Jack Kerouac : The Town And The City

Jack Kerouac The Town And The City book cover

Jack Kerouac :  The Town And The City (1950 Harcourt Brace)

I don’t really see this post as a book review as such – a lot has been written about Kerouac’s work by people who can do this much better than I ever could, so I just want to share a few thoughts about The Town And The City with you. I have read it a few times before, and it was always one of my favorite among Kerouac’s books. Now, with all the research I did about his life and work in the past few years I am perhaps a bit better able to understand it as a work and put it into context more.

I actually believe that The Town And The City is probably the book that stands better than all the other for what Kerouac stood for. Many of the themes he wrote about in the later parts of his life are described in here already. It is a cleverly conceived and structured book in my opinion. Stylistically it is probably leaning towards his then-hero Thomas Wolfe a bit too much, although I have to say that this could have been a lot worse, he’s for the most part making do without too many adjectives, which I think Wolfe did far too much. However Kerouac is definitely using the word ‘great’  a few times too often – so many things are ‘great’, whether that being a graveyard or a ship or a city, somebody really should have edited that out of the book.

The first parts of the book, concerned with the life of the Martin family in Galloway (actually Kerouac’s hometown Lowell) are unashamedly romantic and probably the parts reminiscent of Wolfe the most. But I have to say that I always have been very fond of them and they hold a lot of appeal to me to this day, especially as I have been to Lowell myself and can understand that romantic appeal of a milltown such as Lowell, even 90 years later and with all the changes that have befallen the town since then.

Things get quite a bit more complicated for most of the family (apart from the two youngest boys Mickey and Charley) with the coming of the 2nd World War which draws some of the youngsters in Galloway in, among them Joe Martin, the oldest of the Martin boys. Peter Martin opts to roam the world aboard various Merchant Marine ships. Francis Martin, who always has been the most enigmatic of the children, wants to join, but quickly, like Kerouac in real life, realises that the army life isn’t for him and wiggles out of the Army. I have to say that the Francis character might be the one that is most unrealised in the book. Given that many of Kerouac’s own experiences, characters traits and penchants are in that character he might have been able to do something with them more. Plus, Francis is probably the most dislikable character in the book – he’s always acting so aloof and far removed from his family and is, at times, extremely rude and constantly seems to despise them, which could never really be said about Kerouac, with a few exceptions perhaps.

Peter overall is the character reminding me most of Kerouac, with his brief period of football stardom, his stint in the Merchant Marine, and, ultimately, often being pretty much at a loss about what to do with his life.

Of course Kerouac himself always had the goal of being a great writer, but as the fact that he could make none of his relationships with women he dated work, his alcoholism and, as a direct result of this, early death confirmed that these things could be said about him as well. But nevertheless, he is the Martin son that I like best in The Town And The City. The three girls of the family are written slightly out of focus in the latter parts of the book, and don’t play that much of a role and are living in various parts of the country or have separated themselves from the family.

Joe in stark contrast to all the other boys, (we don’t hear that much about Charley and Mickey after the first two parts of the book), is very much the down to earth type, doing quite a few wild things in his time, but ultimately being a good and warm-hearted person. This becomes obvious, in the last few chapters of the book and especially, after George Martin’s funeral when he wants to buy a farm outside of the family’s hometown Galloway and plans to make a home for himself, his family to be, his mum and his youngest brother. But even before then, as he returns from the war towards the end of the book and in a few chapters where things come to a head between the parents and Peter, and Peter’s girlfriend Judy. The catalyst for this being after Peter comes sort-of involved in the suicide of Waldo Meister, a plot no doubt inspired by Kerouac’s real life involvement in the David Kammerer murder (by Lucien Carr) in 1946.

What I never really realised reading this (and other Kerouac) books before is how much I like some of the things George Martin stands for and values in his life and the world. He hated living on New York and big city life – and I have to say that, after living in big cities most of my grown-up life myself, I have lost most of my appetite for doing so in the last few years. All the values that are associated with country life now seem much more appealing to me than they did a few years ago, so the things he says in the book hit the nerve with me, although I am still somewhat undecided about that, and as a result am still living in a city.

Returning to the things I said in the beginning, I sometimes feel that if it’s only Kerouac book you are reading, The Town And The City may be the one to explain best what Kerouac was all about. Of course you would miss the experiences he shared (and extensively wrote about) with Neal Cassady, perhaps most of all, but also the influence people such as Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder had on his life, and his dalliance with Buddhism. But still, many of the things he stood for are in here already. The intellectual world represented in Francis Martin, the country boy Kerouac probably secretly was longing to be (becoming obvious in his never-materialised dreams of owning a ranch out west) of Joe Martin, but most importantly the life of Peter Martin, who, in book 4, becomes less and less sure of what exactly it is he wants out of life and how to go on. Which is why Kerouac decided to let himself go and let his alcoholism get the better of him in his later life.

One Response to “Jack Kerouac : The Town And The City”
  1. Jnana Hodson says:

    I still remember finding this in a small-city library, hard-cover version. And the author was John, not Jack. Perhaps pointedly, at the time.

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