John Thompson reviews Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur

Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) and other writers of the “Beat Movement” were drawn to Buddhist Teachings. Kerouac’s novels and essays often refer to his Catholic upbringing, his faith in the existence of God, and his fascination with the Dharma as taught by Guatama Buddha. Traditionally, devout Christians and Buddhists live in accordance with what Jesus spoke in the Gospels and what Buddha explained in the Sutras.

In August of 1969 Kerouac stayed in a friend’s cabin below Bixby Bridge in Big Sur. For three weeks he kept a written record of his initial attempt to live surrounded by natural beauty and end his dependency on alcohol, cigarettes and drugs. These addictions lead to millions of deaths each year because their compulsive use, so Kerouac tries to turn to his spiritual values and his creativity as a treatment to end these addictions. The first chapter tells of his bus ride to “The end of the line Monterey…and by God it is Monterey” and an eight dollar cab ride south on Highway One to Bixby Canyon, which the novel calls “Raton” (French for a young rat).

The “Three Gems” of Buddhism, the core of its faith, in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Although the great teacher 2500 years ago, Guatama, is called a “Buddha”, that word refers to the inherent Divine Consciousness that permeates all of existence. The actual teachings and precepts to live by is Dharma, and the Sangha is the community of Dharma students dedicated to this spiritual path. Although Kerouac doesn’t mention Alcoholics Anonymous, that cost free group existed in America at that time. For AA members the “Higher Power” was the Buddha, the Twelve Step Program was the Dharma, and the Sangha was the frequent meetings of AA members seeking further recovery.

Kerouac’s writer friends Philip Whalen ( 37 year old”Ben Fagin”) and Lew Welsh ( 34 year old” David Wain” carefully studied Buddhist scriptures, and could have been part of a Sangha for Kerouac. Approaching age 40, Kerouac mentions these two friends on page 45 along with the famous Lankavatara Sutra. He also refers to himself at rare times as “like a muttering old bhikku”, Buddhist devotee.

In writer/director Michael Polish’s 2013 adaptation the film version of Big Sur opens with Jean Marc Barr as an appealing and handsome Kerouac. The film’s cinematographers artistically capture the gorgeous colors of the waves crashing on the beach below Bixby Bridge, the pines, oaks and redwoods inhabiting Bixby Canyon further up its meandering stream. The first act summarizes amazing scenery and how it welcomes Kerouac’s intention to stop drinking and create type written pages inspired by sacred Asian poetry. The film shows him compassionately feeding “ratons,” and even petting one affectionately; plus other scenes indicating likeable characteristics and his charismatic charm.

Kerouac’s closest friend, Neal Cassidy who was Jack’s age, is mentioned on page 54 as his beloved hero of the book “On The Road”, “Dean Moriaty.” That book, written over five years earlier, was a best seller that brought its writer and hero wide fame. However Cassidy was arrested for possessing two marijuana cigarettes and sentenced to two years in San Quentin Prison, away from this wife Evelyn and children, and was recently released to a job changing tires. Cassidy also had shown some interest in Dharma writings, and referred to them in his letters from that prison on San Francisco Bay.

Page 54 names “Jarry Wagner” his friend the famed Buddhist poet Gary Snyder. On various pages Buddhist inspired poet Lawrence Ferlingetti age 41 is described as the cabin’s owner and the kind owner of the famous City Lights Book Store in San Francisco’s “Beat Mecca” North Beach. Also mentioned is 45 year old “Arthur Wain” the religious teacher and writer Alan Watts (1915-1973, father of seven children), whose books on Buddhism from City Lights were widely read. These men were fascinated also with what Kerouac calls “Erogenous Buddhism”, a topic he touches upon. None-the-less these sacred aspirations are infected by Kerouac’s tragic disease, alcoholism, that he chooses to self treat instead of joining a more successful recovery program, A.A. Pages 60 and 61 reveal the writer’s struggles with just some of the many symptoms of this complex malady, symptoms that are quickly growing even worse throughout each of the book’s 39 chapters (the writer’s age.)

