According to sources, Jack Kerouac wrote The Subterraneans in three days and three nights (benzedrine was possibly involved). Putting aside the obvious need for editing, this move on Kerouac’s part proves beyond doubt that despite what his detractors say he was a genuinely gifted writer – whether you consider the result an unholy mess or the opposite, it is quite readable for a 72 hour writing blitzkrieg. The prose habitually fractures – soaring rhapsodically for a longer or shorter time, coming apart in midair and finding new footing for a relaunch to do it all again. I can only describe this as “live” prose, a staged performance far outdoing On the Road as Kerouac unloads everything in a bid to prove that spontaneous prose is a real, viable and artistically pure form.
Like all of Kerouac’s work, The Subterraneans (his third novel, published in 1958) is based on his own life and times. A quick character conversion chart is needed for full understanding: he thinly disguises himself as Leo Percepiad, Allen Ginsburg as Adam Moorad, Gregory Corso as Yuri Gligoric, William S. Burroughs as Frank Carmody and Lucien Carr as Sam Vedder. There are cameos by stars-on-the-rise William Gaddis and Gore Vidal (called Harold Sand and Arial Lavalina, respectively) and in the starring role, Alene Lee as Mardou Fox – the mentally unstable hipster girl, half African-American, half Cherokee, whom Kerouac shacks up with and soon dumps. He regrets it too late and, life sliding down the drain, sits down to write this book, making his addition to the large canon of “literary exorcism.”
Kerouac was, even as Beats go, an extremely pretentious writer. His San Francisco is “gray” and “tragic” and his writer friends are inevitably compared to great poets and the angels: Julien Alexander the Christlike unshaved thin youthful quiet strange almost as you or as Adam might say apocalyptic angel or saint of the subterraneans… It’s flashy and ridiculous yet strangely endearing, even attractive. Such words were a part of the lingo (“beat” was linked to beatification, after all) so all the while Kerouac over-uses “Christlike” as an adjective to the point of silliness it doesn’t really dent the romanticism of the Beat Generation.
The Subterraneans makes for a different impression than On the Road, written in a different style (think of it as portrait opposed to panorama). His scattered snapshots of the San Francisco underground are dizzy and inconclusive, leaving the reader hungry for more. It is the subtext of On the Road that comes to the foreground here: as all the friends Kerouac had at the start of On the Road didn’t want to hang with him at the end of it – four road trips in four years later Kerouac was still acting like an irresponsible man-child while others were starting families and holding down jobs. It was pretty clear to me as I read how Kerouac’s story would end and The Subterraneans functions as a commendably honest sequel, as he sets down an account of his growing problems as a self-described drunken maniac. Perhaps this is a poor place to get introduced to Kerouac but it is a necessary chapter for those interested in the man’s life story.
But enough about him for now. The Subterraneans is just as much about Mardou Fox, a gentle, confused soul with at least one major breakdown in her past. She wants to settle down with Leo Percepiad and work on their relationship. He doesn’t. And in those days her love meaning no more to me than that I had a nice convenient dog chasing after me… Sad for him but good for her when she finally gives up and decides to be independent, no longer the little woman waiting at home all hours of the night fulfilling his real secretive Mexican vision of her following me down dark dobe streets of slums of Mexico City not walking with me but following, like Indian woman… Leo makes little to no effort at supportive behaviour and struggles with his basic prejudices and expectations of a woman’s role unsuccessfully. There’s no future for Mardou with him and when she finally blows him off it gives her a chance at a happy ending. Leo is left alone with his book of self-recrimination – deep in the dark pit of night under the stars of the world you are lost, poor, no one cares, and now you threw away a little woman’s love because you wanted another drink with a rowdy fiend from the other side of your insanity.
The Subterraneans focuses not, as you might expect, on the anatomy of a break-up – rather, Kerouac makes a mental mapping of all the thoughts and erroneous conclusions that led Percepiad to blow his chances until there were none left. His tone is also remarkably free from any accusatory bitterness; even when describing the things which Mardou did to irritate him he heckles himself for being an unreasonable man: she was sloppy (always putting off everything till tomorrow, the dirty room unwashed sheets–what do I really for Christ’s sake care about sheets). Everything bouncing through his head, the good times and bad all thrown together madly scrambled between a formal beginning and end. He lays everything out: the complex poison of insecurity and egotism that he struggles with, the tenderness he feels towards Mardou and the unexpected moments of intimacy forging what feels like a real connection between them. Kerouac doesn’t stop there, depicting both his callous disinterest in Mardou and the paranoid jealousy he could feel, spurred on by nothing more than a bad dream and a lot of booze. In this way, Kerouac’s time with her is displayed as mania both in his descriptions and his prose. It’s impossible to sort out what happened when. What it offers is a dynamic glimpse inside Kerouac’s head, one filled with much ominous foreshadowing of his end:
…realizing it’s all myself, a big subjective phantasy that my mother really needs me and would die if I weren’t around… … …saying to myself “If you keep on drinking like that you’ll die…” Sadly, he did not listen to his own warnings, becoming demoralized, giving up on life and drinking himself to death in 1969. He was 47.
Yet this book also shows (better than On the Road) how much Kerouac needed to write and why always about himself: It was on a morning when I slept at Adam’s that I saw her again, I was going to rise, do some typing and coffee drinking in the kitchen all day since at that time work, work was my dominant thought, not love–not the pain which impels me to write this even while I don’t want to, the pain which won’t be eased by the writing of this but heightened, but which will be redeemed, and if only it were a dignified pain and could be placed somewhere other than this black gutter of shame and loss and noisemaking folly in the night and poor sweat on my brow… Writing redeemed Kerouac, perhaps as a confession or an attempt to find some scrap of absolution, and all his bad decisions became grist for the mill producing a stack of novels. He was a devout Catholic and seeker of spiritual truths, after all. But even in this most personal belief of his, it is the sympathetic Mardou who points out the bitterness of the deal. Discussing Baudelaire, her comment could as well have extended to her sad typewriting lover. “I would have preferred the happy man to the unhappy poems he’s left us.”