Monday, May 03, 2010

Partial Review: Kerouac's Big Sur

I pick up my books on tape at the library for night listening (and books on CD at the library for car listening), so I pretty much take what I can get. The library's selection favors mystery and detective novels, which generally don't much interest me. A couple weeks ago, I saw Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and thought that since I hadn't read it since high school (when I hated it, along with pretty much everything else because I was an obnoxious teen), I'd give it a try.

I remember in high school, complaining in class (did I mention I was a particularly obnoxious teen? I was serious about that) that Hemingway's narrative said six times in the space of a page and a half that it was raining. Six times. I had no appreciation of the genius.

I still don't.

I found the narrative repetitive (She was with them. She was very much with them. blah blah) and the plot uninteresting. The narrative didn't inspire me to care.

So on to Kerouac. I've only read On the Road before. I read it first when I was in the Peace Corps, 22 or so, living in the middle of nowhere in a rain forest, and I loved it. It was high adventure. I read it again at 30-something, and hated it. I have little patience these days for the ultra-romanticism of the very special tortured (almost always male) artist who's forced, FORCED to go around being obnoxious to other people who aren't very special artists.

But hey, Big Sur, there's a promising title!

I'm a cassette and a half in, so about one fifth of the book, and I'm irritated. I don't know whether I'll bother to listen to more, or whether my irritation will drive me to the library to get another book on tape.

Some of my irritation has to do with the very special tortured artist who treats everyone like crap and needs to go get drunk and piss on the world. I find drunks in texts marginally less irritating than drunks in person, and I detest being with people who are drunk in person.

Some of my irritation has to do with the sexism. The intro to the cassettes had a guy saying something about how Kerouac was never mean to anyone. I guess he doesn't consider women anyone?

There's a section where the narrator is trying to hitchhike back to San Francisco from Big Sur and not having much luck. He blames his lack of luck primarily on the fact that the cars passing are tourists with the husbands driving and the wives navigating and being far too petty and mean to let their husbands dare to stop to pick up a hitchhiker. It's clear from the narrative that wives abuse husbands horribly by not letting them go on their manly, homosocial fishing trips for the yearly vacation but insisting that the husband vacation with his family. The outrage!

Women in this text seem to come in two sorts: wives who abuse their husbands horribly by existing, and "girls" who are unnamed and merely temporary penis pockets.

My final irritation is petty, but serious. Kerouac keeps using "Frisco" for San Francisco. Bleah.

Here's what: San Francisco is either San Francisco, or, if you're in the Bay Area, simply "The City." If you're in New York or London or any other major metropolis, then you have to differentiate which "The City" you mean when you're saying "The City" and mean San Francisco, but if you're in the San Francisco area, everyone knows you mean San Francisco. Los Angeles is never "The City." Nor is San Jose.

I'm guessing being from Massachusetts, Kerouac thought of Boston or New York when he thought of "The City" and couldn't lose his snobbiness enough to listen to anyone actually in the Bay Area.

Kerouac takes a little dig at Hesse's Siddhartha, which is an interesting moment. Here's Kerouac, the rebel, taking a potshot at Hesse, who certainly wrote about the same sort of self-absorbed male heroes with a romanticist edge. (Yes, like everyone else in the early 80s, I read Hesse a lot.)

The good stuff? The flow of language is lots of fun. Some of the metaphors work well. But there's a sense of missing the landscape that just doesn't seem right for a text entitled Big Sur where all he notices is the ocean and some rocks, and then whines and goes back up to the City.


  1. Agreed on everything except one: LA is "the City" if you live in or near San Bernardino County.

  2. Anonymous7:14 AM

    I read Kerouac as a teenager, fascinated with the whole "hippie/beatnik" lifestyle, and HATED him. HATED, HATED, HATED. I figured at the time there must be something wrong with me, that I didn't appreciate what a free-spirited, tortured artist he was, but I hated his self-absorbed crap and misogyny so much I didn't care. Then in college I stumbled across a copy of Carolyn Cassady's "Off the Road" and it just reaffirmed all the things that had bothered me about Kerouac, Kesey, and the whole lot of them.

    And I'm from Massachusetts and I think "Frisco" is a crime against nature.

  3. "penis pocket": awesome.

    And I wonder if Frisco is some 50s thing? I think I remember it from my childhood...doesn't make it better, but still.