In this group of Buddhist men is Japanese American “George Baso” age 30 who the men visit in a tuberculosis hospital. There are references to the interest these men share in “tantric” Buddhist views on sexuality, and the friendly sense of humor each uses to cheer up their sick friend. In the film version Kerouac and Baso part ways using playfully spontaneous humor, wordlessly. Then Kerouac leaves to pursue his own eventually fatal disease, straying far from the ethical precepts of the Dharma.

Poet Michael McClure at age 28, with his wife and five year old girl, appears on page 77 trying to see his poem “Dark Brown” published. Michael was studying Buddhism, as were their two Japanese American friends “Little George” Baso with T.B. and “Little Arthur”, a Chinese American artist sympathetic to Mao, and with a black girl friend (page 88) Kerouac quotes a line from McClure’s poem “Kiss my thighs in darkness the pit of fire…”, then later refers to eccentric English mystic Aleister Crowley (1874-1944) who studied sexual magic and Buddhism, drank and used drugs.

Kerouac and his friends then go to what may have been Essalen Hot Springs to lounge in a hot tub. He notes a “gang of fairies” watching them, so unike the others he puts on yellow trucks to enter the tub. Noting that sperm floating on the water “makes him sick,” Kerouac does not note his bisexual adventures from his past. Then they travel a few miles south to the famed restaurant Nepenthe, over looking the waves directly below it (pages 86 & 87). His “Nepenthe Haiku” is inspired by short Zen poems, and his elaboration on the “anguish” of alcoholism is described as a “sick silliness,” that creates guilt that he has betrayed what his family taught him. He asks “Why does God torment me ?”, in.stead of taking full responsibility for drinking what causes these torments.

Kerouac’s lengthy remarks on the “alcoholic mind” reflects his limited view on pages 89 to 91, but since it was written fifty years age, medical science and psychiatry has learned much more about the effects of the disease and possible treatments. The writer tries to rely on the “root of my belief in Jesus” and “Buddhist meditation in the woods” as part of a remedy. but rarely spends time in sacred prayer and reflection. His Buddhists friends may have been “enabling” his illness and bad judgement by not ardently intervening enough.

What time Kerouac did spend in the cabin below Bixby Bridge is not accurately shown in the film. It was built mostly by Price Dunn, a friend of Kerouac’s who worked with Shig ( an Asian Beat) as clerks at City Lights. Tidy and clean the new residence is not like the one in several key scenes, but once the writer refers to another “cabin down the creek” that was older and more ragged, however Kerouac probably didnt sleep, write or meditate there. (page 95). His typed manuscript of “Big Sur” then on page 97 uses a half page of notes on the Tibetan poet sage Milarepa from 890 AD. The self described “crazy” sage meditated in the wilds of the Tibetan mountains and streams, and used stream-of-consciousness self criticisms to share his views on the Dharma.

McClure also enjoyed reading Milarepa and other Buddhist poets, and Kerouac points out the fascination the 28 year old writer from San Francisco had with Billy The Kid, a teenage outlaw, and the early film idol Jean Harlow, who he used as characters later in a play, “the Beard,”, staged first in San Francisco. McClure then recalls meeting Kerouac ten years ago when he was a teenager, and being inspired to change his writing style after reading Keroac’s rambling quasi Buddhist “Mexico City Blues,” whose musicality was as experimental as the jazz he and his friends admired. But instead of following the path of the Dharma, the men drive back to Monterey “to stock up for the night” with cigarettes and booze (page 106).

