Kerouac’s ‘Big Sur’ Now a Movie

When asked about the novels of Jack Kerouac Truman Capote quipped: “That’s not writing, it’s typing.” His famed comment underscores Kerouac’s mixed reputation as a writer, both then and now. Kerouac’s output was certainly uneven, but his ambition for the novel and his vision for a new American prose was both genuine and compelling; Kerouac’s writing at times is full of fireworks and wonder.

In 2012 Walter Salles directed the long-awaited film of Jack Kerouac’s famous novel On the Road. And now, a year later, we have a film of his novel Big Sur, which recounts the efforts of Jack Duluoz (a fictionalized version of Kerouac) to get sober and regain his footing as a writer at a cablin in Big Sur, California. Jacket Copy has an interesting piece on the challenges of making a movie of Big Sur. Here is the trailer:

Movie Trailer For Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’


On the road – Official trailer – (HD 1080p) by MK2diffusion

William Burroughs got it right when he wrote Jack Kerouac “opened a million coffee shops and sold a million pairs of Levis.” Kerouac and his novel On The Road primed the culture for the Beats and later the ascension of the hippies and the 1960s counterculture. The actual literary influence of Kerouac, and the Beats in general, is still open to debate.I always thought their lives were more noteworthy than their books, although Kerouac’s lyrical abilities and his great sensitivity to the American landscape and the imagination of its people was unique.

Director Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights to the novel more than 40 years ago and it has been a decades-long struggle to get the movie produced.

And while the publication and critical reception of On the Road  was a major coup for Kerouac, he was already in steep decline by 1957 from heavy drinking.

Here is Kerouac reading from On the Road for the Steve Allen Show in 1959. In this clip you get a sense of his natural shyness as well as the gloominess he suffered from at the end of his life.

Top Five Books for Recluses

If there is one group of people who understood the impulse to retire from society now and again—it would be readers and writers. If for any reason you don’t have time to check into a hermitage for three months, here are a five books that will provide a few hours of reclusive relief.

1. Walden by Henry David Thoreau – It should be stated up front that Thoreau was neither a recluse nor a hermit. Walden Pond was (and is) a heavily-visited site and the pages of Walden are populated with Irish laborers, Concord farmers and ice harvesters, many of whom Thoreau enjoyed chatting with. But two years at the pond offered Thoreau the necessary solitude to live deliberately, study and write his masterpiece (A great biographical resource on Thoreau is the book Henry David Thoreau: A Life of The Mind by Robert D. Richardson, Jr.).

Walden Pond
Creative Commons License photo credit: angela n.

2. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Dafoe – Crusoe’s island solitude was the result of a shipwreck, and not his own choosing, but it’s not hard to fantasize about the delights of your very own tropical island and a buddy like Friday to hang out with (sans cannibals of course). Today we might even call it a YA novel.

3. Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac – This autobiographical novel describes the three months Kerouac spent alone as a fire lookout on a remote tower in Washington’s Cascade Mountains in the 1950s. Kerouac had hoped to kick alcohol and have a Buddhist spiritual awakening, but instead he found only emptiness (in the negative western sense) and wrote, quite tragically, “my mind is in rags.” And while it chronicles a dark time for Kerouac, there are also some exquisite descriptions of nature as well as passages about Beat get-togethers in San Francisco.

Kerouac Montage
Creative Commons License photo credit: Uncleweed

4. Leaving The Atocha Station by Ben Lerner – The narrator of this book, an American poet in Spain on a prestigious literary fellowship, is strictly speaking not isolated—he has a girlfriend and attends political rallies and gives poetry readings—but the book perfectly captures how one can be isolated by a foreign language, unfamiliar cultural mores, drug use and by the inability to “feel” anything (This novel is also brilliant and hilarious, which must be pointed out).

5. The Story of A Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux – This is the spiritual autobiography of a teenage Catholic nun in a 19th Century Carmelite nunnery in France. St. Therese describes her upbringing and social relations in the nunnery, but the core of the book is her relationship to God, and the discovery of her famous “little way” of spirituality. This book and the life of St. Therese captivated Thomas Merton during his own spiritual search, a fact he describes in the book The Seven Storey Mountain.

The Five Most Neglected Novels of the 20th Century

The first half of the 20th century is littered with so many classic works of fiction that one would need two lifetimes to both read and re-read all the major works of those first five decades, let alone explore the minor and underappreciated novels of the period.

All of the novels in my list were published after the Second World War; it is not a list of unknown or unread books, but of books that haven’t received either the critical praise and/or the lasting readership they deserve.

1. The LeopardGiuseppe Di Lampedusa (1958)

Mount Etna
Creative Commons License photo credit: tobyct

Arguably the greatest Italian novel of the post-war period and the only book Di Lampedusa ever wrote. The novel ushers readers into the richly detailed world of a decadent aristocratic family in steep decline in 1860s Sicily. It’s an absolute travesty that more people don’t know this novel. Critic Rachel Donadio writes “it reads more like the last 19th-century novel, a perfect evocation of a lost world.”

2. The Sheltering Sky Paul Bowles (1949)

Bowles was one of the lesser-known Beat writers, partly because he was an expatriate who lived in Tangier, Morocco his entire adult life, but mostly because he was a classical composer by training, as well as an iconoclast by nature. The Sheltering Sky is the one of the most horrifying accounts of American innocence abroad. The book follows the North African travels of three Americans—a husband and wife and their male friend—as they move past the comfortable margins of their experiences. Like The Leopard this is also a perfect book: not a word or sentence is out of place.

3. Vanity of Duluoz, Jack Kerouac (1968)

I’ll admit this book is a bit of a wildcard, but it is a charming little novel by a writer whose career was uneven at best. This straight forward, semi-autobiographical telling of his youth in small-town Massachusetts, football at Columbia University and his service in the Merchant Marines is told with a joyful nostalgia for a lost 1930s and ‘40s America. The book confirms that Kerouac, far from being the bohemian of lore, always considered himself a French-Catholic boy from a Massachusetts mill town.

4. Time’s Arrow, Martin Amis (1991)

The novel works on a conceit: the narrator is a Nazi doctor and we follow his life in reverse chronological order, beginning with his death and ending with birth (think the recent movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Amis so artfully portrays this alternative universe that you’ll find yourself marveling that cars in your city drive forward, instead of bombing along in reverse, and food goes in your mouth instead of quickly leaving it.

5. The Easter Parade, Richard Yates (1976)

The-Easter-Parade-Yates

Until the recent film version of Richard Yates’ masterpiece Revolutionary Road came out, Yates was the most underappreciated great writer in American letters, dying in complete obscurity in 1992. Now that Revolutionary Road had gotten its fair due, it may unfairly over-shadow The Easter Parade, Yates’ sad, masterful tale of two sisters—the Grimes sisters—as they live out their lives under the canopy of life’s disappointments.

Honorable Mention: A Far Cry From Kensington, Muriel Spark (1988)

The narrative voice in this novel is intoxicating. Sparks is such a talented writer that it is a crime her name doesn’t come up in more “great writer” discussions. This novel, written toward the end of Spark’s stellar career, chronicles the rooming house existence of war widow and editor Mrs. Hawkins in 1950s London.