The Sea Is My Brother: the Lost Novel
Penguin, 432pp, £25
In 1959, the poet Frank O'Hara was giving a reading in New York when a drunken Jack Kerouac heckled from the audience: "You're ruining American poetry, O'Hara." Quick as a flash, or so the story goes, O'Hara snapped back: "That's more than can be said for you." Kerouac was never comfortable with the kind of urban and urbane intellectualism that O'Hara stood for. He preferred his poets to accessorise with hand axes, not highball glasses, disporting fetchingly in the highways and dance halls of the all-American wilderness.
It is precisely this conflict between brain and brawn that drives his didactic and spectacularly tedious lost first novel - though it might be better described as a novella that whiffs tellingly of having run out of gas. It tells the story of Bill Everhart, a young professor at Columbia University in New York who decides to ship out with the merchant marines after meeting an enigmatic sailor in a Broadway bar. Both Bill and the author seem in thrall to Wesley, who wastes no time on the niceties of small talk and takes great pleasure in standing women up.
So far, so Jack London. But those hoping for an authentically briny adventure will be disappointed. Despite its protestations of oceanic fraternity, The Sea Is My Brother comes to a halt shortly after the SS Westminster leaves Boston Harbour, and is constructed largely of soliloquies by Everhart on whether an intelligent man should moulder away in the academy or go out and seize the world, preferably by fomenting some manner of leftist revolution in the company of hunky and taciturn comrades. (There's a rich and unattractive seam of misogyny here, and the all-male paradise of the ship is won only after our hero beats off no fewer than three female grotesques of various stripes: the feather-brained college girl, the shrewish sister and the vampiric abandoned wife.)
Yet, despite the avowedly butch sensibility, there are moments when Kerouac appears to have been making an earnest study of the works of Louisa May Alcott, catching just the slangy moralising of Jo March in Little Women. And elsewhere, there is more than a touch of the Mills & Boon, with lingering descriptions of the sky ("In the East now the sun had sent forth its pink heralds . . . like a carpet of roses for Neptune"), much "purred" dialogue and "suave" laughter, as well as a coy romance between an argumentative anti-fascist and a comely boy lately left Yale.
The Sea Is My Brother was written in 1943, shortly after Kerouac had completed his first tour as a merchant marine. He kept a ship's journal, Voyage to Greenland, and from the extracts included here it's clear that the better elements are lifted wholesale from life. Much of the sailors' dialogue - lengthy exchanges about communism aside - rings true and the action sequences are tightly written and convincing. Kerouac was always at his best when in motion, and a long sequence, viewed as if through a Steadicam, in which Wesley and Bill hitch to Boston, leaping aboard moving trucks and bedding down in vacant lots, shows that his writer's gifts, and flaws, developed early.
Those interested in tracing this development will no doubt be delighted to discover a bulky postscript of ephemera, including a wodge of early letters and poems to and - unusually - from a close boyhood friend, Sebastian Sampas (brother of John, later Kerouac's brother-in-law and literary executor). The sanctimonious, faux-religious voice of the late poems is firmly in evidence in the juvenilia: "Ah God, the emptiness that I have! . . . let us proceed through the emptiness of time, through the void of endlessness, and let us never reach the end of nowhere or the" - a train of thought that terminates with the end of the page.
The introduction by Dawn Ward, who edited the novel, argues that Wesley and Bill represent the two sides of Kerouac's character, and dramatise the struggle he went through before he, too, dropped out of Columbia. One sees from the spat with O'Hara which side he plumped for, but it is harder to know which is more irritating: the self-dramatising student, or the cocky bore of later life whose slovenly influence, despite O'Hara's witticism, lingers in American lives and letters to this day.
Olivia Laing is the author of "To the River: a Journey Beneath the Surface" (Canongate, £16.99)