Revisiting Book of Sketches

book ofsketchesOn moving to the Carolinas, re-reading Book of Sketches and reading Kerouac’s one-off impressions of this region as well as other places like Mexico City and New York, it is driven home to me how uncanny was his eye, and how sharp was his brain.

There is a passage when Kerouac writes of his brother-in-law, Paul Blake Sr., whom he perceives as a man of the south, and in whom he also perceives is a model figure of  the intrinsic sorrow of mankind.

It is pure, empathetic and insightful:


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Blake didn’t necessarily approve of his brother-in-law’s lifestyle. He perceived Jack as lazy and a layabout. But Jack, to his credit, stuck to his guns and used the friction in the Blake household as a means of observation and attenuated through his sensitive awareness of things, and in the pages of his little notebooks, a capturing of the mortal strivings of his fellow man.

When I first saw these notebooks, the actual living testament in his scrawled handwriting, and before they were published in 2006, I saw the actual day-by-day work-in-progress of Jack’s world. I didn’t have time to read all of the Book of Sketches notebooks, and longed with deep urgency the publication of this masterwork. This was in 2001. To hold in my hands these notebooks was perhaps akin to touching an original Gutenberg Bible. A strange thrill rushed through my hands and it became, for me, one of the more important touchstones of my life.

Book of Sketches remains for me one of the most important books by Jack Kerouac.

I highly recommend that you not just read it online, or on your Kindle, but buy the small but thick book and keep it with you always. Read it when your waiting for a bus, or for a doctor’s appointment, or during your lunch break or at the DMV. Put your phone away and immerse yourself into the peculiar but infinitely rewarding world of Jack Kerouac.

“It’s Saturday in Mex City & the streets / lead to all kinds of fascinating / lighted vistas, movies, stores, pepsi / colas, whorehouses, nightclubs,/children playing in brownstreet / lamps & the sleep of the / Fellaheen dog in some old / grand doorway.”





Two translated letters from “Tristessa

Monica Isabel Perez of Mexico City was kind enough to translate two letters from Esperanza Zaragoza “Tristessa” to Jack Kerouac. Monica also shared that there is a documentary in the works about this subject in Mexico …



Mexico City, October 15th, 1955
Dear Jack.

It was nice to receive your letter. Josefina is fine, Luis and Roberto, too. La Pequita and the Beauty Dove send you greetings. You said that Mexico is a sweet, good and religious country and so you are. Also, receive warm regards from your friend Luis. Send regards to Burroughs. You said you are in California and we are very glad for you.

This is all your friend can say,



Mexico City, February 28th, 1956
Dear Jack,
I hope you to be well at the time you have this letter in your hands. Those are my best wishes. I’m fine, thank you. Remember I want you to write me to this address: Calle Aluminio 401 just in the corner with El Rastro Avenue, apartment 8. Mrs. Esperanza Zaragoza.

I hope you to be very happy all this year. Do not stop writing.

Kid regards with love and respect, your friend who loves you.

With any other concern, this is all what your friend who is waiting to see you has to say,

[written vertically: “Receive regards from Lupe”]

[backside of page]

Give a kiss to your wife and kid. La Chirri and I send you a hug. And answer me whenever you have time to do it, if not I will get mad with you.

Excerpt from new book on Kerouac

An excerpt from my forthcoming book to be published by Rowman & Littlefield (2017):

“What Kerouac took from Lowell was a storehouse of powerful memories, not only those directly experienced, but those sensorial images exacted just from being there. There was the 1920s parlor of his babyhood and the summer green of trees redolent with fragrance and dank with humidity. He could see the downtown streets “moist and steaming” from his third floor window; he could hear the ticking of the kitchen clock in the ghost-quiet house syncopated with pattering droplets from the kitchen sink. All of these descriptions, if banal in their details, instead register starkly for Young Man Kerouac as important for their poetic import. Beneath each rings a stark rejoinder to a sense of tragedy and of life, the former serving as an omen of mortality, the latter as a celebration of the ordinary. Kerouac is a passive observer standing aloof from the “telephone-pole strung continent.” And so he asks the reader what is needed anyway besides a good meal, the “love of a tender woman” and sleep? Kerouac writes another two pages of typewritten prose, and closes the last page with a precursor of a scene from On the Road when Marylou sits between Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise as they drive through the state of Texas. Here he is ten years earlier writing, “The youth remembers himself riding along in a car, seated in the front with a girl and a boy. The girl is between the two boys, and the youth himself is seated against the right hand while his chum drives.” The past links to the future with Kerouac entrenched in the present bringing it all together.”

Gerard as the Great World Snake?

Reading Kerouac’s comment about writing Doctor Sax, he makes the following observation from his hospital bed into his diary on August 29, 1951:

I caught myself just now. The snake, the child—to make deliberate symbols, or just let the legend of the snake take me over? Prefer the latter— reading [Henry] Murray’s intro [to Melville’s Pierre] makes me want to write Sax, the snake in the pudding of T+C and The Road; where I would portray my mother as she really is (conjurer, mystic, prophet, gravedigger, little girl, madwoman, pal)—(my father what
he really was, sterile, or that is, impotent, or castrated)—(my brother himself the Snake).

