why, in order to best sum up the man, we at AFFotD will give you a general summary of each of his novels, so you can get an idea the American that Kerouac had become by the time his novel On the Road helped inspire the Beat Generation (don’t worry, America- he hated beatniks and hippies as much as any properly blooded American). Because that’s just easier for us, and we didn’t plan this article in advance. Which is exactly how Kerouac would have wanted it.
The Town and the City (1950)
Kerouac’s first nvoel talked about the disconnect between Kerouac’s past in the rural town of Galloway, Massachusetts and in New York City. The “Town” part involves struggling with High School Football (so basically a 1930s Friday Night Lights) while the “City” segment talks about him meeting the Beat Generation figures. It was a more “standard” book than most of Kerouac’s other work (Kerouac would plan novels for years, but the actual writing process generally involved non-stop typing until the book was done, and Kerouac was loathe to edit his work). It wasn’t an overly successful novel either, unlike his second novel which spawned the entire Beat segment of Literature.
And yes, it does say John Kerouac up there. Authors like to do weird stuff with their names. Let’s move on.
On the Road (1957)
On the Road is where Kerouac really got in his stride, taking a series of road trips and turning them into a tome of all the crazy shit he did with his friend Neal Cassady. He took a 120 page scroll of paper, put it in the typewriter, and wrote it in one chunk without paragraphs or chapter breaks, because Jack Kerouac took the kind of drugs you don’t know how to ask for. The novel itself describes the events that took place between 1947 and 1950, including a road trip from New York to the West Coast as well as a trip to Mexico.
In the first part of the novel, Kerouac’s character, Sal Paradise, spends all his money taking a bus to Chicago and then decides to hitchhike all the way to San Francisco, because it’s pretty damn tough to be too concerned about getting picked up by a serial killer when you’re wasted most of the time. Eventually he meets a Mexican girl who he starts sleeping with because, you know, America, before heading back to New York. The rest of the novel includes trips to New York, San Fran, Denver, Mexico, booze, jazz clubs, stealing a car, driving over 100 miles an hour while wasted. While many youths latched onto this novel as an expression of frustration with society, let’s just be very clear. There’s very little more American than taking excessive road trips and drinking.
The Dharma Bums
In The Dharma Bums, Kerouac documented his experimentation with Buddhist doctrine. While sounds all “soul searching” and “not overly exciting” it’s important to keep in mind that the Wikipedia summary of the plot includes the line “three-day parties.”
Kerouac wrote The Subterraneans right after he had a relationship with an African American woman. The book is about how he totally had a hot, sexy relationship with an African American woman. Jack Kerouac was good at two things- drinking, sleeping with women, writing, and not knowing how to count particularly well.
Doctor Sax was a novel that was written about the time where Kerouac lived with a famous heroin dealer (what up Burroughs) in Mexico City. It’s about…a Giant World Snake? And, monsters? And, okay this one might be less “biographical” and more “HOLY SHIT LOOK AT MY HANDS THIS OPIUM IS THE BEST.”
Oh so Jack Kerouac had a debilitating drinking problem, we should mention that in a little less of a tongue and cheek way. Normally we’d be like “Ha, not a problem if you’re awesome at it,” but it sort of is a problem when you eventually die when your stomach basically explodes while you’re drinking malt liquor and whiskey at 11AM in the morning. Okay no, yes, that does sound like the most American Death this side of being strangled by a bald eagle using an American Flag, but you know.
Anyway, Big Sur is the reason why anyone who has read this book has a pretty good idea what to expect with Delirium Tremens. It’s about him trying to quit alcohol. He doesn’t quite pull it off. It’s pretty good, you should read it. Sorry, sorry, you should hire an immigrant to read it out loud to you for below minimum wage.
Of course, Kerouac had many more works in his bibliography, but all this talk about Kerouac’s boozing is making us thirsty. Time to pour a nice glass of bourbon.
What? Is that bad? Should we not have that reaction?
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Is Big Sur good?
I’m interested in giving it a look.
As a non-joke answer, we’d say, yes, if you like kerouac it’s probably one of his best and definitely the last “really good” book he wrote.
As a joke answer, we’d probably be like “gotta give it a lot of looks, it’s got a lot of pages!” like that obnoxious coworker of yours who responds to questions about his hair cut by saying “no, I got ALL of them cut.”
None of my coworkers read books, I don’t think – nothing they’ve ever said or done has given me the impression that they’ve read anything other than “The Hungry Caterpillar” 20 years ago.
But thanks, I’ll have a look. 😉
Big sur is one of thing importantly. Kerouac makes rampant alcoholism sound fantastic and this one basically shows you the consequences. The books get kind of madder as they go in terms of the writing style. The stream of consciousness gets off the ground with a lot in desolation angels and goes purely mad in parts of big sur. Seriously, don’t drink too much port
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I know this is an old thread here, but if you are new to Kerouac I would recommend Dharma Bums as a primer, and Desolation Angels or On the Road as follow ups… Visions of Gerard and Dr. Sax give you a glimpse of Jack’s version of his childhood so are good to mix in if you really like his work.
Who wrote this article? I think I love them haha