Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Sea is My Brother (Jack Kerouac)

The Sea is My Brother, Jack Kerouac
Read: 11 May to 13 May 2013
4 / 5 stars

Like certain albums, certain writers feel like a season to me. It's an arbitrary association, often stemming from a personal relevance that corresponds to some insignificant-but-for-its-inexplicable-permanence first-encounter moment. Because I was introduced to Jack Kerouac via On the Road at a fleetingly crucial moment in my life during my last spring as a college student, when things were just starting to make sense as the future emerged from its hazy distance, my heady urge to get lost in his rhythmic idiosyncrasies rises with the daily temperatures.

I was going to scratch that deep itch with Big Sur and had gone so far as to grab it from the shelf and curl up with it on the sofa, but a conversation with my Beat-loving husband urged me toward The Sea is My Brother instead. Before diving into it, I read a little about Jack's lost first novel: Turns out, homeboy hated it. Enough so that he didn't even try publishing it, hence its long-delayed posthumous release.

And it's not perfect. Not at all, especially from a technical standpoint: My version, though I'm willing to forgive an awful lot as the usual Kindle-transference issues, needed at least one more round of careful editing because there are typographical errors here -- missing words, mixed tenses, inconsistent spellings, straight-up typos -- running amok like self-destructive sailors on shore leave. There are certainly parts where this reads like the first novel it is, penned by a developing writer who hasn't quite found his voice, which was charmingly unpretentious at certain points but presented itself as sloppiness nearly as often. My biggest issue also happens to be one of my biggest peeves, a holdover from my journalism days: Attribution should be predominately rendered as "said," otherwise it sounds like the writer is trying too hard and telling when he could be showing if "remembered," "admitted," "exclaimed," "professed" and a host of other cop-out verbs are used to express who's saying what and how at a rate anything other than sparingly. And that being a mainstay of this novel bothered me more than the four stars suggest. (Though I can stomach this better than its ugly cousin, the far more irksome repetition of "so-and-so said, [adverb]," which is partly why I'll never read Charlaine Harris's stuff ever again.)

But damn if I didn't enjoy this quick-reading little novel despite all my pedantic gripings and the unfair expectation that this would be On the Road: At Sea. While there are absolutely no traces within these pages of the style that Kerouac would later develop (which is kind of a shame because I am rather fond of it) and that would become synonymous with his name, this is every ounce a Kerouac novel thematically. In that way, it was a little like a stripped-down acoustic performance of a much-loved, multi-layered song: Gone are the flashy elements that probably hooked you in the first place to the point where you've played the song on infinite repeat so you could explore every inch of a tune destined become a desert-island, slipped-into-every-mix, top-five staple of your musical diet, leaving the strength of its backbone, the beauty of the lyricism and the raw talent of the musician himself to shine through to a resounding success, as there are few greater joys than seeing an old favorite in a new light.

Unsurprisingly, Jack has again cast himself in the lead (because why not write who you know?); the difference here is that he has divided himself into two characters -- Wes, the drunken, rollicking merchant marine who lives both in and for the moment and cares little for attachments that only exist to lash him to one place, and Bill, the quiet bookworm whose unassuming existence as an assistant professor at Columbia hides a deep-rooted dissatisfaction dwelling within him that's born of simply learning and reading about life rather than living it -- who prove that there is no better foil for an individual's conflicted duality than himself. The constant pull-and-push between Wes Martin, A.B. (as in rank) and Bill Everhart, A.B., M.A. (as in degrees) presents Kerouac's own desire to reconcile his intellectual side with his hard-drinking, hard-living, suck-the-marrow-from-life inclinations. And it presents the maelstrom that lives inside any individual with both feet planted in two opposing worlds better than any traditional autobiography ever could, with the bonus of proving that you will always be an absolute stranger to yourself if you never barrel headfirst into wholly unknown terrain to discover the unknown aspects of your personality that arise to tackle never-before-encountered hurdles. It is a testament to discovery of the self through an ever-widening scope of the world.

The wanderlust that propels the perpetual-motion machines that are Kerouac's writings unflaggingly forward is undeniable here. The ship that Wes and Bill are working on doesn't set sail until the novel is nearly over but their high-seas adventure was never intended to be the story itself. It is Bill's uncharacteristically impulsive decision to abandon his safely routine existence to gain a whole new set of skills at 32 by starting at the bottom of the merchant marines and his ensuing uncertainty that comprise a considerable chunk of the novel, serving as a near-perfect illustration of how taking that flying leap of faith toward a life-altering opportunity is just as important as the journey itself. By way of Bill's run-ins with his shipmates, especially an old friend of Wes's, we also get to see how two people can arrive at the same raging dissatisfaction from two completely diametrically opposed vantage points and still have valid arguments, whether the other can concede to it or not. Such objectivity is the bonus end-product of using biographical nuggets as a jumping-off point for an exploration of basic human truths and working out one's own internal struggles through fictional avatars.

There is peace on the ocean, in surrendering to something bigger and unpredictable (Kerouac even allayed my own usually implacable fears of water interrupted only by sky with his characters' slow epiphanies). We see it in how hot-blooded Wes can finally breathe again, how others succumb to the siren's song of alcohol on board but he loses himself in the tiniest contributions to his brothers of the sea and marvels at how different the rising sun looks at all points of the Earth, how Bill finds comfort in the new routine of his lowly position and its simplicity, how he now looks at himself through the eyes of strangers who will become a part of him by the time he returns to the home that once was all he knew.

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