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The final days of Jack Kerouac

A documentary traces the circumstances behind the author's final novel, 'Big Sur,' and death at age 47.

October 22, 2009|Eric R. Danton | Danton writes for the Hartford Courant.

Nearly half a century after its debut, Jack Kerouac's "Big Sur" is getting its due.

By the time he published the book in 1962, Kerouac was already lost in the alcoholism that killed him seven years later at age 47. Wednesday marked the 40th anniversary of his death.

The reviews of Kerouac's last major novel -- a wrenching, thinly veiled account of his failed efforts to stop drinking -- certainly didn't help his crumbling state of mind.

"What can a beat do when he is too old to go on the road? He can go on the sauce," sneered Time magazine upon publication of "Big Sur."

"The critical response being so negative, it made him hit the bottle more desperately," says Ann Charters, professor of English at the University of Connecticut and a Kerouac expert. "He was completely unprepared for the critical response. He thought it was a fine book."

More than a generation later, he's not the only one.

The novel is the subject of "One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur," a new documentary exploring the circumstances behind the author's harrowing narrative, and how it still resonates.

"I think it's a wonderful opportunity to bring this work in front of another generation," says Jim Sampas, Kerouac's nephew, who co-produced the documentary with his partners in Kerouac Films. "I think this one has been overlooked to some degree."

The film, directed by Curt Worden, was released Tuesday on DVD with an accompanying soundtrack album (F-Stop Music/Atlantic) featuring songs by Jay Farrar and Benjamin Gibbard. The documentary revisits settings in the novel, from bars in San Francisco to the cabin in Bixby Canyon where the author attempted to dry out in 1960.

Kerouac contemporaries, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Carolyn Cassady and Joyce Johnson, offer their recollections of the time, and musicians and actors influenced by Kerouac -- Tom Waits, Patti Smith and Dar Williams among them -- discuss their perspectives on the man and his work.

The initial idea for the project was musical: Sampas wanted an album of songs based on Kerouac's prose. Although the author is best known for his 1957 novel "On the Road," Sampas thought "Big Sur" was better suited to such an undertaking.

"It's such an introspective, personal work, whereas some of the other works, he's much more like a journalist, observing people around him," Sampas says.

Sampas also wanted to avoid the standard jazz-based approach. Instead, he contacted Farrar, who fronts the St. Louis alt-country band Son Volt.

"The idea of folk music or alt-country music intrigued me, because that seemed to me to be in sync with what Jack was doing with his prose," Sampas says.

Farrar wrote a batch of songs using Kerouac's words as lyrics. He intended to record only a handful of them, but he and Gibbard, singer for Death Cab for Cutie, hit it off so well when they convened at a San Francisco studio that they recorded all of Farrar's tunes, plus one that Gibbard had brought in.

The film is available in various configurations: on its own as a DVD, packaged with a CD of the soundtrack and as part of a boxed set that includes the novel, the soundtrack and a book of rare Kerouac photos.

"It's a cautionary tale, and I'd like to think that in some sort of cultural way, it has some significance," Sampas says of the documentary.

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