so of course i read ON THE ROAD by jack kerouac and loved it doesn't everybody? but then i read this book BIG SUR too, because he wrote during the time he lived in northport which is where i live and that's exciting to me.

and then i read how this guy calls BIG SUR kerouac's masterpiece because it is his "now i begin to die" novel and that's pretty cool too but i don't get it at first really because this book is all about a nervous breakdown and confronting death and isn't jack kerouac all about life?

i mean isn't jack kerouac about being young and free and unconventional and open and on the road? about freedom, all magnetic and wonderful - like neal cassady? so how could a book about facing death be jack's masterpiece?

but then i think about it. jack wasn't neal cassady. he just loved something about neal cassady. something that was all about being alive. real dangerous exciting. life that would burn itself out and would burn you if you touched it but you had to touch it anyway. life you had to touch before it died. even if it burnt you and some day you could never touch it again because it was too alive and not the way you're alive or how you are going to die. which is your own way.

and then i look at jack's life and its amazing and sad at the same time because right when you think he's really living, he's dying too. it's like life is killing him.

you can see it in the way he drinks so much it kills him. in the way fame turns so dead in his life. in the way his relationships with friends and women keep dying.

you can see it in the way he loves the world but is shy and charming and then sometimes suddenly he turns mean. in the way he buries himself more and more into privacy and isolation - his home, his mother, his cat, his drinking, this myth of himself that he loves and hates so much but just can't get himself loose of.

it is like he wants so bad to love life but he can't and at first he keeps trying and he can love it a lot and then a little less and after a while hardly at all and eventually it kills him.

it is like the story of jack kerouac, and his books, are about life and death. about loving life and losing it. and never wanting to stop loving it.

so i start to understand that jack kerouac being about life is like jack kerouac being about death too.

i start to get it and so i decide to do this marathon reading of BIG SUR. and a lot of people get excited and wants to do it but one guy says to me, sure i'll read, but why BIG SUR? and i'm not sure why exactly.

so i start reading everything by jack kerouac and everything about jack kerouac. and someone asks me if i am getting obsessed with jack kerouac. and i say i hope not. but maybe i am.

because there is a kind of october rust all over jack kerouac's life and his books, whether he's in a bordertown in mexico or a corn field in kansas, or in a lookout tower in the california mountains or sitting by the pounding surf at big sur.

whether it is in a san francisco flophouse or a holy catholic grotto in lowell, there is this strange new englandy fall rusty feeling all over jack's life you can almost taste it and you can tell that summer has been great and terrible but now its autumn and the leaves are turning color and they're going to fall off and a lot of things are dying and only some of those things are going to come back.

there's that feeling where you know all this is happening and you can't do anything about it and you're tired and summer can't last forever anyway, can it, but by the time it comes back you'll hopefully be here to be able to enjoy it again when it's fresh and new. so you're sad and you're glad and you're miserable and you're reflective. and you understand everything and you don't understand anything all at the same time.

and you just have to try to say something and tell someone now while you've still got a chance to do it.

that's how you feel. you touch that rust that is all over jack kerouac's life and his books. you touch it to your lips and you taste it, and it is bitter and tangy and still kind of alive on your tongue. and it makes you feel real sad about life and glad about life at the same time.

and you get obsessed about jack kerouac even though you don't want to. and you start to understand that being obsessed about jack is like jack being obsessed about life and in a way he didn't want to be but couldn't help.

then i read in another book this other guy calls BIG SUR the penultimate chapter in jack's legend and even though i don't really understand what penultimate means i kind of get that.

because it is like right in the middle of everything he writes, jack kerouac keeps telling you that there's death in the midst of life. even in ON THE ROAD, where life really rocks and rolls and jack kerouac gets closest to being really and almost completely alive sometimes, the way that life can be really alive with jazz and women and music and movement.

because even in ON THE ROAD, sometimes you find jack standing under a train trestle or somewhere with his hands in his pockets or hanging there empty and he's thinking about dean moriarity. and you know that even though jack loves going on the road he also feels cheated and disappointed and let down by it. and doesn't understand why exactly. that's the way the book ends and you can tell right there that he knows. right there and then jack is telling you that it is all going to go away and he's going to lose it.

and he does lose it. in fact he loses it in BIG SUR where he really heads smack into the wall. he sees death and has to face it. first he gets a letter that tyke his cat dies. then everything starts to die. a mouse dies. an otter dies. his girfriend's goldfish dies. the flipped over rusted out thousand foot down wrecked car under bixby canyon bridge dies.

jack kerouac goes out to california to rekindle the fire - his dreams and his friendships and his capacity to love women and people and good times and nature - and all that dies.

hope dies.

but jack doesn't actually die. he survives the experience and a year later he writes a book about it. jack has to go on living a couple more years even though he knows all this stuff and always suspected it anyway and he can't get away from having it bother him.

even though he knows that the only way to find any kind of comfort and understanding and truth with a big "t" in the middle of the big crack up is to give in and give up and admit that it's there and let it all go and tell yourself it's all going to be all right and even believe it.

it's like BIG SUR is this big car accident with people getting hurt and twisted metal thrown everywhere and blood-red lights flashing. in BIG SUR jack finally has his big car wreck. the king of ON THE ROAD tries to go back on the road, and he cracks up and lives to tell us about it. and you don't want to turn and watch it happen. but you can't help it.

so why BIG SUR?

this week i got a letter from oakland from one of the people who will be reading a chapter in san francisco. she's real excited but says that she can't find BIG SUR in the bookstore, and when she checks at the library they've put it in the juvenile section. the librarians, she says, told her that it was checked out twice in 1999 and once in 2001. and she says that's too bad and i agree.

and then she says she figures that it's a good thing for literature that we're doing the marathon reading. and i figure she's right about that too.

because the story of BIG SUR is this story of life and death and that's what jack kerouac's story is about. about sometimes living a lot and then not being able to as much. about death having to win some day whether you like it or not and it's getting closer. about how death was there a little bit even when you thought you were most alive. and after awhile it's there a lot more and you're not very alive at all, but you're still trying.

and about what are you going to do about it anyhow, except love life when you can and try to understand how it's there and then it's not. and try to tell people about it. and how that's funny and sad and terrible and memorable and frightening and okay all at the same time.

which is why BIG SUR. BIG SUR is an important book and a good book and it shouldn't be in the juvenile section. people should read it.

-George Wallace