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Flawed debut had familiar theme

In 1943 Jack Kerouac, an ambitious 21-one-year-old, wrote "The Sea Is My Brother," his famously "lost" first novel. He later disavowed it, calling it a "crock of S---" and refused to allow it to be published. In many ways Kerouac did not yet know how to write and he knew that he didn't know.

The plot is straightforward, simple, without dramatic development, a series of vignettes: On the urging of Wesley Martin, his young friend and spiritual guide to the spontaneous life, Bill Everhart, in the middle of World War II, on a whim, signs on to join the Merchant Marine, just as Kerouac himself did.

An assistant professor of English at Columbia University, Everhart drops out because he's bored teaching literary ideas, not experiencing the real life. Everhart stands in for Kerouac, the student who dropped out of Columbia, joined the Merchant Marine and started to write.

Aboard ship all the men he encounters are toughened by alcohol and hard toil and all are interesting to be around. Shipboard provides the camaraderie of off-hours card games with much drinking as well as long, lonesome hours keeping night watch on deck, occasions for philosophical rumination.

The last chapter is a prayer service led by the ship's baker. It comes quite out of nowhere. It's weird.

Everhart and Martin are two sides in a conflict present throughout Kerouac's career and that's never fully resolved. One either stays at home, enjoying comforts, stifled with obligations, or one embarks on an adventure.

It doesn't matter much whether it's seafaring or going on the road. Both have extensive pedigrees in American literature. Melville and Richard Henry Dana's "Two Years Before the Mast" (1840) come to mind. There's Whitman's "Song of the Open Road" and Huck lighting out for the territory.

"The Sea Is My Brother" provides imagination's template for Kerouac's masterpiece, "On the Road," and that is reason enough to read this imperfect little book. The tension is always between the boring safety of predictability and setting out, whether to the sea or to go pingponging across the U.S. and Mexico on the road.

In both instances Kerouac needs a teacher, a figure to give him the courage to live in his own skin. Kerouac hungers for experience spontaneously embraced and expressed in a language nearly unmediated. In "The Sea Is My Brother" Kerouac's tutelary figure is Martin (likely a wholly imagined creation) and in "On the Road," it is of course Neal Cassady, fictionalized as Dean Moriarty.

But why would Da Capo Press choose to publish a work of juvenilia whose intrinsic interest is marred by woodenness in dialogue and serious stylistic and narrative clumsiness?

One can guess at lots of reasons: On March 12 Kerouac would have turned 90. With this book, pretty much everything Kerouac has written has now found its way into print. Francis Ford Coppola is bringing out a troubled, long deferred production of "On the Road" with a solid A-list cast and an internationally acknowledged director.

However much his writing has been scoffed at and dismissed, Kerouac endures because "On the Road" has opened new avenues of expression avidly followed not only by other writers, but also by visual artists, filmmakers and musicians.

In "The Sea Is My Brother," Kerouac had not yet been initiated into the church of "Wow!" That great moment comes early on in "On the Road" thanks to Moriarty, his guru, guide and con-man doppelganger.

Moriarty/Cassady is literally his muse when he writes: "As far as my work was concerned he said, 'Go ahead, everything you do is great.' He watched over my shoulder as I wrote stories, yelling, 'Yes! That's right! Wow! Man' -- and wiped his face with his handkerchief. 'Man, wow, there's so many things to do, so many things to write! How to even begin to get it all down and without modified restraints and all hung-up on like literary inhibitions and grammatical fears " Later in "On the Road" this beautiful sentence: "Wow, Frisco nights, the end of the continent then, and the end of the road, and the end of all dull doubt."

Wow! signals a prose erased of all doubt, rambling and flowing, immensely evocative of any experience, whether an ant crawling on a picnic blanket observed closely or high rocky mountain sublimity.

Wow! also signals a cultural turn that Kerouac "bore on his back like a mule" (the phrase is Robert Pirsig's). But the culture swept by him all too quickly -- LSD, Kesey's Merry Pranksters and Neal Cassady driving the bus with the license plate FURTHUR (sic), mass media's embrace of hippies, Rowan and Martin's "Laugh In" (1968 to '73), and even Richard Nixon asking "Sock It to Me?" etc, etc.

Kerouac was left disconsolate and increasingly isolated. He hated being called the king of the beats and as the '60s wore on, he withdrew more and more into himself, while Allen Ginsberg and the gang chased celebrity, prancing happily around him having a great time pulling their daisies.

See the fine Robert Frank/Alfred Leslie film ("Pull My Daisy," 1959) for evidence of what it was like with the gang all there and for that moment Kerouac still with them. He wrote the script and narrates the film. (You can find the film on YouTube.)

Eight years later Kerouac (age 47) dies of alcoholism in the house he shares with his wife and mother.

Stefan Fleischer is a retired University at Buffalo American studies professor.

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The Sea Is My Brother

By Jack Kerouac

Da Capo Press

216 pages. $23