CHAPTER 24: BILLIE

. The film version of Kerouac’s dark tale co stars blonde Kate Bosworth, whose brilliant acting beside actor Jean Marc Barr (as Kerouac) brings a strong feminine force to the otherwise masculine first half of the manuscript. The audience also views Cassidy’s wife Evelyn as a likeable role, a bright young woman in the emerging counter culture. Evelyn’s cozy middle class home in Los Altos is a happy place to raise her children, but Billie’s “pad” is described as littered with “bottles and books and strange doodads.” On page 110 Cassidy bragged about Billie “in bed she is…the last possible greatest everything.’ Kerouac “loves” Cassidy “who reminds me of my father” and who seems ready to share Billy with him. During his two years in prison Cassidy wrote three times a week to Billy, who has saved stacks of them, tied by pink ribbon. In them he wrote about his dearest friend Jack and their adventures in the best selling novel “On The Road.”
Chapter 26 describes meeting Billie, and after Cassidy drove back to his wife and kids, Jack and Billie experiencing “a spontaneous burst of love,” high on booze and “talking a blue streak.” (page 117) She mentions her dead husband and their beloved four year old son Elliot who continually asks questions in order to connect better with his mom. Billie tells him that the prison letters reveals that she and Cassidy were lovers in a past life, on another planet, and reunited with that “karma.” By page 119 he admits to the reader that when she “talks to me I’m utterly bored…and that she looks just like Julian {a former lover}…and we end up making love sweetly too…by dawn we’re already going to get married and fly away…having a four way marriage with Evelyn and Cassidy.”

Any reader quickly gets the idea that this single mom, a waitress, is “intoxicated” by the charismatic writer, her “hope” for a family life with a “beat” celebrity On page 120 Jack notes his best friend “has given me his consent in a way…a new love affair always giving hope.” Then on the next page Jack admits “I’m already jealous of Elliot”, the main love of her life. And on the following page “When she goes to work and left me snoring drunk…I wake up and take a swig of wine…and a hot bath.” He stays for several days, always drinking, and meets a “black gang” of her friends, with all that fancy rigamorole about spiritual matters..and hysteria” over him leaving her . On page 124 “This Billie business reminds me…that the only thing that matters is the conceptions in my own mind…{not the Dharma or Gospels, but just personal opinions}..an indication of the internal conflict.”
During that week he meets her friend Perry, an ex-con pedophile who is “dangerously insane,” carrying Elliot on his shoulders and staring at a general’s beautiful ten year old daughter, saying “I’m going to kidnap her” then indicates girls like that are just as delicious as older teenagers. When he tells Billie about Perry, Kerouac wants us to believe Billy just shrugged and said “That’s the way he is, be sure to dig him.” But the “booze” shapes how he characterizes Billy and her friend Perry. Drinking “booze with the general” Kerouac admits he’s “beginning to go seriously crazy…though I don’t realize it yet.” At a Filipino restaurant in San Francisco with Billie he describes his “apocalyptic madness” yearning to cry in Evelyn and Billie’s arms.

Soon Jack and Billie are engaged in sex at four in the afternoon, while Elliot “drooling long slavers of spit” watches, with the mucus probably from his traumatized crying face there on the bed with them. “I realize Billie is insane, and I’m not as insane as I thought,” projecting his neurosis into her as severe alcoholics can do. Kerouac, a sex addict for years, writes he’s having sex with Billie daily, “sex like monsters who don’t know what else to do” with him downing “bottle after bottle of port.” An unreliable voice in his own narrative, Kerouac adds “Billie and I are going to get married” after “the insanest week of my life.” His Buddhist poet friend Philip Whalen “Thinks I’m going crazy…my brains getting soft from drink and drink and drink and drink,” then rambling on for three pages misrepresenting Billie and her affection for her friend Perry, suspecting they are “in love.” “I’m afraid of Perry, and I’m afraid of Elliot” with paranoid thoughts and typing “Billie and I don’t want to get married” when all she wants is a sober happy family life with him. A “Negro” enters, selling pot, and Jack’s mid life crisis and paranoia expands, followed by a page of tangential rambling.

Compassionately Billie yearns to help and heal Jack, saying softly “O Jack, its time for you to wake up, to open your eyes to why God put you here.” But instead of surrendering to that Higher Power {The Buddha Nature of Universal Consciousness}, he turns not to God but to her: “O Billie, forgive me…help me..” and weeps that he is a “hunk of horse manure.”

