I Pick Pic
Thirty years ago I remember saying to my Beat brothers at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village that I thought Vanity of Duluoz was right up there with Jack’s greatest works. And they all looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Yeah, but nobody else thinks that.” 🙂
Years later, Duluoz has gotten its due.
What I’m sayin here is — Pic is better than conventional wisdom has it.
If you don’t know — this novella was a key moment in the evolution of one of America’s greatest writers. It was written over the summer / fall of 1950 as he was struggling to get his On The Road vision on the page.
Shortly after writing it, in Dec. 1950 he received the now-legendary “Joan Anderson/Cherry Mary” letter from Neal Cassady that broke open his storytelling narrative voice which led to the famous Scroll version three months later.
I know it sounds crazy, but I think the oft-dismissed Pic is one of Kerouac’s most fun (and quick) books. Everything Jack wrote was a thinly-veiled version of himself. This is the only time he ever wrote as someone else entirely — a precocious, adorable, funny, adventurous, wide-eyed 10-year-old African-American boy from North Carolina.
His whole oeuvre, his whole raison d’êtra, his whole “Duluoz Legend” (the breakthrough idea of telling one epic story of one person’s life at his particular point in history) was about writing in the real first person. Pic is Kerouac’s very first work written in first-person (after the third-person Town and The City, Orpheus Emerged, The Sea Is My Brother, et al) and the only book to step into another skin entirely — a key evolution in the author’s expanding execution.
I’m not saying Pic is Road — but it does contain many scenes he either used (in a different form) in On The Road or in the Scroll version or elsewhere that never stayed in the published editions. There’s the longest take of the Ghost of the Susquehanna; there’s the Prophet of Times Square and other vivid New York scenes; there’s the most detailed bus trip description of his many times riding in one; and there’s the whole story of two “brothers” going “on the road” together.
This is the only time this stunningly gifted writer ever branched into another voice. And boy, I love it!
And just to clarify the “stunningly gifted writer” part if anybody doesn’t get it, and I know some don’t:
What I might suggest anyone do is read the On The Road Scroll and Old Angel Midnight and The Dharma Bums and Big Sur and get back to me. Kerouac captured a compassionate vision of the world, and an embrace of all peoples — black, white; gay, straight; rich, poor; city hipsters and country farmers. He articulated the wanderlust that so many have, whether they act on it or not. He wrote prose like a poet, and novels like a storyteller sitting next to you in a bar (as he himself described his goal as a writer).
His output was a herculean effort in a very short 47-year life that was filled — except for about one week in 1957 — with mostly rejection. There’s a body of work here that’s rivaled only by his fellow giants. Besides being a novelist, he was a chronicler, an historian, a poet — a visionary in the sense that he saw the future and knew the value of what he was doing — and that people are still devouring what he created is proof he was right. I mean, You’re reading about him Now!
It was a Van Gogh-like commitment in the face of all rejection. And God-damn-it that hard booze and insulting dismissals mowed him down in mid-life.
And in this whole massive masterful output, Pic has not gotten the props it deserves — just like John Lennon’s “Sometime In New York City” didn’t. As a Lennon fan, I was always perplexed by the accepted conclusion that this album was no good. I had it. I listened to it. I knew it was great. In fact, it rocked!
And so, like everybody else in Jackland, I’d dismissed Pic (until I reread it recently) because … it was dismissed. It’s barely touched on in any of the biographies. Sure, it’s unfinished, sure the dialect may not be a perfect linguistic transcription, but this is his Catcher, his Huck — his comical, colorful young-person’s voice and story.
I’ve said (as I’m sure others have) that On The Road was Huckleberry Finn in the 20th century. In fact, even Jack described this early attempt at Road as, “a kind of Huckleberry Finn of today.” Only thing is — Huck was written in dialect, and Road wasn’t.
This is the only time this monster talent tried a long-form dialect piece. Besides the Midnight / Sax / Vanity variety of voices he captured . . . here he is a thousand miles out of his comfort zone — not writing in his native French, nor his mastered English, but actually “becoming” the black American he confessed to wanting to be in On The Road — “At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.“
And there’s this neat symmetry how this first first-person novel perfectly mirrors the last one he wrote (Vanity of Duluoz) in that they’re the only two books addressed throughout to one person — Pic to “Grandpa” and Vanity to “Wifey” — the most direct one-on-one communication from author to imagined reader.
I’m not sayin Pic is Toni Morrison or James Baldwin or Langston Hughes — but I’ve never read Norman Mailer or Tom Wolfe or Hunter Thompson even attempt this kind of range.
It’s a testimony to his creative courage and ear-to-hand gifts that he went there long-form — that he inhabited this other place. Whether he caught every phrase just right, I don’t know or care. I “got” it. I was there with him. I was that kid. Going On The Road. Discovering New York. Digging the Ghost of the Susquehanna. Savoring all of America that he was gulping in for the first time. Appreciating how this was Jack’s Road vision . . . just before he Scrolled it.
And he had (wisely?) returned to it in the last months of his life — dashing off a quick ending that doesn’t satisfy but at least didn’t leave it mid-tale.
Which brings us back the goddamned tragedy of him dying. Alcoholism is as much a biological disease as cancer. I’m so sad John Lennon was taken from us by a mental disease, and Jack by a physical one.
Where would he have gone as an author?
I like to think Pic was a hint of one of the places this master storyteller might have taken his readers in the decades he and the rest of us were robbed of.
For a whole Jack Adventure book written about going On The Road — check out “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac.”
Or here’s a story of being in Manhattan the night John Lennon was killed.
Brian Hassett — email@example.com — BrianHassett.com
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