Jack Kerouac is a writer who most teenage boys romanticize for his book On the Road, which documents his own travels doing what many of us dream of the moment we get hair under our arms: to hit the road in search of everything and nothing all at once, somewhere else. Big Sur however is a very different book.
Big Sur is a novel written after Kerouac became popular and started to loath his success. CS Louis is a man who writes for us who loathes his lack of success and desires popularity. And so he was recently compelled to write a weirdo book report mimicking Kerouac’s misery — all while he was genuinely ill, twisted and bathing wretchedly. It’s classic CS. Read it below. —Travis
Illustrations by Dani Loureiro
Big Sur almost begins with the camaraderie of On The Road convening Jack’s admiration of Cody (Dean Moriarty’s character from On The Road) and the reminiscent joy of their past beatnik adventures shared.
…it’s blue dusk all up and down the California world – ‘Frisco glitters up ahead – Our radio plays rhythm and blues as we pass the joint back and forth in jutjawed silence both looking ahead with big private thoughts now so vast we can’t communicate them any more and if we tried it would take a million years and a billion books…
But then a disaster of self-loathing spirals and Jack is certain his fated role is that of a drunken hedonistic villain who can only bring despair, disappointment, and ultimately death to all those unfortunate enough to surround him, especially women. He is caught in alcohol’s grip, and even his attempts to escape the city’s evil triggers him to a quiet Big Sur cabin, and not even that can help him escape the bottle.
“Why does God torture me? – But anybody who’s never had delirium tremens even in the early stages may not understand that it’s not so much a physical pain but a mental anguish indescribable to those ignorant people who don’t drink and accuse drinkers of irresponsibility – The mental anguish is so intense that you feel you have betrayed your very birth, the efforts nay the birth pangs of your mother when she bore you and delivered you to the world, you’ve betrayed every effort your father ever made to feed you and raise you and make you strong and my God even educate you for ‘life,’ you feel guilt so deep you identify yourself with the devil and God seems far away abandoning you to your sick silliness – You feel sick in the greatest sense of the word, breathing without believing in it, sicksicksick…”
Yesterday I floated in the bathtub for hours whilst nearly completing Jack Kerouac’s last novel – But I stopped short of the final four-page chapter. I stopped to be sure I set an appropriate mood for the finale. It felt that wading in an ocean-view Jacuzzi bathtub watching my little warm dick float back and forth in the currents was a hair extravagant for a novel that is basically the memoir of Jack losing his grasp on reality while drinking himself into a lonely and desperate grave. There is no plot and there is no redemption. There is barely punctuation and many redundant and rambling chapters of complete nonsense. I’d struggled for almost two years to get through the wearing middle chapters. Perhaps the most remarkable part of the book is that he was able to write it at all in his deteriorated state – There are chapter-long dialogues of insanity where I was left unsure which of his disillusioned characters were speaking, or if Jack was speaking, or if it was all just fishbowl thoughts floating in his mind aimlessly yet arranged as dialogue.
“That’s what old men do, Cody, they drive slowly backwards in Safeway Supermarket parking lots.”
And today this passage makes sense to me. Yesterday I was on the outside struggling to empathize. But today I am Jack and I am deranged and I am enveloped in a vomiting-induced psychosis certain of joy’s departure and waiting for seemingly imminent death. I have no clarity and I am in pain both in my swollen abdomen but more thoughtlessly in my waning psyche. I am broken and beyond repair and I don’t see the point in carrying on. No matter how fitting, I will not read the last four pages in this state. I cannot. I would never recover. I’m quite sure I wouldn’t want to recover anyways, but I will certainly perish if I do. It would slit my wrist or more aptly be the swallow of a lethal handful of pharmaceuticals in haste.
So I lay wallowing and bored but not a commonplace bored. One where the clock is ticking and my symptoms attack in waves following each purge into the toilet bowl. I finish by brushing my teeth following each vomit in an attempt to limit the stomach acid from searing my esophagus. I then eat at most one cracker and three drops of room temperature tap water and place a dissolving anti nausea strip that they give chemo patients under my tongue. But it doesn’t work and then I get cold and shiver and assume I have a fever, so I take off all my clothes and begin to sweat and then my stomach grumbles emptily. But this is pain and not agony, it is physical, and I can endure.
…Even so Alf the sacred burro is in the yard waiting for somebody to give him an apple – I look up at the sun going down golden throughout the insane shivering canyon, that blasted rogue wind comes topping down trees a mile away with an advancing roar that when it hits the broken cries of mother and son in grief are blown away with all those crazy scattering leaves – The creek screeches – A door bangs horribly, a shutter follows suit, the house shakes – I’m beating my knees in the din and cant even hear that.”
