is one of Jack Kerouac’s most troubling books for readers, peering behind the curtain of his childhood rather than exploring those later years of Beats and bodhisattvas. Nevertheless, it remains a startling achievement, unique not only among Kerouac’s works, but among those books that it seems to mirror. It is primarily a book about growing up, similar to such European classics as Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, Hermann Hesse’s Demian, or Jean Giono’s Blue Boy. These books all explore the “magic” of youth by allowing adult readers to see through the eyes of children again, when the magic was real.
Kerouac anchors us in the real world of industrial Lowell with wonderful details like: “The Huge Trees of Lowell lament the July evening in a song begins in meadow and ends up above Bridge Street, the Bunker Hill farms and cottages of Centralville — to the sweet night that flows along the Concord in South Lowell where railroads cry the roundroll — to the massive lake like archeries and calms of the Boulevard lover lanes of cars, nightslap, and fried clams of Pete’s and Glennie’s ice cream…” He also gives us the games and problems of the children that live in that world: “In the bottom of the 8th Scot comes to bat for his licks, wearing his pitching jacket, and swinging the bat around loosely in his powerful hands.” The prose has built up a brick and mortar city and we believe in it. We must, because Kerouac is about to take us into what Alain Fournier called the lost domaine.
As Lowell experiences an epic flood, the mysterious and semi-mythical figure of Dr. Sax swoops into the foreground. He is trying to fight the minions of the great world snake, which is no myth, and really does live curled up underneath the mansion on Snake Hill. This fantastic battle of good and evil is woven into the tapestry of baseball games and ice cream stands. “Blook is a huge bald fat giant somewhat ineffectual who cannot advance through the alley but reaches over his 20-foot arms along the all tops like great glue spreading, with no expression on his floury pastry face — an awful ugh — a beast of the first water, more gelatinous than terrifying.” Suddenly the magic of imagination takes over and the line of actuality wavers and shakes. We picture our own childhood battles with monsters, so much more real and important than a fight on the playground with a bully.
In other books of this genre, the authors always pull us back into adulthood at the end of the book. The loss of childhood is universal, and so the plot ends with the child realizing that he must leave the magic behind, and enter a different world. Not so with Dr. Sax. Kerouac’s literary mirror is from a dark funhouse, twisting the classic logic of the novel of education, leaving the reader unsettled and vexed. Kerouac muses at one point: “Eternity hears hollow voices in a rock? Eternity hears ordinary voices in the parlor.” Those ordinary parlors of Lowell are the place for battles against absolute evil more than some nether realm. And so Kerouac shows us how the fantastic world of childhood is twisted like the great world snake itself into the fabric of reality, and will never let go.
Originally published at Empty Mirror Books