Try reading Doctor Sax with the idea that the Great World Snake is a symbol for the long-dead Gerard. It will change your perception of the book itself, I think, a great deal.

excerpt …

Jack Kerouac with his novel, On the RoadBy December 1950, Kerouac was at full boil, ready to begin at once to disclose the “full confession of my life.” Doing so, Kerouac explains, enables him the ability to “renounce fiction and fear.” He is less than a year from breaking through with his “sketching” method of writing, and assuming the way proper to authorial maturation, the bulk of which would find its way to print by the end of that decade. Kerouac is concerned with “truth,” as he always was, and by virtue of doing so, allows him to delve deeper into the chasm of his heart to find haven in the proper solemn underground.” It is a diversion from the collusion of good and evil, the amassing of the forces at large. Kerouac, yearning to dive deeper in a Melvillean attempt to pluck the sacred pearl of Truth, shrugs commodification of his work in order to crystalize Truth’s essence, as if knowing already the longevity of his legacy matters more than catering to the whims of the marketplace.

In The Subterraneans, Kerouac wants to “let the truth seep out.” One of the key lessons Kerouac bestowed unto me, is truth. Over time I learned to embrace the truth and extract from it a further refined essence that remained elusive. Younger I was a liar, I lied about everything because I was afraid of confrontation. It was easier to lie and ward off conflict than tell the truth and face the erratic and unpredictable reactions of my parents. This turned into an ugly habit, from my teens mostly through my twenties, of lying about even the most trivial and mundane things. I would lie to not hurt someone’s feelings. I would lie to leaven advantage (never monetary), to allow me a safe exit from confrontation. Deception was the key toward keeping myself hidden. It was, in the words of Kerouac in a journal entry of May 1946, a “strange madness” that gripped me. It consumed my ideals and exploited my insecurities. It was Kerouac that made me believe in a higher calling, to foreclose the lien on my heart that my insecurities gripped. My parents called me “ugly” and they labeled me “stupid.” These labels stuck with me and were further validated by a high school guidance counselor that told me that I wasn’t “smart enough for college,” and steered me toward the military. This, perhaps was a blessing in disguise, for it was the freedom of the open sea that my tensions were eventually released and the world, via Kerouac, began to speak a new language to my heart and spirit.

to Jonah Raskin

(this was written as a comment to this 2012 article, but worth reprinting)

Mr. Raskin,

Per my book’s [Kerouac: His Life and Work] label as “definitive,” I too considered it then and now as not “definitive,” but the publisher did, and it being my first book, I was sort of powerless to convince them otherwise. By the time the trade edition of the book was published in 2007, I had convinced my publisher to trade the description of “definitive” to “His Life and Work.”

And since you haven’t ever actually researched and written a biography yourself, Mr. Raskin, I hardly see you as qualified to judge what goes into writing one. The goal isn’t to imitate the subject’s voice, but to find yourself. There is hardly a crime involved to write out of your own passion for your subject, than it does inflict outrage on the passive desk-jockeys who have yet to get their own fingers dirty from combing through archives and thumbing old newspapers.

Hiding behind the “Beat Studies Association” does less to legitimize the mediocre batch of Kerouac derivatives through an academic prism than it does create a private clubhouse for repudiation that only serves to impoverish the next generation of academics. Writing out of the BSA reflects arrogant, ignorant partisanship; it is a mutual-admiration clique as shown on your web site, your BSA journal, yet never reaches the major-reviewing organs of newspapers and magazines. Lets at to this outrage that none in the BSA, apart from Ann Charters, are ever tapped by the Kerouac Estate for anything at all. It is truly lamentable to be writing work that will go no further than your own circle.

Further still, to take Joyce Johnson’s book seriously, which is a cloaked attempt to attack Kerouac’s relationship with his mother that conveniently exluded her, is to lower the bar on biography in general. Her research wasn’t so involved that she was able to transform our understanding of Kerouac significantly as it is does illuminate her own deeply-ingrained resentment for her subject. Her Freudian approach served more to ultimately reveal her own anxieties and neuroses for her subject, than it does J.K.

John Clellon Holmes to Jack Kerouac on reading The Town and the City (February 14, 1950)

I’ve finished your book again—the final time-, and I couldn’t wait to tell you this:

It’s a mournful, wonderful, real American book. A kind of hopeful benediction, a guileless act of faith. There’s nothing small in it, only the important Tolstoyan things… a measured, seasonal tred.

I was so overwhelmed when I came to the death of the father that I flew upstairs (there being no one else around) and read it all to my mother and my sister. I went on and on reading, and we all forgot to eat, and my voice cracked on Peter’s lines finally, until we three sat there crying with amazement and emotion at your great wonderful book. That had never happened to me before.

I don’t care about the mistakes, they are the mistakes of honest, earnest, large labor. They are dear to me somehow. There is such a deep note in the last chapter you have added , and Kenny Wood touches me so much more now than he used to. It’s such a generous devotion to our misguided, frightened, knowledgeable generation, and to life… and death. That is your whole book to me. I think you have given voice to our lost, strangled youth, not only in its loneliness but in its care and strength, as well.

Don’t listen to any one that may chance to run it down. There are many who have lost touch with simplicities of life and death—those great Homeric banalities that return and return. But these people and their opinions cannot outlast the faith of this book in love, work and hope. John Clellon