Jack Kerouac’s 1942 journals contain considerable evidence that, during this time, he was practicing and refining various literary techniques and styles.
“The Wastrel,” written on December 5, 1942, was one of the strongest cases in point. The one page, typewritten (and wine-stained) manuscript is a dark piece of existential Dostoevskian narrative fiction. Kerouac’s attempt for once satisfied him, to which he aded a postscript that this was the style he needed to have more under his control. The narrative structure he found suitable to his purposes, comparing it a Dostoevsky translation.
“Duluoz knew that a change was undergoing in his character during these uncertain days. It was not that any of the days in his past life had not been uncertain, for God knows (if there be a God), that all his days had been such. But these were presumably his last weeks of complete freedom before entering the service of the Armed Forces of his nation, and this outward fact and outward uncertainty seemed to add intensity to his life’s chaos. He was not sure what actual change was going about in himself, but he did feel a certain fresh surge of sensibility. He hated above all things a fool: and he decided never to be one. He felt that he had been a fool before. In his comrade, Ferdinand, he had suddenly discovered the fool. Duluoz reveled in his discovery with a grim smile, and made promises to himself with a set frown to begin being sensible. Surely he would never again announce to the world that he knew the truth and that he had found himself: these he could never claim, he knew, not any more than Voltaire or others of the same illustrious ilk had.”
Kerouac’s narrative style in “The Wastrel” employs a hybrid between what Henry James called “The Invisible Narrator,” and the more personal and up-front style of first-person narrative.
Kerouac worked with this style in other stories of this period like “The Hero,” and “Life is a Tired Thing.” He also did it in his original attempt at “The Vanity of Duluoz” (an incomplete trilogy from 1942). He declared in the Introduction to Part III (The Joy of Duluoz):
“…your author, who prefers to remain anonymous…,”
He did it by structuring a fully realized form of “The Invisible Narrator.”
Kerouac had good reasons to be pleased with his literary progress, these stories and others to follow paved the way for The Town And The City.
“The Wastrel,” where Kerouac cites the guidance of Dostoevsky, is an intriguing study because it demonstrates that these influences were rooted not just in the gloomy characters and themes of the great 19th-century writer, but also in the realm of how the Russian author varied his use of narrative practices. Much time has been spent by literary critics in drawing attention to what techniques of narration worked best for Dostoevsky. In Crime And Punishment, scholars have disclosed that Dostoevsky struggled in deciding whether the story of Raskolnikov would be better served written in the first person or with an unseen narrator. Dostoevsky’s resolution to write the novel with authorial control while still allowing vestiges of first person narrative to remain, is arguably the pre-eminent literary judgement of all time.
Kerouac’s character, Duluoz, in “The Wastrel,” is struggling with his desire to change, his capricious nature led him to “realize the complete dissolution and waste of his life…” After a wasted night of “Blood-red drunkenness,” he awoke in a shabby hotel where, “Homeless winds moaned at the window, and far off, in the direction of the harbor, he could hear ships crying in the cold morning desolation.” Duluoz was horrified that he had shared his room with a 30-year-old woman sprawled out across the second bed in the room. After counting his dwindling financial status, Duluoz despaired:
“He had decided to change, but the madness in him was uncontrollable.”
In language that echoes Jean-Paul Sartre’s masterpiece, “Nausea” (1938), Kerouac wrote:
“A loathsome revulsion rose from his stomach, and he thought he would vomit. He had deserted his dear friend for..this!! Quietly, he dressed and left the room.”
Like Sartre’s Antoine Roquentin, Duluoz is in a state of despair; the constant struggle they bore attempting to change, and the never-ending state of flux that the world imposed on man, left both individuals feeling psychologically nauseous.
“The Hero” is another example of Kerouac exercising and refining his narrative style of prose. The short story was a descriptive piece of writing where Kerouac (the narrator) delivered an account of a few hours in the life of a character who is only referred to as, “The Youth.”
