When I finished The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac I hadn’t intended on reading Pic right away, but as the short novel was included in the same book I thought why not. While I’m not entirely sure why the two are combined, other than both are at the shorter end of the novel spectrum, there is at least one level on which the two work together.
Pic was Kerouac’s last published novel, being finally published after his death, but the majority of it was written around the same time as The Subterraneans as he was constructing On The Road. It tells the story of a young boy from North Carolina called Pictorial Review Jackson, aka Pic, and his journey from his late grandfather’s shack in rural NC to New York City with his brother Slim, and onto Oakland in California.
While in many ways it follows a similar structure to On The Road, being mostly about the journey Pic and Slim take, it varies from all of Kerouac’s other novels in that the lead character is not a direct avatar of the author. It also takes Kerouac back into the territory of representing black characters, which is where the comparison to The Subterraneans lies.
Much like his portrayal of Mardou Fox there it’s hard to escape the fact that most of the characters here are somewhat simplified.
Pic is understandably a young, not so well-educated child from the rural south but as we meet more of his family and then his brother its hard not to feel that this floats on the edge of being a somewhat racist portrayal, with the black characters constantly enthralled (and potentially in thrall) to the more mysterious, more intelligent, more wealthy, white characters.
This comes across as potentially more problematic given that it was written by a white author for a largely intellectual audience – though Kerouac always makes a point of his immigrant (French Canadian)/Native American hybrid roots and has spoken of himself in ways that make Pic somewhat more of a representation of him than may be at first obvious.
The setting and first person viewpoint do alleviate the problems of the portrayal to a degree but it still feels slightly too stereotypical to not be need of mention, though based on his other writing I don’t think explicit racism would have been the intent.
Much like a lot of Kerouac’s work the story itself rattles along at a pace and while his use of Pic’s colloquial dialect in the first person sets it apart from his spontaneous prose, Beat, style, it shares some similarities.
This again allows something of a sense of honesty to come through from the characters as we are swept along with Pic’s somewhat naive view of the world and it’s easy to get caught up in the wonder of everything for the first bus ride out of North Carolina to the dilapidated grandeur of mid 20th century Harlem.
Unfortunately, just as it feels like the story is hitting its stride and Pic and Slim and set off to make their epic journey to ‘Californy’ something of a deus ex machina occurs and it all gets tied up neatly in less than a page. Looking into the history of the book it sounds like this was when Kerouac got inspired to write On The Road and he only returned to add this final ‘ending’ to Pic years later.
All this means that, while an easy to read and quick distraction, Pic is something of an anticlimax and feels more like a sketch than a complete novel, though if On The Road is what came at the expense of this lesser vision then it’s hard to feel too disappointed.