Sarah Simpson: The Last Book I Loved, The Subterraneans


Truman Capote famously said that what Jack Kerouac did wasn’t writing, but typing. I take just as much offense today to this slander as I did ten years ago as an undergraduate when first hearing it quoted by an English professor. I’d like to see Capote “type” the following:

…and that bleak corner where a lamp shines, and winds swirl, a paper, fog, I see the great discouraged face of myself and my so-called love drooping in the lane, no good…ah and who said I was great—and supposing one were a great writer, a secret Shakespeare of the pillow night? Or really so—a Baudelaire’s poem is not worth his grief—his grief—(It was Mardou finally said to me, “I would have preferred the happy man to the unhappy poems he’s left us,” which I agree with and I am Baudelaire, and love my brown mistress and I too leaned to her belly and listened to the rumbling underground).

Yeah. He wishes.

Or maybe it’s just me. The above passage from The Subterraneans, like most of Kerouac’s prose, reminds me why I love literature and long to create my own. So be it if that means I merely wish to type.

In the most recent Fiction Issue of The Atlantic, I read an essay titled “Don’t Write What You Know,” wherein Bret Anthony Johnston contradicts the usual workshop advice, champions instead Imagination, and says, “Stories aren’t about things. Stories are things.” And, “Stories aren’t about actions. Stories are, unto themselves, actions.” Along with being the reluctant “King of the Beats,” Kerouac was also arguably the King of Writing What You Know, as I’ve read all of his books and can’t think of one that isn’t largely based on his own experience. But I can understand why John Clellon Holmes said that this “Neanderthal with a typewriter” was the most imaginative writer he’d ever known: it’s precisely Kerouac’s ability to create stories that are things, that are actions unto themselves. And he pulls it off again and again by staying true to his emotions—writing them as and how they come, with no apologies except perhaps to angels and his mother (“O the pain of telling these secrets which are so necessary to tell, or why write or live”)—and by giving his characters their due regard. It also doesn’t hurt to use words like “handsapockets,” “deepwell,” “shnuffling,” “ploop,” “slippy,” “leching,” “enwomaned,” “malely,” “mindswum,” “blooping,” “meekened,” and “hightingled,” all of which Microsoft underlines in jaggedy red, much to my delight.

Like most of Kerouac’s novels, I don’t love The Subterraneans for its plot, but for its breathless prose, delicious existential suffering, and larger-than-life characters. In On the Road, we have the yea-saying Dean Moriarty, crackling and cackling with energy while also practically undulating with sexual bravado. In The Dharma Bums, Japhy Ryder is a lumberjack elfin bodhisattva, scrambling up steep Matterhorn and dumbfounding Kerouac’s Ray Smith with the sudden knowledge (though he realizes it might not actually be true, which doesn’t sap his knowledge of any conviction) that “it’s impossible to fall off a mountain.” In The Subterraneans, Kerouac gives us a rare heroine instead of hero, Mardou Fox, whom he wanted for

the way she imitated Jack Steen that time on the street and it amazed me so much… [her] showing the walk (among crowds) the soft swing of arms, the long cool strides, the stop on the corner to hang and softly face up to birds with like as I say Viennese philosopher—but to see her do it, and to a T, (as I’d seen his walk indeed across the park), the fact of her—I love her but this song is … broken—but in French now … in French I can sing her on and on….

These people are alive. They are not devices to propel the plot along. They are the plot. And the man describing them—be he Sal Paradise, Ray Smith, or Leo Percepied—is too, his great dramatic conflict rooted in love, for at times he loves these people so much he wants to become them. At others he simply wants to worship them. But in both respects he deems himself a failure. It is impossible to love anything worthy of love, enough. I realize now while writing these words that this very impossibility is the common thread connecting all of Kerouac’s writing. His intense love—the mother of all emotions, the source to which all emotions can be traced back—drips from every sentence. That’s why people who try mimic Kerouac’s prose so often fail. It isn’t just about syntax and punctuation, or lack thereof. It’s the emotion he conveys with what often seems childlike simplicity. Such emotion must exist in great literature, which, if it speaks to the Human Condition, must focus on the humans and what they mean to each other, how they love and hate and sometimes become angels—holy—or, in Kerouac’s case when alcohol’s involved, maniacs.

The Subterraneans, like my most beloved of his novels, Big Sur, focuses in large part on the narrator’s alcoholism. There are significant hints at the same disease in The Dharma Bums, and in all three books the tortured protagonist is able to go long stretches without a drop (stretches in which he writes and hikes, and lounges happily with loved ones), but once the stuff touches his tongue, he cannot stop until his body forces him to. In The Subterraneans we watch Leo forsake Mardou time and again for just another drink, abandoning her slack-jawed in taxis she can’t pay for. The next day he remembers the man he’d become and his bones ache with shame. He feels monstrous and mean. But soon he will do it again. Soon he will lose her. The retrospective narrator knows this, can see it coming but can’t stop it. He still recalls in touching detail the look of hurt shock on her face as he slammed the taxi door and went whooping back into the bar.

Poor Mardou. Those two words appear many times throughout The Subterraneans. She depends on regular psychoanalysis to keep from cracking up, and yet she is the sane one in this lost-love story. Leo is the bad guy, as alcoholics tend to be, but the story is filtered through his memory and sincerest remorse, so we sympathize with them both. And though Kerouac gives away the ending early on, this novel is a page-turner—not because you want to see what happens next (though it’s partly that), but because you want to see where each sentence leads and how it gets there. There are few “good stopping places” in this book, as many of the sentences don’t even end, or at least not with periods. But the dash-riddled prose pulls you along just as feverishly as Kerouac must have typed it, so it’s like you’re a part of it. You’re a part of the action, as it were. A witness to the thing.


Sarah Simpson received her MFA in Creative Writing from North Carolina State University and currently lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she teaches English at the community college. She is the founder and editor of the online altruistic arts journal, ConsiderIt. More from this author →