Patrick Skene-Catling

A literary curio

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The Sea is My Brother

Jack Kerouac

Penguin, pp. 426, £

Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, better known as Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), the son of French-Canadians spiced with the blood of Mohawk and Caughnawaga Indians and subdued, no doubt, by migration from Quebec to Lowell, an old mill town in Massachusetts, eventually fulfilled his adolescent ambition

to live the life of the eccentric ‘artist’ . . . a high form of aesthete who has nothing to do with this maddening world of Philistines.

He hoped that ‘lingual spontaneity’ would enable him to achieve ‘Supreme Reality’.

In fact, On the Road (1957) did indeed serve as a guide to all America for the Beat Generation of the Fifties and after. His closest boyhood friends, who called themselves the Prometheans, aspired to bestow the

fire of hip enlightenment on the whole‘brotherhood of mankind’. Kerouac went beyond his Jesuit high-school education and a brief stay at Columbia university on a football scholarship to explore the free-wheeling spirituality of his own version of Buddhism.

He was 21 when he wrote The Sea is My Brother, his short first novel, said to have been lost until now. It would probably never have been published but for the phenomenal influence of later works. It was based on a journal he called Voyage to Greenland, which he kept on his only voyage as a merchant marine, in 1942. The following year he joined the US Navy but was soon discharged, not dishonourably, as a ‘schizoid personality’.

The novel established the pattern of all his later fiction: it was non-fiction. Writing fast, enthusiastically and sloppily, he made no apparent attempt to disguise autobiography. The drunkenness ashore and the pretentious conversations at sea seem authentic. The apprentice’s prose is understandably awkward, if not entirely forgivable. For example, he inelegantly varied ‘he said’ with ‘he mused, supplied, raced, pursued, resumed, purred, chirped and cooed.’ And there is a toe-clenching description of a sunrise: ‘In the East now the sun sent forth its pink heralds; a long sash laned to the ship, like a carpet of rose for Neptune.’ However, the book is worth getting as a literary curio of value for anyone interested in the decline of civilisation.

The editor, Dawn M. Ward, a professor of art history and graphic design at Becker College in Massachusetts, has made weight with some of Kerouac’s earliest writings, including The Journal of an Egotist, and a one-act play set in a rough bar room in imitation of Saroyan, and many, many long letters that Kerouac exchanged with his most intimate home-town pal, Sebastian Sampas, an avowed poet of really extraordinary awfulness. The letters, anticipating today’s confidences by mobile telephone, express the spirit of idealistic anarchy that inspired Kerouac forever afterwards and, in turn, inspired Ken Kesey’s busload of ‘Merry Pranksters’ on LSD (see Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), the hippy road film Easy Rider, William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch and Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘Howl’, especially its famous first line: ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness . . .’ Ginsberg, Burroughs and Kerouac were buddies.