Breathe Our Iodine: Big Sur

Big Sur

“Big Sur is the California that men dreamed of years ago, this is the Pacific that Balboa looked at from the Peak of Darien, this is the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look.”

—Henry Miller, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch

One of the many things I’m glad to have inherited from my parents is their choice of the Best Place On Earth. For us, it is Big Sur, an ill-defined stretch of the Northern California coast along Highway 1 about 120 miles south of San Francisco and about 250 north of Los Angeles.

The remote Big Sur coast has been a home to mystics and monks since its first Spanish settlement, hundreds of years ago. But after federal money and convict labor brought a usable highway there in the early 20th century, the area became open to tourism and a low-tech, bohemian form of civilization. Some inns popped up, some restaurants and spas, but the place is still wild and often intolerant of human existence. (In 2008, for example, it had to be evacuated because of wildfires.)

One of Big Sur’s more famous tourists was Beat novelist Jack Kerouac, who recorded his stay in 1962’s Big Sur. Kerouac had come west from New York on the invitation of City Lights founder and San Francisco hero Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who believed a relaxing stay in his Big Sur cabin might cure Kerouac’s worsening depression and alcoholism.

The book that came out of this experience is not perfect, but it is a fascinating look through the eyes of Kerouac—who was, it must be admitted, a fascinating guy.

For one thing, Big Sur is sometimes depressing as all hell. Here is Kerouac on a bender:

“That feeling when you wake up with the delirium tremens with the fear of eerie death dripping from your ears like those special heavy cobwebs spiders weave in the hot countries, the feeling of being a bent back mudman monster groaning underground in hot steaming mud pulling a long hot burden nowhere, the feeling of standing ankledeep in hot boiled pork blood, ugh, of being up to your waist in a giant pan of greasy brown dishwater not a trace of suds left in it… The face of yourself you see in the mirror with its expression of unbearable anguish so haggard and awful with sorrow you cant even cry for a thing so ugly, so lost, no connection whatever with early perfection and therefore nothing to connect with tears or anything…”

Parts of the novel are really great. I’m thinking of his first weeks in the cabin, down below Bixby Bridge, as the writer sobers up and begins to explore his surroundings, going every night to sit by the ocean and record its thundering poems. All the mundane tasks of life become sacred, in a Zen way, from washing the dishes to reading by firelight. There are wonderful linguistic sparks and tangles in Kerouac’s disjointed prose that hold your interest no matter the subject. “And here comes the nightly moth to his nightly death at my lamp…” – It’s lines like this one that sold me on the book.

Big Sur’s stylistic quirks are nothing more extreme than you’d find in On the Road, or expect from Kerouac, who tended to write his books in a kind of feeding frenzy. But its narrative failings are a result of its realism. The story peters out after Kerouac starts getting drunk again and experiences a “final terror” at the cabin that convinces him to go back to the world. That’s what really happened, and this is autobiography, but if I were writing the story as sci-fi I would leave him in that cabin forever, a crusty old bodhisattva dragging himself to the shore every night and coming back to type down what the sea had told him. The nightly moth to his nightly death.

One Fast Move Or I'm Gone

Last year there was a movie made about Big Sur, and that’s how I found out about it. It consists of a chorus of Kerouac’s friends, colleagues, and sycophants retelling the story of the book and talking about parts of it, over a soundtrack written and performed by Jay Farrar (of Son Volt) and Benjamin Gibbard (of Death Cab for Cutie). The movie was compelling, even though I hadn’t read the book yet, but there are problems here too. Some of the commentators seemed to be random half-famous people pulled off the street, handed a paperback copy of the book, and told to act like they had read it.

Amber Tamblyn smugly, embarrassingly, tells the camera about “Jack, Jack, Jack,” as if they had been friends (she was born in 1983, fourteen years after Kerouac’s death). Singer-songwriter Dar Williams is driven to tears while reading part of the book (a really, by the way, not sad part of the book) to the camera – which is sweet of her, but the point of having a camera is to be able to edit that out. The chorus is also painful to watch as they magnify the importance of Kerouac’s dead cat and pontificate on his Freudian complexes.

On the other hand, we get to hear from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady’s wife, and best of all, Tom Waits. (I don’t mean to imply that Tom Waits had any business being in this movie either, but at least he was presentable.)

The soundtrack is better than the movie. Gibbard and Farrar took lyrics from the original text of Big Sur and set them to a minimalist but powerful guitar-based score. The riffs are simple, repetitive, and the method of picking lyrics out of a book sometimes falters, but overall it’s a catchy and memorable album.