I remember Kerouac biographer Ann Charter arguing in the documentary King of the Beats that Kerouac could write in any form and style and that in her extensive study of the man and his work she could see the struggle for a more unique and distinct style. In the Sea is My Brother and also in Atop an Underwood, another pre-On the Road manuscript I’ve read lately, I can see what Ann Charter means. His early work, or “juvenile work” as some reviewers I’ve read have called it, contrasts sharply with his later spontaneous prose style or his more stream of consciousness writing made famous in his classic On the Road. That wasn’t much of a surprise. I was expecting text similar to Town and the City than The Subterraneans. And I wasn’t surprised to see a third person limited omniscience means of perception but I guess I was most surprised in reading the book as to find more themes of brother searching or mentor searching.
The plot shows a very young Kerouac developing themes of friendship and perhaps also themes of the individual choosing more direct experience over the academic or over the intellectual experience. I also thought it interesting that much like Sal Paradise chasing Dean Moriarty in On the Road Kerouac gives us the similar William Everhart and Wesley Martin. William is the bookish and frustrated Columbia English Professor and Martin is the more experienced seaman who entices and convinces the lesser traveled Everhart to sign up for sailor duty. Again as in On the Road we see themes of travel and romanticized world experience—also travel without amenity as romanticized by young men. We also see another trend of Kerouac’s which is to show young men choosing friends, travel and experience—also choosing liquor and excess—over marriage and more secure pursuits. Or as Leonard Gardner calls it in the novel Fat City, choosing the fraternity of men.
My critique of the book is that so many of the conversations seem unnecessarily weighted. Folks drinking and talking about philosophy, communism and socialism rather than more organic and less-telegraphed thematic notes. We see much more subtle dialogue and interaction in On the Road. Again, as in Town and the City I feel like he is trying to be Thomas Wolfe or F Scott Fitzgerald—or maybe even Jack London—by giving important themes in a heavy handed way instead of giving us more natural and spontaneous emotion and dialogue. The sea here is a heavy metaphor whereas the metaphor of the road from later work seems much more effective. Kerouac’s ear for capturing voices and dialogue was evident though. The editor’s note at the beginning of the book is quick to remind that Kerouac sailed with the Merchant Marines and quotes pages from his 1942 “Voyage to Greenland” journal reminding us of Kerouac’s keen eye and ear for observing and his deftly drawn character studies.
In his article “In the Watery Part of the World”, Sam Sacks of the Wall Street Journal calls The Sea is My Brother a “bad book” and shows the young Kerouac’s “inexperience” and I guess I agree. But I have to say I find the study of Kerouac’s so-called failures and inexperience important in the way I admire reading Salinger’s uncollected stories. (I’m waiting for Salinger’s estate to publish a nicely produced version of those as well as the Hapworth 16, 1924 manuscript.) Seeing a major writer’s flaws can give insight into our own process and failures as well as give a strange encouragement.