This month, I have the gall to recommend not one book, but a cycle of 13. Start now and hope to finish before you die!
Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), the Beat Generation author, traveler, and all-around chaser of experience and kicks, moved among literary circles in New York and San Francisco, and consorted with gangsters, bums and drug addicts in those cities and everywhere in between. Kerouac is most famous for “On the Road,” a poetic paean of his adventures criss-crossing the United States, blazing trails, thumbing rides and searching for meaning in postwar America.
“On the Road” does not stand alone, however, but is merely the most popular installment of the 13-volume “Duluoz Legend” — and no, I don’t know how to pronounce that D-word, having only ever read it and never heard it spoken aloud.
Kerouac envisioned the greater part of his literary output as fitting into one long epic of a life lived at speed among both the high and the low of American society. All of his novels are based on his real-life experiences, with only the names and a few circumstances changed. The “Duluoz” in the name of the full epic is the surname Kerouac uses for the character based on himself: Jack Kerouac in reality becomes Jack Duluoz in the novels.
The other characters in the cycle, and there are hundreds, stem from people he knew: his family, his teachers, his friends, etc. A few of his friends are famous in their own right, including the poet Allen Ginsburg (“Howl”), the novelists William S. Burroughs (“Naked Lunch”) and John Clellon Holmes (“Go”), the orientalist Gary Snyder, and Beat Generation legend Neal Cassady, who would also become famous in hippie circles for driving Ken Kesey’s psychedelic bus and hanging around with the Grateful Dead before they became well-known.
The cycle begins with “Visions of Gerard,” an affecting collection of Kerouac’s scattered memories of his saintlike older brother, who died of rheumatic fever at the age of 9 when Kerouac himself was only 4. “Dr. Sax” covers Jack’s childhood in Lowell, Massachussetts; in “Maggie Cassidy” he experiences high school love and loss, and in “The Vanity of Duluoz” he enters Columbia University on a football scholarship before an injury forces him out of school and the outbreak of World War II takes him into the Merchant Marine. Kerouac’s description of his crewmates on the S.S. Dorchester are a highlight of the series — he hints throughout these sequences that they are all doomed, and indeed, shortly after Kerouac/Duluoz is reassigned, his old friends perish when the ship is torpedoed off the coast of Greenland.
Kerouac’s adventures as a young adult in the aftermath of the war kick into high gear with “On the Road.” The experimental and posthumously-published “Visions of Cody” comes next, followed by “The Subterraneans,” a look at his love affair with a black woman, radical for its time. “Tristessa” takes him briefly to Mexico before “The Dharma Bums” inaugurates Jack’s mid-1950s phase as a California proto-hippie; Kerouac began experimenting with Buddhism at a time when we didn’t all have a cousin who grew dreadlocks and hung Tibetan prayer flags across his fire escape.
“Desolation Angels” sees this Easternized Kerouac/Duluoz spend an ascetic, meditative summer holed up in a fire tower in Washington. “Lonesome Traveler” is a collection of essays covering other trips he took around this time.
The story so far covers Kerouac’s life before he became famous, essentially overnight, with the 1957 publication of “On the Road.” In the last two novels, “Big Sur” and “Satori in Paris,” the 1960s version of Kerouac/Duluoz is a literary celebrity, and one experiencing something of a decline; the first explosion of fame led the introverted author to shun publicity, turn inward on himself, and later turn to drinking, which led to his early death from what, with only slight exaggeration, amounted to an exploded liver at the age of 47.
The end of the story is, obviously, not featured in the novels, though it serves as a tragic bit of dramatic irony for the reader. Nonetheless, the 13 novels are full of what the band Bad Religion generatively described as Kerouac’s “caringosity” - his intense and honest interest in all kinds of people, all kinds of experiences and all kinds of lives. “The Duluoz Legend” takes place in opera houses and whorehouses, in shiny cars and dingy bars, and introduces the reader to everyone from famous authors and college professors to bums, prostitutes and criminals. All the while, Kerouac/Duluoz is searching for answers, searching for meaning and searching for love. Kerouac’s prose is poetic and freeform, inspired by the bebop jazz that was hot during Kerouac’s youth. “The Duluoz Legend” is the most exhaustive vision of American life in the period that Kerouac’s life happened to cover, and the most intense personal reflection I know to recommend — and I can’t recommend it enough.
A brief note on certain vagaries of the publishing industry that affect the clear understanding of the cycle — because the books in “The Duluoz Legend” were published by a few different companies, character names are not uniform between all of the books, due to the objections of certain publishing houses against the use of character names in books put out by others. Thus, while Kerouac is “Jack Duluoz” most of the time, he sometimes appears under other names. This schizophrenia is deepened by the fact that the three novels considered the best (“Road,” “Dharma” and “Subterraneans”) were ones in which the Duluoz name was not available — the main character in those novels is Sal Paradise, Ray Smith and Leo Percepied, respectively, though they are all supposed to be the same man. Kerouac wrote that in his old age — when certain copyrights expired, perhaps — he intended to reissue all his books with his preferred character names used uniformly. Alas, he never made it to old age. The reader who wishes to tackle the whole cycle is advised to use a character key.