In recent years I’ve read a number of works of the Beat Generation, and of Jack Kerouac in particular; Big Sur, The Dharma Bums and of course the centrepiece of Kerouac’s career, On The Road. Partly this exploration was out of an interest in outsider movements, partly the history of San Francisco and partly for its sheer post-war Americana.
While it shares many similarities with much of Kerouac’s, work The Subterraneans has something of a different feel.
Published following On The Road in 1958 (but written in the autumn of 1953) there is much directly similar as we meet an avatar of the author (here named Leo Percepied) in North Beach, San Francisco surrounded by the same characters (just with different pseudonyms).
However, while On The Road told many smaller stories but as a whole dealt with a broad sweep, The Subterraneans goes in-depth into a period of a few months of the author’s life, centred on a love affair with Mardou Fox (in the real world Alene Lee), one of the titular group (themselves it seems an alter-ego of the Beats), and the ups and downs of it.
While the original events occurred in New York City the way Kerouac paints his image of North Beach and Market Street and their surroundings is utterly real and the story casually races around this town within the city at a frantic pace, charged by a mixture of new love (and/or lust) and, as it goes on, the lead character’s increasing paranoia and ever-present need to be part of a party of one kind or other.
In this even the lover herself, Mardou, is at times relegated to a broadly drawn background player in Percepied’s paranoiac whirlwind, leaving a few issues in the depiction of her race. In a way this makes the story a hard one to digest but gives it all the more sense of honesty on Kerouac’s part – something that seems to be his intent.
Stylistically Kerouac ups his spontaneous prose of On The Road even further. Written as this was in one big glut, with asides and diversions liberally sprinkled throughout, The Subterraneans paints Percepied/Kerouac in exactly the way he describes himself, as a narcissistic man (and, as with much of Kerouac’s work, the ‘man’ is crucial) with many issues.
This makes it at points rather hard to read and sometimes near impenetrable, but, while not entirely successful, it feels like a natural peak of the free-jazz style of writing that Kerouac strived for and, if not created, developed to a kind of conclusion.
Ultimately, while not on the same level as some of his other work, The Subterraneans stands as a very real feeling document of an event many of us may have experienced, albeit one hopes not in quite such a frantic and heightened way, and is a demonstration of how the Beat style can be at once hugely evocative but incredibly challenging with it.