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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, March 3, 2024

Bhallin' with Books: Kerouac and 'The Subterraneans'

​It might have been slightly ambitious to commit to reading a book a week. Luckily for you, I just made the deadline with my reading of “The Subterraneans” (1958) by Jack Kerouac

​Yes, it’s a novella and not a full novel, but it definitely still counts, right?

​Beatnik literature, or that of Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and others, has always been a favorite of mine. I love the way their texts travel through your mind, scattering images and controversial wisdom along the way. Perhaps I also love it because of how different their lives were from mine; I doubt I will find myself taking acid and listening to the Grateful Dead anytime soon.

“The Subterraneans” is Kerouac’s partly-fictional telling of his short romance with Alene Lee. Lee was an African American woman he met in Greenwich Village, New York. In his novella, Lee is named Mardou Fox. Mardou and Leo’s (Kerouac’s alter-ego) romance occurs in San Francisco amidst the vibrant beatnik scene. Its first-person memoir style gives the reader the perfect positioning to understand the complexities he is fashioning on every page.

Kerouac sneakily yet openly features many strong, beatnik personalities and friends of his throughout the story. Ginsberg can be seen in Adam Moorad and Burroughs in Frank Carmody. Wikipedia has a helpful and simple chart that connects each character to the acquaintance of Kerouac he or she is based off of.

It is not Kerouac’s most popular or most important work. Moreover, its depiction of minority groups is controversial because of its superficial and stereotypical nature. In many places he acts as if he understands parts of the African American culture around San Francisco, but it is obvious through his crude descriptions that he does not, and leaves many of his minority characters without depth.

Many of the characters deal with substance abuse and you can watch the remnants of Leo’s struggle with alcohol and drugs throughout. Leo also still lives with his mother despite the fact that he is way too old to do so without thought. The tension between his relationship with his mother and his relationship with Mardou is one of the sly ways that Kerouac forces you to see the cracks within Leo’s behavior while he is talking about Mardou’s struggles with mental health.

Though these struggles become difficult to navigate, the ways in which Kerouac allows his characters to twist and turn, grappling with their own trains of thought, lets the reader into conflict in a way I have not experienced with other authors. It leaves you twisting and turning as well, forcing you to see into struggle in a novel way.

Kerouac’s works are full of these long, confusing and meandering sentences that you can get lost in. Yet, when you finally find your way out, there is always a gift that he has left at the end. He is a prime example of an author that has complete control of language. Whether it be a bewitching image or a potent emotion, Kerouac is always worth the trouble of wading through his complexities. He can be difficult and controversial, but his words are never boring or futile.