“Presently, he lay down the book and sat up on his couch to lean a disheveled head in his hands. His large, shiny radio (which he had purchased for $40 when he had $50 in his pocket) sat on a disorderly desk emitting Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The youth stared moodily at the wall and hardly heard the symphony orchestra. He feet were housed in tattered slippers, and he wore an untidy old sweater and wrinkled blue trousers. On the large dresser, from which hung several pressed trousers jammed in the drawers, was a half-full bottle of bad whiskey. The youth rose to pace his room, when suddenly, the telephone buzzer above his door buzzed loudly and irritably, shattering the silence of the music-filled room, which was being played low, with its maddening insect-like rasp.”
Without doubt, the character is Kerouac, and the details begin with a depiction of him studying (presumably) in his dorm-room at college. His girlfriend, Edith and later called Janey, visits and treats him to a much needed meal at a nearby restaurant:
“He hadn’t eaten for a whole day, and for him, this was a true hardship, for he was a man of enormous appetite, whether gluttony or nature, he did not suspect, nor care to know.”
“The Youth,” is experiencing the same feelings of distress and anguish that Duluoz experiences in “The Wastrel.” After he finishes the meal with Edith, “the youth” accompanies her to an apartment in Harlem inhabited by a muscular, young black man. There he watches as Janey poses flirtatiously:
“…she lay stretched on the couch across the room, exposing the view of her long beautiful legs, her delicate little high-heeled shoes, and the warm white flesh around her lower thighs…”
Kerouac’s character, though aroused, curiously encounters an onset of distressing feelings:
“…he began to grow full of dismay and vexation; he sank deeper and deeper and thought with anguish of any inkling of pride…the more he thought, the more he grew glum, until finally he sat there, smoking, and gazing gloomily into space.”
The story reached a quick ending as “the youth” departs from the apartment and returns “to his lonely, dark room and lay down on the couch to sleep, feeling in a drowsy wave of agitation…” We are shown exactly the kind of incomplete “Hero” Kerouac wanted to portray with the concluding words of this prescient work of fiction: “…that he had no pride in him, that he was not a man, not even a wretch, but simply and horribly, nothing, nothing, nothing.”
Kerouac’s “Life is a Tired Thing” was also written during this period in 1942. “Tired Thing” resonates with uninhibited, determined descriptions of barrooms, pool halls, and the characters who prowl the environs of these nocturnal haunts. The language and style in “Tired Thing” led to Kerouac’s mastery of urban prose, which influenced scores of other writers, such as, Raymond Carver, Pete Hamill, Charles Bukowski, and songwriter Tom Waits. In pure, lyrically alive prose Jack brings the street alive:
“Oh, hell, thought Joe, I must get back on the beam. This is not good. He drank some more beer, it was a bit warm and rancid. Life is real and earnest, I think. I should be a poet at all times of my life. For instance, there has been Gershwin and Central Park at 5 in the morning singing with Howie. And there has been warm hearth, paper, supper cooking, dog playing with a rubber mouse squeaky, mother and sister talking, Pop’s pipe and race sheets. There has been tired work too, of all kinds….digging ditches in Maine, selling in Hartford, greasy in a garage pit, alone and weary in Maryland, newspaper offices in Massachusetts, a football field in Philadelphia, a college campus in New York, a morning born forest in New England and singing on the road to Mandalay, where the flying fishes play, ay, ay,….. A lot of things, too many for the eager soul to take in all at once. Music, books, art. yes, beer, cheap sluts, hamburgers, brawls, yes, debutantes, Riverside Drive, nite-club, yes, pouch and tobacco and old coat and dime movies, yes, yea, yea. Tears came into Joe’s eyes. They swore about women in back of him as the piano began anew its twang tune. But Joe, he was saved. He knew it, and would try to remember small moments of salvation like these.”
Though tired and sometimes wearying, life, proclaims Kerouac, is sacred. He articulates these reflections at a time when the notion of a beat generation is utterly non-existent. Kerouac’s beatific vision truly was a genuine expression of his sympathetic love of existence. The work, the play, the music and songs of life were what Kerouac felt made life more than worthwhile. The “morning forest,” “Riverside Drive,” the beer and the burgers, the books and “dime movies,” all redeemed “the eager souls” and pointed them towards salvation.