The Sea is my Brother
423 pp., Penguin Classics, £25.
The discovery, or rather, the bringing to light of The Sea is My Brother, Jack Kerouac’s ‘lost novel’, is unlikely to create a huge literary storm. Although the novel is Kerouac’s first, written at the age of twenty, it is incomplete and was not intended for publication. Despite his high ambitions for the book, Kerouac was disappointed with the final result and is said to have called it a ‘crock’. The Sea is My Brother is nestled amongst other short stories and sketches and a series of letters between Kerouac and his fellow ‘Young Promethean’, Sebastian Sampas.
The volume reads more as a work of academic rather than literary interest, revealing a glimpse into Kerouac’s early style prior to his characteristic ‘beat’ writing, including attempts at suspense writing with a ‘penny detective’ story that seems to be written more as a fun exercise than to capture a reader’s imagination, and the openly pretentious ‘Journal of an Egotist’ that rambles on without structure about Kerouac’s thoughts on the importance of writing and what he feels he should write. I suspect Kerouac would never have wanted these early experiments and attempts to find a meaningful voice published, especially if he was uncomfortable with the idea of The Sea is My Brother seeing the light of day; they do not have much merit in themselves except as an insight into his influences and the self-consciousness of his early style, which would later be embraced and more thoroughly developed in autobiographical works such as Big Sur and On The Road.
The Sea is My Brother has the feel of an unfinished, extended sketch, but it is pleasurable enough to read; detailed descriptive passages give mood and atmosphere, and there are attempts at revealing hidden truths in the relationships between characters. The novel leaps skittishly between the points of view of the main characters, and often into the minds of bystanders. Its unflinching moral ambiguities and footloose feel are the building blocks of Kerouac’s recognisable later style. The story focuses on the beginning of a seafaring voyage for two young men: the worldly-wise experienced seaman Wesley Martin and the novice Bill Everhart, who is thirsting for some experience to give meaning to a life mired in critical theory. Kerouac’s observational approach underscores this text with a sweeping glimpse into the bars and nightclubs of the New York social scene, which bring together these two confused wanderers. Kerouac’s poetic sensibility is also strongly apparent from the outset; wandering through the city after a heavy night, the narrator describes through Wesley’s hungover eyes how ‘the energetic thrum of New York City sighed and pulsed as though Manhattan island itself were an unharmonious wire plucked by the hand of some busy and brazen demon’.
Each piece in the volume is framed with contextual notes from the editor Dawn M Ward, who lovingly makes the case for the literary credibility of Kerouac in this stage of his development as a writer. Ward writes in the introduction that The Sea is My Brother’s central characters form the poles of Kerouac’s own personality, and are drawn from his own seafaring and academic experiences. She cites an extract from a letter written by Kerouac to Sampas: ‘Everhart is my schzoid self, Martin the other; the two combined run the parallel gamut of my experience’. The volume includes several of these letters exchanged between Kerouac and Sampas, which outline the thoughts and experiences that form the artistic ideals of the ‘Young Prometheans,’ Kerouac’s early intellectual circle. The novel is more about brotherhood (a concept close to Sampas’s, and thus also Kerouac’s, heart) than about the sea, despite its title – in fact the sea is barely mentioned until the end. The sea forms more of a platform of expression for each character’s worldview; when Everhart, faced with the reality of life in the contained environment of a ship, begins to get cold feet about his drastic decision, he feels a
‘loss, a deep sense of loss…of course, Wesley had not returned to the ship, Wesley was gone, leaving Bill alone in the world he had lead him to. The fool! Didn’t he have feelings, didn’t he realise that…well, Everhart, what didn’t he realise?’
It’s unclear here who’s meant to be the fool – is it Bill Everhart for assuming that their spontaneously formed bond was stronger, or is Bill judging Wesley for not coming through for him and undermining his investment in his new life? Bill says of Wesley (like so many other characters in Kerouac’s works), ‘the man was no more than a happy-go-lucky creature to whom life meant nothing more than a stage for his debaucheries and casual, promiscuous relationships’.
Contemporary events such as the Spanish Civil War give colour and an interesting angle to the text; Billie Holliday and Citizen Kane are namechecked on Wesley’s wild night out in New York, and politics are vehemently and drunkenly discussed between Everhart and veteran sailor Nick Meade, whose mission is to ‘Fight for the rights of man […] What else can one live for?’. The meaning of being at sea forms a key part of the tale; the risks that they’re running, the very real danger of being torpedoed while taking supplies to soldiers and bringing back the injured. For Bill Everhart, it is an adventure, and he glamorises the simple and practical life of battling the elements, as well as their unseen enemies. For Nick it is an extension of his mission: ‘We carry goods to our allies don’t we? We’re fighting Fascism just as much as the soldier or sailor.' This is contrasted with new crew-member Danny’s more naïve idealism: ‘I’m dying to go to Russia and speak to the comrades…That’s why I joined the Merchant Marine’. Wesley’s attitude is more enigmatic and shows a lack of idealism; he sees the sea more as a means of escapism from the bonds of life ‘on the beach’: ‘it was a matter of not giving a hoot in hell – the sea was enough, was everything’.
The volume is an interesting case study of Kerouac’s formative years as a writer, but feels overburdened with material that one can’t help but feel that Kerouac would not have wanted to expose to judgement in the public domain. The inclusion of letters and a detailed introduction give an academic context to Kerouac’s themes, concerns and stylistic decisions, as well as emphasising the influence of certain writers. The Sea is My Brother as a first novel is charming at times but equally frustrating at others, and is more valuable as an insight into Kerouac’s philosophy and the zeitgeist of the time, than as a work of literary fiction.
Elinor Walpole also reviews for A Younger Theatre and Sabotage online magazines. She works as Education and Community officer for the London Picturehouse Cinemas, running the schools, reminiscence and autism-friendly film programmes.