The Sea is My Brother: The Lost Novel by Jack Kerouac
Da Capo Press, 216 pages, $23
On the Road, the iconic novel by Jack Kerouac that has sent generations hitchhiking across America since its publication in 1957, is coming soon to a multiplex near you. The new film version, produced by Francis Ford Coppola, is drawing rave reviews on the festival circuit, assuring that interest in Kerouac's writings will be reignited, as he famously put it in On the Road, "like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars."
The Sea Is My Brother is Kerouac's "lost novel," written when he was 21 and based on his experiences on the "road" of the Atlantic Ocean as a merchant seaman during World War II. The Sea Is My Brother is not one of those fabulous yellow roman candles; it is more like a backyard sparkler — sputtering but safe and arguably not something Kerouac would have allowed published during his lifetime. At the time of its writing, he'd already dropped out of Columbia University and been discharged from theU.S. Navy and, without some major intervention from his muse, was on the road to nothing more than the drinking problem that killed him at 46.
Even though The Sea Is My Brother is not vintage Kerouac, it doesn't pretend to be. This is the work of a writer who'd found his subject matter (his own life and experiences) but not the distinctive voice with which to bring it alive on the page. Paragraphs with real descriptive power follow other paragraphs with clunky noir clichés and weirdly stiff locutions, e.g. "Wesley's face lit up with silent mirth"; "Everhart roared with laughter while Wesley drank with a crafty smile."
Nonetheless, Kerouac was deadly serious in his intent with The Sea Is My Brother. Bill Everhart, the garrulous literature instructor, and Wesley Martin, the stoic merchant seaman, were the two sides of his own character, the intellect and the man of action. It's clear, even at this early date, that Kerouac needed Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty in On the Road) to serve as his foil and muse. He also needed Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Gary Snyder — all of the members of what would become the "Beat Generation" — to be his teammates. He would not meet any of these crucial catalysts for another year or two. Still, if nothing else, this "lost" novel does provide a portal into Kerouac's future endeavors, his attempt to tune the instrument through which he composed prose symphonies like On the Road, Dharma Bums, Visions of Cody, Desolation Angels, Big Sur and all the other books that have since cemented his reputation.
Without realizing it, perhaps, Kerouac was already pointing toward that "ocean" of the future. Wesley, at one point, says "Next to the smell of salt water…I'll take the smell of a highway," to which Everhart adds, "Gasoline, tires, tar, and shrubbery…Whitman's song of the open road, modern version."
The Sea Is My Brother has some local interest, too. At one point, Wesley and Everhart hitchhike through Connecticut and are dropped off at the "Yale University green" (whatever that might be), take the State Street trolley to the end of the line, then catch rides to Meriden and Hartford. Indeed, Hartford plays a larger role in another collection of early pre-On the Road writings, Atop an Underwood (1999). In the fall of 1941, before he joined the Merchant Marine, Kerouac worked as a gas station attendant in Hartford, and at the end of each shift he repaired to a boarding house where he wrote short stories. Atop an Underwood is a good companion volume for The Sea Is My Brother if you want to catch Kerouac before the roman candles exploded.
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