And now I am beyond anxiety — sure my suffering will never end while my soul is still earthbound. So I’m ready for it to all be over as I lay in bed reliving the five minutes prior when I had been hunched over the toilet shivering and gagging in convulsions wishing I could get up and close the window to stop the winter winds from rushing past my corpse. I for the first time understand the phrase “my skin is crawling” as I lay restless and hopeless with my mind flashing in and out of haunting dramas spanning my childhood ‘til present day of every person I’ve ever wronged.
“As I pass I even see the expression on the face of a youngish blonde vulture man eternally displeased because his Vulture Mistress is an old Yakker who’s been arguing with him all the time – His face is completely human but inhumanly pasty like uncooked pale pie dough with dull seamed buggy horror that he’s doomed to all this enough to make me shudder in sympathy, I even see her awful expression of middle aged pie dough tormentism – They’re so human!”
The only solution is beyond apparent as I roll over and overhear a sexy vampire sitcom with a British-accented (yet remarkably attractive) vampire vixen plotting who’s blood she fancies most at their impending high school prom – I must end – My life up until now has been a similarly pitiful and trite existence and I have not lived up to my potential, and in this failing, I have not honored the surely numerous sacrifices my parents made during my blessed upbringing. I do not deserve to continue eating and breathing and playing while taking it all for granted. The world is fucked, and in this fucked world I only create sadness in those around me and am doomed to do so for the rest of my loathed days. I need to die.
“I’m afraid to close my eyes for all the turmoiled universes I see tilting and expanding suddenly exploding suddenly clawing into my center, faces, yelling mouths, long haired yellers, sudden evil confidences, sudden rat-tat-tats of cerebral committees arguing…and suddenly the wind explodes huge groans in the million treetop leaves that sound like the moon gone mad…”
My brain swivels. It is mutiny. Reviving and reliving a highlight reel of embarrassment and shame. And it will not stop. I look to the ocean for shark fins and relief, but am reminded where I spent over 20 years playing selfishly with my most success being the handful of times another surfer I respected told me I did a decent cutback. Or when a Chinese man appeared in the bushes with a long lens and posted what he believed to be the most representative moments of the session on his Facebook page and I regretfully checked it daily in the hope I could send my mates at home proof that I hadn’t given in to life yet. Adult life. Or yelling and being rude and just a general asshole because I think the ocean is more mine than someone else’s and then a seal pops his pup head up to scan the surface and I scurry over frantically next to the surfer I had just verbally attacked for safety. I feel small when I look to the sea so I stop.
“The boys reassure me the hot springs bath will do me good (they see I’m gloomy now hungover for good)…And sure enough it is a dead otter I guess, a big brown pale lump floating up and down mournfully with the swells and ghastly weeds, my otter, my dear otter, my dear otter I’d written poems about – ‘Why did he die?’ I ask myself in despair…All the fellows are shading their eyes to get a better look at the big peaceful tortured hunk of seacow out there as tho it’s something of passing interest while to me it’s a blow across the eyes and down into my heart.
The anguish and anxiety have driven me back to the bathroom now. I wish I was drunk and silly and throwing up. But I am neither. It is time to explode my innermost yellow-hued bile shame into the toilet alone and cold because the window is still open, leaving me exposed to the winter wind once again in a 45-minute long Groundhog Day cycle. It is violent and I do not believe it will ever end and tears well in the corners of my eyes. I do believe I do not care to fight any longer. I do not have a way to make it end though.
I get up and brush my teeth, and then eat a single dry cracker and the paste sticks to the sides of my mouth and tongue and my mouth is clogged. I do not dare to drink water because I want this to end. I listen to music and it drones and I wish I was sharing it with a human. I wish I had treated more friends better previously and was not alone. Yesterday I loved this album but today I am reminded of my foolish pride and cannot bear the pressure building to the chorus. The room hates me as it attacks and I imagine papers flapping violently like an indoor tornado struck and I cower. It is too much again. But more too much than last time it was too much. I recline overwhelmed.
“Suddenly I hear a hum, a definite flying saucer is hovering right over those trees where the hum must be, there are orders in there, “They’re coming to get me O my god!” – I jump up and glare at the tree, I’m going to defend myself – The bat flaps in front of my face – “The bat is their representative in the canyon, his radar message they got, why don’t they leave?” doesn’t Dave hear that awful hum?”