  4. Ah, it's refreshing to hear some negativity about Kerouac's writing!

    On the Road is one of the few books that I just bailed on, despite the fact that I was reading it for an A level class (and I was a good student!). I just hated it. Mostly for the reasons you describe. Particularly as a female reader, it's just so damn alienating. I really don't feel like applauding the rampant misogyny.

  5. awesome book review! i have a burning dislike of hemingway after reading large quantities; think i read a little kerouac, but he made no impression. probably stopped reading for the same reasons you mention.

    YES, about "the city." with meg's exception.

  6. That bit about not being able to get a ride because all the men driving by in their station wagons are pussy-whipped appears in the Norton Anthology, and occasionally I assign it in my American Lit Survey class. A few students love it (the spontaneity! the free-spirited rambling!), and I always have to ask them to explain why so I can share their appreciation. So far, no dice. I hate it more every time I read it.

  7. Didn't Herb Caen used to call it "San Fran"?

  8. Anonymous10:56 AM

    omg he cannot say frisco. no no no no. that's not a petty objection at all.

  9. herb caen was very clear on "frisco" being unacceptable language, used only by the least informed tourists. he did use a number of other endearments for the city, though, including "baghdad by the bay." pre-war, you know. an archive of his columns is at:

  10. Hmm, I lived in LA and never heard people call it "the City" in the way people in the Bay Area call SF the city. Maybe it was because I was in LA, and people talked about their neighborhoods, but the city as city not really? Maybe because there are so many other cities intertwined that it doesn't feel like a city in quite the same way that you feel the difference even if you go from South San Francisco (The Industrial City!) to San Francisco.

    Dame Eleanor and Kathy A. OMG, I hadn't thought of Herb Caen in ages. Remember how he used to be on the back page of the front section with the big Macy's ad? In the mid-80s, Roger Craig (the SF Forty-Niners running back) was in the ad in briefs. He was sculpturally perfect. And boy, did the women where I worked respond. Thanks for sharing the archives. I remember feeling like I understood the city at least a little when I began to "get" Caen's column as a teenager.

  11. Kerouac fan2:11 PM

    The only thing I can suggest for you feminists who want a politically correct Kerouac is that they publish versions of his books with all the sexist/misogynist bits cut out, then you could judge him as a writer, storyteller without feeling threatened by his insulting attitude to women. In my experience Bardiac a male driver on his own in a car is far more likely to pick up hitchhikers than a male driver with a female passenger. So Jack gets penalised for telling the truth?
    Al of 'Kerouac Beat_Happening'
    P.S. try this one Chapter 64 of Desolation Angels:

  12. Kerouac Fan, See, I don't need a politically correct text. I teach Shakespeare, for gosh sakes. But I want a text that's compelling and interesting; if it's challenging and interesting, then I'll read through and think about the sexism. But if it's not compelling and interesting enough, then why should I bother? Life is short, and there's a LOT of literature out there, even in my local library.

    I don't know (or care) whether men driving alone or with a woman in the car pick up more hitchhikers. I do know that men are adults who are responsible for their actions, and not mindless puppets managed by their wives.

  13. Kerouac fan2:56 PM

    If you want to quickly read that text I'm telling you about a better link might be:
    and 'search inside the book' the word "darning". (Though this short quote might lend more to your argument than to mine.) If you don't find Kerouac compelling and interesting that's fine, I just thought you ladies were saying you might dig his writing if it wasn't for the misogyny. I love Katherine Mansfield and hate Ernest Hemingway - that's taste.

  14. oh, i'll definitely have to look at the ladies' edited version of kerouac, so i too can understand what a brilliant writer he was, and how stupid i have been to have paid attention to other things all these years.

  15. I've never read Big Sur, but based on what Kerouac I have read, I have to commend your review. He deserves most of the criticism leveled at him (I particularly like Capote's "that's not writing, that's typing"). His interest in women certainly didn't go far beyond their effect on men. That said, his writing has its charm, especially for those under 25. He made the conscious decision to immerse his work in the style of that era's counterculture, using jazz cadences and hipster language, and his best work is well suited to the books-on-tape medium: it really sings. I think the term "Frisco" was a tolerable element of that beat style which probably called far less attention to itself 50 years ago than it does today.