Saturday, August 9, 2008

Doctor Sax

After finishing Ray Robertson's What Happened Later, I realized I had not read anything by Kerouac in far too long, and so picked up this book long mouldering on a shelf.

But at the back of my mind was a judgment rendered by a snooty prof in my grad school days. Would I find Kerouac a passing fancy, a faded juvenile attraction?

Not so! The book is a joyous paean to innocent youth, a mad inspired jazz solo of words. Listen:

Merrimac comes swooping down from a north of eternities, falls pissing over locks, cracks and froths on rocks, bloth, and rolls frawing to the kale, calmed in dewpile stone holes slaty sharp (we dove off, cut our feet, summer afternoon stinky hookies), rocks full of ugly old suckers not fit to eat, and crap from sewage, and dyes, and you swallowed mouthfuls of the chokeful water...

Doctor Sax is an imaginary figure from Kerouac's youth, modelled after The Shadow, clad in cape and slouch hat. He lurks only at the edges of the narrative until the final chapters, where he steps into the foreground to battle the Snake of the World.

It is only at this point that the book loses its way, turning into pure pulpish fantasy, no longer anchored in the real world of Kerouac's hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts.

Faust Part Three

From Ann Charters's biography I learned that Doctor Sax was Kerouac's favorite book. He wrote it in 1952, five years before On the Road was published. He was staying with William Burroughs in Mexico at the time, high on weed and writing in the bathroom. The book took him three weeks to complete.

Ah, the dilemma of Kerouac. How to reconcile the dashing figure of his autobiographical novels with the pathetic bloated drunk he became. How to admire the books and not be seduced by the lifestyle they celebrate. Reading Doctor Sax made me realize that this is what Robertson's book is about.

Faust Part Three is the subtitle of Doctor Sax and hints at the awful truth -- Kerouac sold his soul to the devil for literary immortality.

More Kerouac

Just last year was the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road and a new edition, subtitled The Original Scroll, was released. It restores the book to its original uncut version.

Another treasure is The Jack Kerouac Collection, three CDs of Kerouac reading his work, sometimes to the accompaniment of piano and sax. Kerouac's voice is perfectly matched to his material, and makes evident the jazzy scat rhythms of the prose. Gad, the man even sings!