Jack Kerouac's Big Sur was written in 1963, after On the Road had become famous and made Kerouac and the beats mainstream sensations. Combining the nature idyll of Henry David Thoreau's Walden with the drug-addict's diary Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs, Big Sur recounts, in the semi-autobiographical (Kerouac himself is depicted as Jack Duluoz in the novel) style of Kerouac's other novels, Kerouac's attempt to escape his big-city celebrity and clean himself up. Living off and on in Lawrence Ferlinghetti's (called Lorenz Monsanto in the novel) cabin in Big Sur, California, he battles alcohol delirium tremens, depression, and raging paranoia.
Big Sur is a sometimes disheartening contrast from the joyous tone of earlier novels like On the Road and The Dharma Bums. Kerouac appears jaded, cynical, and bitter now:
"...poor kid actually believes there's something noble and idealistic and kind about all this beat stuff, I'm supposed to be the King of the Beatniks according to the newspapers, so but at the same time I'm sick and tired of all the endless enthusiasms of new young kids trying to know me and pour out all their lives into me so that I'll jump up and down and say yes yes that's right, which I cant do any more..." Big Sur, p. 109
In Big Sur
Jack (Duluoz/Kerouac) attempts his last hitchhiking
trip, unable even to manage the trip from Big Sur to San Francisco
, getting few rides and walking until his feet bleed.
The novel alternates between two symbolic realms: Big Sur's wilderness, and civilization. During his solitude in Monsanto's cabin Jack sometimes seems to be recovering, though Big Sur holds a sort of spiritual horror for him, amplified by his alcohol withdrawal. Kerouac's fear of Big Sur may be an expression of the alcoholic's fear of sobriety. If the natural setting of Big Sur represents the hope of recovery, than civilization represents the corrupting influences which hinder recovery. Kerouac is unable to resist a good party, leaving Big Sur several times to get drunk with the other beat poets of San Francisco. While in Big Sur, it seems like his horrors are often spurred by artifacts of man: a bridge spanning the Big Sur canyon and a destroyed automobile that has careened from its heights, a pit for garbage which resembles a grave for a child; and the corruption he brings with him: rat poison which kills a mouse he had kept as a wild pet, his beatnik friends who bring alcohol, and his own cravings for drink.
Kerouac finally hooks up with a sort of archetypal temptress- Billie, one of the many lovers of Cody Pomeroy (On the Road's Dean Moriarty, also known as Cody in Kerouac's Visions of Cody, after several years and a prison sentence in San Quentin for marijuana possession- in real life, Neal Cassady). Kerouac brings Billie back to Big Sur with him. The culmination of the delirium tremens Kerouac has been experiencing occurs, perhaps as a result of Billie's presence. Paranoid delusions climax in a painful orgasm of epiphany as Kerouac witnesses a vision of the Cross. Upon waking up the next morning, he abandons the west coast to return home.
Exhibiting more pain and sadness than the joy of On the Road and The Dharma Bums, Big Sur leaves a bad taste like a hangover. Despite often beautiful, touching, and inspiring prose, I felt that the overall effect of the book was quite negative. Scenes in which Billie abuses her child, Elliot, while a drunk Kerouac does nothing and in which Billie and Kerouac have sex while Elliot stands by yeling "don't do it" are disturbing, yet give a more complete picture of Kerouac and the beats, somewhat de-romanticizing the beat myth. In short, Kerouac's fans shouldn't be expecting On the Road or The Dharma Bums, but should still enjoy Kerouac's singular voice.
Big Sur is appended by a long poem entitled "Sea," written as a hallucinatory interpretation of the "sounds of the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur." The process of the poem's cathartic composition is recorded earlier in Big Sur.