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Critic's Notebook: Jack Kerouac's early 'The Sea Is My Brother' grounded in 2 sides of writer

The Beat author wrote the novel when he was 21, and it is being published in its entirety for the first time. Its subject reflects his early days as a seaman.

March 25, 2012|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Jack Kerouac
Jack Kerouac (Da Capo Press )

First the good news: Jack Kerouac's "lost" novel "The Sea Is My Brother" (Da Capo: 216 pp., $23) isn't entirely unreadable. In fact, the book — written in 1943 when the author was 21 — is pretty good as far as Kerouac juvenilia goes. That's not saying much; his "Orpheus Emerged," completed two years after "The Sea Is My Brother" and published in 2000 as an early generation e-book, is one of the worst pieces of narrative prose I've ever read. This is a conundrum when it comes to literary estates, perhaps none more so than Kerouac's.

Still, taken together, along with the stories gathered in "Atop an Underwood" (1999), these beginning efforts raise an interesting if largely overlooked question: How did such a mannered young writer, self-indulgent and often woefully pretentious, become the purveyor of his own uniquely American idiom, jazz-inflected, improvisational, a "spontaneous bop prosody?" That, as much as anything, captured the scattered sensibility of the United States in the 1950s, a nation frantically searching for some guise of normalcy beneath the fracturing shadows cast by the atomic bomb.

That's no mere hyperbole. Like their contemporaries the beboppers and the abstract expressionists, Kerouac and his Beat compatriots Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and William S. Burroughs were responding to the fragmentation unleashed by Hiroshima, in which all the common verities (faith and family, a sense of permanence) were forever undermined. Kerouac reflected this in the endless wandering of his characters, their restless movement, their belief that, in the words of Dean Moriarty, the antihero of his 1957 breakthrough novel, "On the Road," "We know time."

And yet, it's a mistake to frame Kerouac as the point man for a movement, especially one as media-manufactured as the Beats. "Four people do not a generation make," Corso once noted — a line that, its delightful irony aside, is exactly right. For Kerouac, the Beats were equally a convenience and a burden, a label that bought him notoriety even as it fenced him in. This tension extends to his work itself, which is radical in its evocation of a certain kind of consciousness and utterly traditional in its larger aims.

In "Big Sur" (1962) — his last, and bleakest, road book, where the promise of "On the Road" collapses into a kind of rootless madness, a bohemian countermyth — Kerouac explains that he wants his novels to be read as installments in a multivolume epic called "The Legend of Duluoz": "one vast book … seen through the eyes of poor Ti Jean (me), otherwise known as Jack Duluoz, the world of raging action and folly and also of gentle sweetness seen through the keyhole of his eye." The effect is more Balzac than, say, Joyce (or even Burroughs), a 20th century "Comedie Humaine."

A similar dualism lies at the center of "The Sea Is My Brother," with its back-and-forth between Wesley Martin, a merchant seaman, and Bill Everhart, a Columbia University lecturer who wants to see the world. In a 1943 letter to his boyhood friend George Apostolos, Kerouac makes the opposition explicit: "[A]ll my youth I stood holding two ends of rope, trying to bring both ends together in order to tie them. Sebastian [Sampas, another old friend] was at one end, you on the other, and beyond both of you lay the divergent worlds of my dual mind. … [I] had a hell of a time trying to bring these two worlds together — never succeeded actually; but I did in the novel 'The Sea is My Brother,' where I created two new symbols of these two worlds, and welded them irrevocably together."

That's a telling bit of commentary, albeit full of youthful overstatement — not so much for what it says about the novel as for Kerouac's insight into himself. Here we see the essential conflict between the inner and the outer, the physical and the emotional, which would go on to define his writing, and would ultimately drive him mad. It's the source of his spiritual questing, his extended involvement with Buddhism and his return to Catholicism, his drunkenness and his need for solitude. Read through such a filter, Martin and Everhart, far from being distinct characters, actually represent two sides of Kerouac, much as the three eldest brothers of the Martin family (none of them named Wesley) would all come to embody facets of his personality in his first published novel, "The Town and the City" (1950).

Of course, lest this appear to suggest a connection between the books — in her introduction to "The Sea Is My Brother," Beat researcher Dawn Ward argues that "[t]hese two novels, both based on his real-life experiences, are part of the writing method he started to develop in 1943 that he dubbed 'Supreme Reality'" — the truth is that they couldn't be more distinct. On the most basic level, it's a matter of quality, but more important is the issue of scope.

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