A Dec. 1, 2011 review of this lost Kerouac novel (his first), taken from The Telegraph. Written by Nicholas Blincoe…
The publication of a lost first novel by Jack Kerouac prompts two questions: “How good is it?” and “How lost was it?” Last month, the Anthony Burgess Foundation announced the discovery of Burgess’s lost opera on the life and death of Leon Trotsky. And where was this treasure exactly? Apparently, lying among Burgess’s stuff – so not so very lost, after all.
The publication of The Sea Is My Brother, a novel Kerouac wrote when he was just 20, appears after a similar feat of literary detective work. Which is to say, someone opened a suitcase and found it lying there. One half suspects that the suitcase had been opened before, but on those occasions the person responsible read Kerouac’s title and quickly slammed the lid shut again.
Kerouac seemed to spring from nowhere with On the Road (1957), the definitive “beatnik” novel. He caught the imagination of a generation with an intensely romantic account of an itinerant lifestyle – the life of a “bum” – re-envisioned as a mystical, Buddha-like quest. Yet Kerouac was 35 by the time of his success, rather too old to be a youth icon. He had, in fact, published his first novel in 1950 (The Town and the City) and spent the next seven years failing to get another deal.
On the Road, and almost all of his other novels, were produced during these years, a period of creativity and poverty that drained Kerouac entirely. He was dead within 12 years, having drunk himself to death while living, unhappily, with his third wife and his ageing mother. His years travelling in search of enlightenment ended in inertia and depression.
The Sea Is My Brother is startling if only because it reveals how early Kerouac’s key obsessions began. All the major motifs of his later work are here, albeit in a clumsy and sketchy form. Kerouac was a sucker for passionate male-on-male friendships. At their core, his novels feature garrulous men on the move.
His friendship with a more reckless, fast-living young man named Neal Cassady proved the catalyst for his best work. In him, Kerouac found someone in whom he could place the lyrically intense speeches that were already bouncing round his head.
This language, with its tendency towards the ornate, looks formal and old-fashioned as the voice of the narrator of The Sea Is My Brother. But placed in the mouth of a bebop-loving speed-freak, it becomes something other-worldly. (If one wonders how much Cassady and Kerouac were like their fictional counterparts, see the documentary Magic Trip, currently in cinemas, a record of Cassady’s sojourn as the bus driver for Ken Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters. In the film a grumpy Kerouac is distinctly unimpressed by Cassady’s new friends.)
The lost novel only provides glimpses of the later work: an account of a New York jazz club, a moment hitchhiking in Kerouac’s US north-east, or a drunken fight on the deck of a merchant navy ship.
It is often said that there are no second acts in American life. Kerouac barely had a first act, but his belief that the truth and spirit of America belongs to the hobo has proved seductive, over and over, in a country that is defined by its expansiveness. This novel is fleshed out with other pieces of juvenilia as well as the letters Kerouac exchanged with his childhood friend Sebastian Sampas, a relationship as intense and as important to Kerouac as the later friendship with Cassady.