Chapter 33 touches on a fake salvation through a four way marriage between his best friend, his wife and him and Billie. So he writes “I want Evelyn to finally come face to face with Billy.” Outside the Cassidy home in Los Altos, Jack continues “She’s in the jeep asleep…Evelyn is not perturbed at all, and says she can come in…the meeting is not eventful” with poet Lew Welsh and “small talk at that”; yet in the movie the long scene has a light hearted and surreal feel to it, entertaining most viewers. Then its decided they all drive south to the cabin in Big Sur .

CONFLICT PEAKS IN THE FINAL CHAPTERS

Back in the cabin, little Elliot continues to ask questions, irritating Kerouac. He never mentions his own ten year old daughter Jan , who almost never saw him, and whose questions he didnt want to answer. Billie sees that Jack won’t take any responsibility for children, that he ignores the seventh of the Eight Buddhist Vows: “To offer benefit and happiness to all mothers. May I secretly take upon myself the harm and suffering of mothers.” Kerouac dunkenly whines to himself (149) “…goddamit I’m going to kill myself ….I don’t love Billie, that I’m leading her on…I’ve been using words as a happy game.” In the film Billie walks out into the dark surf with Jack thinking she is suicidal, but not rushing out to stop her from “wading into a trecherous undertow.” Instead he continues to whine “Someday I’m going to commit suicide…it seems God is really getting mad for such a world and is about to destroy it…God says “It’s gone too far…the end is Now.”(151) “Oh hell, I’m sick of life. If I had the guts I’d kill myself…I can’t sleep.” Yet instead of intervening in this display of alcoholic depression, his Buddhist friend Lew Welsh is described as drinking along with him.

The two writers talk of visiting local bohemian writer Henry Miller or returning to Nepenthe to eat and drink, but don’t show up for Miller’s kind invitation, instead moaning “Or I could kill myself and Elliot…”(152) “God might even be drunk…”(153) and accuses Billy of “beating” Elliot, though she may have softly spanked him to stop his emotional outburst at being exposed to such an unhappy situation, listening to Jack and Billy “quarrel”, by her telling him tearfully “You’re so wrapped up in yourself.” Then using make-up-sex Jack is nude on his back because he is so exhausted, with Elliot’s mommy on top, the miserable little boy on the bed trying to stop them. (155)

After the sex, smoking out on the rustic porch his “drunken madness” continues, sniggering that his poet friend Welsh “is jealous because I wrote ten novels,” and sees conspiracies all around him. He quotes psychic Edgar Cayce’s advise that people need to drink more water. After drinking from the stream he goes back to bed naked with Billie but is restless and can’t sleep, feverish and sweating all over her, saying “communists are destroying everything,” entering his mind. In chapter 37 he envisions himself and Christ crucified, muttering desperately “I’m with you Jesus” up on that cross. He hallucinates that a “Warlock is disguised as a little boy {Elliot}, destroying Billie. Drifting into a nightmare, incoherently babbling “yakking about the suffering of others in my books. Books, smooks’… this sickness has got me.”

Structurally many films begin with hints of a conflict, boy meet girl, the conflict builds, then realizations lead to Resolution. But there is no re-solution to the untreated sickness of alcoholism that eventually killed Kerouac. Instead the insane nightmare peaks towards the end of the book with him digging a psychic “garbage pit” (page 176), a pit “exactly the size fit for putting a lil dead Elliot in it.” {the warlock out to destroy Billy, who “has been crying all morning and had two beatings {short soft spanks}.” Jack writes that Billie threatened to kill herself, but this may be fiction as she didn’t want her son to be an orphan. Near the four foot by three foot “grave,” Billy screams “NO NO NO…” yet Jack shows no compassion, no words and hugs to comfort him, dragging the child and the mother deeper in the grabage pit of his alcoholic nightmare; his psychic breakdown, abandoning the Gospels and Dharma.

