Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 21, 2009

One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur

Filed under: feminism,literature — louisproyect @ 8:11 pm

While not nearly as well known as “On the Road”, Jack Kerouac’s “Big Sur” is just as great a masterpiece. Written in 1951 and published 6 years later, “On the Road” marks the beginning of Kerouac’s career, a time of great joy even as he lived in poverty. Written in 1960 and published 2 years later, “Big Sur” was Kerouac at the pinnacle of his fame and fortune but totally miserable. Indeed, the main lesson of “Big Sur” is that fame can drive you crazy.

Kerouac fans and those who are interested in the creative process in general will surely want to get their hands on the documentary “One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur”, directed by Curt Worden.  But even more it can be seen as a meditation on the corrupting influence of money and success on the arts. In one of the most revealing moments, Patti Smith reflects on the ambivalence that artists have about such matters. Speaking over the image of a Time Magazine cover, she says that Kerouac both hated what had become of him—the bad-boy “beatnik” darling of the mass media—as well as addicted to the very things that transformed him into such a commodity.

The movie has an outstanding cast of interviewees. Some are Kerouac’s contemporaries like Laurence Felinghetti, Kerouac’s girl friend Joyce Johnson (an outstanding writer in her own right; her “Minor Characters” is a must-read for those curious about the beats), Carolyn Cassady, and Michael McClure. There are also younger admirers of Kerouac like Smith, Tom Waits, and Sam Shepard. Every single one of them, it should be added, is intimately familiar with the corrupting influences of fame. Poor Sam Shepard, once one of the most gifted playwrights in the U.S., long ago became a mediocre Hollywood actor. One supposes that he makes more money in one film that he made as a playwright over a 2 or 3 year span. What a waste.

Kerouac’s novel was based on his experiences living in Big Sur as he tried to get over his addiction to alcohol and return to his roots as literary/mystical seer. He lived by himself in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin near the ocean and struggled largely in vain to stay away from San Francisco, where his fame could always draw a crowd of admirers at a North Beach saloon, as well as free drinks. After spending a weekend in debauchery at such places, Kerouac would return to his cabin and feel miserable for days on end. At the end of the novel, after one too many weekends in hell, he has a nervous breakdown that is described with great emotional and literary power.

The movie visits the cabin where Kerouac stayed as well as the North Beach neighborhoods that were his perdition. Interspersed are readings from “Big Sur” by John Ventimiglia, the actor who played Artie Bucco on “The Sopranos”. Ventimiglia, like everybody else, is a great admirer of Kerouac and manages to sound exactly like the writer but without the affectations usually associated with such performances.

Like millions of other teenagers, I became a big Kerouac fan after reading “On the Road” in 1959 or so. Ironically, I only discovered that Kerouac existed from reading Time Magazine, my periscope into a world different from the suffocating small town that I lived in. Two years later I was at Bard College, a kind of beat generation outpost in the early 60s along with other “alternative” colleges. Needless to say, Leon Botstein has made that place more “respectable” while draining all the energy and creativity out of it.

With a title like “Big Sur”, I expected Kerouac’s new novel to be one long feast of bebop, drugs, poetry and madness. It turned out there was madness but not the kind I expected. To this day, I have vivid memories of Kerouac’s harrowing confessional outpourings. Unfortunately, not much of the book is available on the Internet but these few observations/quotes from the Rainblessed website should give you an idea of what’s in Kerouac’s most powerful novel:

Towering cliffs, fog-banked canyon, roaring surf and the little cabin near the meadow and creek: Jack Kerouac went to Big Sur to escape his clamorous fans and the resulting circus of his life in Long Island. He went for peace and to write a poem about the sea sounds, a kind of Beat Jazz Serenade of Nature. Briefly, among premonitions of madness, he found a gentle peace.

Although Jack loves people and long talks, his new fame is incredibly stressful. As much as he enjoys rollicking orgies of booze and conversation, it seems to pull him down into mornings-after of despair.

…Drunken visitors puking in my study, stealing books and even pencils …Me drunk practically all the time to put on a jovial cap to keep up with all this but finally realizing I was surrounded and out numbered and had to get away to solitude again or die

I wake up drunk, sick, disgusted, frightened, in fact terrified by that sad song across the roofs mingling with the lachrymose cries of a Salvation Army meeting on the corner below “Satan is the cause of your alcoholism, Satan is the cause of your immorality, Satan is everywhere workin to destroy you unless you repent now” and worse than that the sound of old drunks throwing up in rooms next to mine, the creak of hall steps, the moans everywhere –Including the moan that had awakened me, my own moan in the lumpy bed, a moan caused by a big roaring Whoo Whoo in my head that had shot me out of my pillow like a ghost.

Alone in the Big Sur cabin, he is able to shake off his demons here and there. But always, bittersweet and dangerous, there are people hunting him down, firing him up, but also exhausting him.

Big Sur also has a tender image of Dean Moriarty (called Cody in this story) in case you wondered about him some years on from On the Road. Cody seems relatively softened and clarified following two years in San Quentin prison (for marijuana possession) and a return to wife and children:

…in the same cell with a murderous gunman…I expect him to be all bitter and out of his head because of this but strangely and magnificently he’s become quieter, more radiant, more patient, manly, more friendly even –and tho the wild frenzies of his old road days with me have banked down he still has the same taut eager face and supple muscles and looks like he’s ready to go anytime –But actually loves his home, loves his wife in a way tho they fight some, loves his kids …wants immediately to challenge somebody to a chess game but only has an hour to talk to us before he goes to work supporting the family by rushing out and pushing his Nash Rambler down the quiet Los Gatos suburb street, jumping in, starting the motor, in fact his only complaint is that the Nash wont start without a push –No bitter complaints about society whatever from this grand and ideal man who really loves me moreover as if I deserved it…

Movie website: http://www.kerouacfilms.com/onefastmove/index.html


  1. Like you, I read “On the Road” as a teenager, and must have read it 25 times since, but I could never relate to his other writings, “The Subterraneans,” “The Dharma Bums” & so forth; started them & couldn’t get past the first few pages. I find them more self-conscious and “writerly.” Never looked at “Big Sur.” I’ll have to give it a try.

