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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Sea is My Brother’

- - Friday, June 1, 2012

THE SEA IS MY BROTHER
By Jack Kerouac
Da Capo Press, $23 216 pages

In 1956, Jack Kerouac burst upon the national literaryscene with the publication of "On the Road," his paean to the concept of finding one's true self through travel and adventure. It wasn't his first published novel. That was "The Town and the City," which had come out six years earlier, but not to anywhere near the acclaim of "On the Road," which went on to become a cultural landmark. It now turns out that he had written a much earlier book, a novel that had not found a publisher (if it had been submitted, which is not clear) and then was lost.

Years later, students of Kerouac got wind of it, but when the book failed to surface, doubts about its existence grew. Those doubts were put to rest three years ago when the author's brother-in-law found the completed manuscript in Kerouac's archives. As a result, 40-plus years after Jack Kerouac's death in 1969 (at the age of 47) we now have "The Sea is My Brother," his first novel.

Some "lost novels" should stay lost, but not this one. Although Kerouac was only 20 when he wrote "The Sea is My Brother," it displays the beginnings of his mature style, and his characteristic themes - in particular male friendships, a journey that includes adventure, and the lure of the open road, or, as in this case, the open sea.

As the book and the journal entries (that are quoted in the helpful introduction by Dawn Ward, a professor at Becker College in Massachusetts) clearly illustrate, Jack Kerouac had been going on the road long before he wrote "On the Road."

"The Sea is My Brother," a short novel, opens in New York City in 1943. America has entered World War II, but the group of young people the reader meets in the opening pages is not part of it. One of the girls picks up a young man by the name of Wesley Martin and brings him into the group, where he meets and makes a big impression on Bill Everhart, a cynical young college professor who fears he is living an intellectually, and perhaps also spiritually, dishonest existence.

Martin is a merchant seaman (as was Kerouac in his youth) and his exuberant approach to life so impresses Everhart that he decides, impulsively, to join the Merchant Marine himself. In a journal he kept at the time, Jack Kerouac wrote that, "Everhart is my schizoid self, Martin the other; the two combined run the parallel gamut of my experience ... [Wesley Martin] will act as the agent of stimulus - and as in all my other works, 'The Sea is My Brother' will assert the presence of beauty in life, beauty, drama and meaning."

This being a Kerouac novel, there is of course a road trip involved, in this case from New York City to Boston (by hitchhiking) where Wesley Martin's ship, the Westminster, is docked but will soon be leaving. One of the novel's subthemes is the interplay between the political theories of communism and socialism as opposed to democracy and individual freedom, and much of the dialogue is stiff and almost pedantic, as one might expect from a 20-year-old literary neophyte. But when Martin and Everhart hit (the side of) the open road, the novel comes alive, as only Jack Kerouac could make a novel come alive.

Meanwhile, back in real life, young Kerouac was also preparing to ship out (on the SS Dorchester). On July 18, 1942, he wrote, in his brand new journal, "Where is this ship bound for, and when? What is the destiny of this great, grey tub? I signed on Friday, or yesterday, and do not begin work till Monday morning... I could have gone home to say goodbye, but goodbyes are so difficult, so heartrending. I haven't the courage, or perhaps the hardness, to withstand the tremendous pathos of this life. I love life's casual beauty - fear its awful strength."

When the voyage was over, Jack returned to Columbia for a brief period, then went back home to Dorchester, moved in with his parents and got a job in a garage. Nights and weekends he practiced his craft, and six years and two published novels later he was no longer unknown. After that, he didn't need to ship out again, but in one form or another, he never stopped going on the road.

"The Sea is My Brother" is far more than literary juvenilia. Although not a polished work - the author never went back to it once he'd been published but throughout it there are small gems.

Here's Jack Kerouac's description of Everhart going down into the boiler room of the great ship: "Bill descended further, feeling as if he were going down to the bottom of the sea itself. What chance could a man have down here if a torpedo should ram at the waterline, when the engine room deck was at a level thirty or forty feet below! Torpedo ... another brutal concoction of man ... He tried to imagine a torpedo slamming into the engine room against the hysterical, blind power of the pistons, the deafening shock of the explosion, the hiss of escaping steam, the billions of [gallons of] water pouring in from a sea of endless water, himself lost in this holocaust and being pitched about like a leaf in a whirlpool. Death! ...he half expected it to happen that precise moment."

• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.