I scan the room dizzily searching for a familiar item that brings joy or can assist the formation of a simple smile. I need to laugh but have lost my humor. I look to a bookshelf full of books stacked offensively so that everyone who enters my den knows I can read. Left to right, top to bottom, “look I can do it mom!” I study the rack of wine and am reminded of past over indulgences. I have no centre and no limit and no self-control or discipline and am regularly black-out drunk in happy state forgetting the world but today my stomach will not allow me to forget the world. I feel weak and defenseless because I rely on alcohol to alter my mood. I promise that if I survive my habits will change.
“…the first day you get drunk is okay, the morning means a big head but so you can kill that easy with a few more drinks and a meal, but if you pass up the meal and go on to another night’s drunk, and wake up to keep the toot going, and continue onto the fourth day, there’ll come one day when the drinks wont take effect because you’re chemically over-loaded and you’ll have to sleep it off but cant sleep any more because it was the alcohol itself that made you sleep those last five nights, so delirium sets in – Sleeplessness, sweat, trembling, a groaning feeling of weakness where your arms are numb and useless, nightmares…”
I spin again and recline once more into a puddle of indented sweat on the couch and I cannot get up. I wish I had more respect for future guests that will sit on this couch unknowing of its current state. I want to get up but am catatonically horizontal. Then a rush to my abdomen of acute discomfort attacks. I have decided to use discomfort to describe physical pain now and reserved pain for the mental agony I cannot escape. My diaphragm again spasms and I launch towards the kitchen sink ashamed that I could not make it upstairs to the toilet to convulse. My family will soon eat out of this sink, but I could not control my bodily functions and now it is tainted forever.
Particles stick in the drain and I am again cold. There is not an open window in this room but I feel a wintery draft. It is inescapable. It is the virus coming back for whatever is left of my fragile demeanor. All I had was health and I poisoned it and now it is gone. I cannot maintain this cycle and I need to find a way to smile or it will never end. I am close to death and cannot recover.
I stagger upstairs and into the bathroom opening the hot tap into the empty bath. I remove my soiled clothing and step into the water. It is boiling because the water heater is turned up too high because I hate the environment and it burns but I have no reaction. I am numb and pray the pain will cleanse me ascetically like a monk. Big Sur resides on the bath’s cold tile edge and the good sense I previously had to avoid it has long disappeared. I have nothing left I could possibly lose. No pride, no joy, no relief – and I open the fourth to last page to begin the final chapter. This is the appropriate finale I had hoped for yesterday.
“…in fact we’ve got to dig a garbage pit and get rid of the junk – Billie offers to dig the garbage pit but does so by digging a neat tiny coffin-shaped grave instead of just a garbage hole – Even Dave Wain blinks to see it – It’s exactly the size fit for putting a little dead Elliot in it, Dave is thinking the same thing I am I can tell by a glance he gives me – We’ve all read Freud sufficiently to understand something there – Besides little Elliot’s been crying all morning and has had two beatings both of them ending up crying and Billie saying she cant stand it any more she’s going to kill herself.”
It is perverse and I laugh. There are images of tiny fish canonized at the cabin’s dinner table surrounded by a loose woman that Jack does not respect and her poor child witnessing torment and abuse while Jack’s conscience assumes the worst of each character’s intentions. It is a spiral of human comedy while the woman digs a child-size grave to bury the trash and Jack makes inner parallels citing Sigmund Freud that her actual intention is to bury her only son in the hole. They depart the cabin and one can only assume that Jack dies shortly thereafter. Not the Jack character, but Jack Kerouac, the actual man. He dies alone in anguish with his mind perceiving negativity and ill intentions of all his friends and acquaintances and strangers he spent a lifetime amassing.
“Dave goes off, the girls clean up and sweep, the little kid is sleeping and suddenly hopelessly and completely finished I sit there in the hot sun and close my eyes: and there’s the golden swarming peace of Heaven in my eyelids – It comes with a sure hand a soft blessing as big as it is beneficent, i.e., endless – I’ve fallen asleep.”
And in the morning I awake with the terror of the hours prior haunting my sweating exhausted soul but feel fortunate to have learned from Jack’s woeful and lonely drunken demise. My habits will surely kill me.
“…’We are fog and we fly by dissolving like ephemera’, and the leaves say, ‘We are leaves and we jiggle in the wind, that’s all, we come and go, grow an fall’…But I remember seeing a mess of leaves suddenly go skittering in the wind and into the creek, then floating rapidly down the creek toward the sea, making me feel a nameless horror even then of ‘Oh my God, we’re being swept away to sea no matter what we know or say or do’…”