    The original manuscript of “On the Road” with the original names & all of the sexual & other content that was expurgated before was recently published. In many ways the original “edited” version is still tighter & better, but the unedited version is quite interesting.

    Comment by John B. — October 23, 2009 @ 10:56 am

  2. Louis, thanks for mentioning this. I didn’t know about it.

    Louis said:
    “He lived by himself in Alan Watt’s cabin near the ocean”
    I’m pretty sure it was Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin that he stayed in. In fact, I don’t think Kerouac and Watts had much of a friendship at all.

    Louis said:
    “Indeed, the main lesson of “Big Sur” is that fame can drive you crazy.”
    Yes, the combination of fame and unbelievable amounts of pain-go-bye-bye-juice. ‘Big Sur’ is as gut wrenchingly real an account of the ravages of alcohol addiction as there is. Kerouac wrote it with his own blood. Hunter Thompson mocked it as a “stupid, shitty book” and Jack himself as “ridiculous…. and pathetic” because it wasn’t yet another Beat adventure novel. I couldn’t disagree more. I’ve always held ‘Big Sur’ to be my favorite Kerouac book (with part 1 of ‘Desolation Angels’ a close second).

    Comment by tim — October 23, 2009 @ 6:16 pm

  3. Apropos of Kerouac’s self-disgust, didn’t it have a political dimension? According to Luc Sante, Kerouac voted Republican as early as 1960. Whereas most other Beats were moving to the Left, he was returning to the attitudes of his family in his childhood. He wrote a glowing introduction to Robert Frank’s “The Americans” in 1958-9, but didn’t seem really to share the photographer’s critical view of the USA. The catalog of the Frank show presently at the Met. Museum in New York contains some interesting details on the subject.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — October 24, 2009 @ 7:23 pm

  4. […] More info…While not nearly as well known as On the Road, Jack Kerouacs Big Sur is just as great a masterpiece. Written in 1951 and published 6 years later, On the Road marks the beginning of Kerouacs career, a time of great joy even as he lived in poverty. Written in 1960 and published 2 years later, Big Sur was Kerouac at the pinnacle of his fame and fortune but totally miserable. Indeed, the main lesson of Big Sur is that fame can drive you crazy.Kerouac fans and those who are interested in […]

    Pingback by One Fast Move or Im Gone: Kerouacs BigSur | Alcohol Rehab Live — October 24, 2009 @ 9:23 pm

  5. There definitely was a right wing bent to Kerouacs political views. He usually claimed to be apolitical, but he was known to go on reactionary and bigoted rants about jews, marxists, communists, and homosexuals. He was not comfortable with hippies and 60s radicals pointing to him as an influence. In the 60s, Kerouac appeared on Bill Buckleys show completely pickled out of his mind and bragged that he has been a Republican. Unfortunately, a lot of it has been edited out, but here is a little bit of it:
    http://faculty.uml.edu/sgallagher/Buckley.html At times, he expressed support for the Vietnam war. But, at the same time, many of his closest friends were radical leftists, antiwar people, and homosexuals (in fact he himself slept with men, including Gore Vidal and Allen Ginsberg). William Burroughs insisted that we should look past and ignore Jacks conservative posturing and that we should take Jesus advice and judge him by his fruits and not his disclaimers. It’s a complicated thing really. While his ultimate take on his life might not be entirely convincing, Ellis Amburn documents a lot of the contradictions and stuff in an interesting warts-and-all bio of Kerouac that’s worth a read: http://www.amazon.com/Subterranean-Kerouac-Hidden-Life-Jack/dp/0312206771/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1256418418&sr=1-4

    Comment by tim — October 24, 2009 @ 9:27 pm

  6. Tim, aren’t we giving Kerouac too easy a ride when we see his politics as drunken whimsy? In 1968, Ginsberg and friends stood up to the rioting Chicago police. As far as I know, Kerouac was holed up somewhere with his mom, typewriter and a big bottle.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — October 26, 2009 @ 11:25 am

  7. Yes, I think it would be giving him too easy a ride to see his politics as drunken whimsy. He expressed some really ugly reactionary right wing views. I’m just saying that his world view and life were complicated and he embodied some extreme contradictions.

    Comment by tim — October 26, 2009 @ 3:43 pm

  8. I should mention that there were an excellent series of articles on the beats on Lenin’s Tomb, the first in the series dealing with Kerouac:

    1. http://leninology.blogspot.com/2008/06/beat-primer.html

    2. http://leninology.blogspot.com/2008/07/beat-primer-part-2-burroughs.html

    3. http://leninology.blogspot.com/2008/08/ginsberg-was-most-comfortable-of_11.html

    Comment by louisproyect — October 26, 2009 @ 4:03 pm

  9. Like most of the contributors, I became aware of Kerouac in the late 50s. I think its interesting how much he influenced so many lives including my own. I remember, as a young man of 17 or 18, doing a series of paintings based on the novel Big Sur. Since I lost my copy many years ago, I guess I need a revisit. As far a political views, I always preferred to keep my admiration of him on the level of his great expressiveness. That was enough for me.

    Comment by James Asher — November 4, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

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