February 23, 1956
By DAVID DEMPSEY
By Jack Kerouac.
This is the story of an unself-confident man, at the same time of an egomaniac, naturally, facetious won’t do–just to start at the beginning and let the truth seep out, that’s what I’ll do,” says the narrator of Jack Kerouac’s latest chapter in the diary of a Bohemian. What seeps out here, like sludge from a leaky drain pipe, is the story of Leo Percepied, novelist (who will be recognized, under another name, as the wandering minstrel of the author’s previous book, “On The Road”), and a Negro girl, Mardou Fox, a subspecies “subterranean” of San Francisco’s North Beach.
It’s a “boy meets girl” story of the lower depths, more difficult to read then its predecessor. It is written less for laughs (“kicks”) and more as an attempt to put down every recollected fact about an affair between two psychologically “sick” people.
The best ways to read Kerouac is with an oxygen mask. It used to be that we viewed Bohemians–at least the Henri Murger variety–through glass bottom boats. Today, with the literary skin-diving equipment that is provided by the smaller, more daring publishers, and through the courtesy of Kinsey, the tolerance of censors and the curiosity of the public, it is possible to go right down to the natural habitat of these people. This reviewer admits that he had a slight case of the bends after coming back up, but this is not to say that the experience was without value.
You appreciate Kerouac (if you do at all) on his own terms. The story is nothing–the sorrows of young Werther without the formality of the marriage or the tragedy of the suicide–while the unraveling is everything. The most notable feature of “The Subterraneans” is the complete, almost schizophrenic disintegration of syntax–the effort to reproduce, by a sort of reflex action, the uninterrupted continuum of experience enjoyed by subterranean Percepied in his brief affair with the Negro girl.
This may be a technique, but it is hardly a style. Wright Morris, in his essay in the recently published “The Living Novel,” quotes D. H. Lawrence to this effect: “The most superb mystery we have hardly recognized: the immediate instant self. The quick of all time is the instant. The quick of all the universe, of all creation, is the incarnate, carnal self. Poetry gave us the clue: free verse: Whitman.” Kerouac writes in this tradition. He is essentially Whitmanesque in his celebration of the carnal self. Parts of “The Subterraneans”–the section where he traces the childhood background of Mardou, for example–have both insight and nobility.
He fails, it seems to me, in that he celebrates the self as something irresponsible, without ever identifying it with a world of objective, relevant values. Kerouac is a form of experience, tape-recorded and played back to the self, to the coterie world from whence the experience came. And in the meantime, our oxygen is running low.
Mr. Dempsey is a short-story writer and a frequent critic of contemporary fiction.