Writer/Director Michael Polish, husband to “Billie” Bosworth, shows an ending with the heroine simply and calmly walking away from the self destructive Kerouac, saying sadly “Oh, you are so fucking neurotic.” In the four days Polish used to write a first draft outline, he carefully crafted a very difficult ending . As a “sober witness” to this story he skillfully summarized it over six weeks into a showcase for his wife’s acting talents.

Members of AA in the audience saw the consequences of not following the twelve steps to Recovery. First step: Helpless without these steps. Second step: surrendering to “A power greater than ourselves that could restore us to sanity.” (God, the Dharma, the Tao etc.) Step three: “Turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand him. Step five:
“Atonement to God, ones self and others, the exact nature of our wrongs.” In the eight vows of Buddhists, beside the seventh to bring happiness to all mothers, vow two is “hold the other person supreme in the depth of one’s heart.” Thus the consequences of not living by these values, leads to the final minutes of this book and film.

In 1959 Kerouac read the book by one of his mentors, Alan Watts, “Beat Zen, Sqaure Zen and Zen”, published by their friend Lawrence Ferlingetti of City Lights Books. On page nine he explains “Beat Zen is a complex phenomena…a revolt that does not seek to change the extisting order but simply turns away from it to find” the meaning of life for each individual, the meaning found in the Dharma, Gospels and Twelve Steps. Watts says this is found “rather unevenly in Kerouac, who is always a shade too self conscious, too subjective, and too strident to have the flavor of Zen.” Watt’s deeply apprecaites Zen in the poetry and translations by Gary Snyder, but not “Snyder through Kerouac’s eyes, and some distortions arise because Kerouac’s own Buddhism is a true Beat Zen which confuses “anything goes” at the existential level with “anything goes” on the artistic and social levels. Never-the-less there is something endearing about Kerouac’s personality as a writer.” The film script brings out what is endearing about Kerouac’s personality, and the best features the mother Billie possess, in order to entertain the audience, and to inform the audience of the consequences of not taking steps along a healthy and ethical path towards a “Higher Power.”

“BIG SUR”: The 1960 Novel & 2013 Film Adaptation
John Thompson

John Thompson was born in Carmel and as a “Teen Boheme” student entering the local college, at age 17 in 1963, was drawn to Gnosticism and Buddhist Dharma, as well as the area’s local artistic and literary heritage. As a prominent writer and artist in the Sixtie’s Counterculture, he researched sacred themes in art and writing, and at 21 earned a B.A. in Art History from U.C, submiting his work to publishers in Berkeley and the Haight Ashbury. In that era he found much of the book “Big Sur” very troubling, and as the epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse spread into the Seventies, began teaching at Hartnell College, while instructing meditation inside Soledad Prison; then in the Eighties film production and screen writing at Monterey Peninsula College for a decade. Today he and artist Judyhurley.com live in Carmel, with their sons Quinn and Joey nearby , and daughter Elana 19. His various books and art can be seen by googling John Thompson Psychedelic.

We wish to thank John Thompson for his contribution and it is reprinted as submitted without editorial comment or change.

John Thompson

If John has a core value, it is based in understanding our world, the needs of our world, protecting our world. Making sure those who need assistance, get assistance, and lead a full life. As a jounalist, he has conducted thousands of interviews and followed thousands of stories that publications did not always deem economically worthy of pursuit. Click Here to read more...

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4 Responses to “John Thompson reviews Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur”


Don Becker
August 25, 2014 Reply

I have known John for many years. He has a complicated intellect and, frankly, I find it difficult to follow his thought process sometimes but I relate more to his character as a person. He is one of the good guys. He follows a straight moral compass and will stoop to help an injured bird or drop a few coins in a homeless cup. His past is legend, his present is golden, and his future reward is assured. He is a friend.

Jeff
September 8, 2014 Reply

Well said

Evan
October 27, 2014 Reply

Great insight.

Tom Thompson
October 27, 2014 Reply

Author photos by….his younger brother Tom. BTW

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