Subterraneans, The

by Jack Kerouac
   This novel is about interracial love, jack kerouac’s obsessive relationship with his mother, and his confrontation with his homosexual tendencies. Kerouac wrote it in three days while fueled by Benzedrine, and it is perhaps the best example of his spontaneous prose style. joyce johnson found the book astonishing in that she had no idea how conscious Kerouac was that his wild behavior and all-night drinking caused him to lose the women in his life. The Subterraneans is emotionally raw and heartbreaking and is Kerouac’s most sexually explicit novel. Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain (1997), writes, “In The Subterraneans the theory and the practice mesh perfectly, and Kerouac—before the train wreck of fame and selfdestruction-created a remarkable writing style capable of capturing the manic energy flooding the country just after World War II, when, contrary to the stereotype of the period, many different elements of the nation emerged from the Depression and the war years wild for life.”
   Soon after the events that were fictionalized in the novel occurred, Kerouac sat down and wrote The Subterraneans in three October nights in 1953 at his mother’s kitchen table. This amazing feat of spontaneous writing impressed even Kerouac, who reported that he lost several pounds in the process and ended up white as a sheet. allen ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, astonished at how the book was created, asked Kerouac to write an essay on his methods. Kerouac’s famous “The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” was the result. The Subterraneans details Leo Percepied’s (based on Kerouac) love affair with Mardou Fox (based on Alene Lee) in Summer 1953. Lee was the half American Indian and half African American girlfriend of Allen Ginsberg; when Kerouac first met her, she was typing copies of Burroughs’s junky and queer, which Ginsberg was trying to sell for Burroughs. Ginsberg (the inspiration for Adam Moorad in the novel) dubbed Alene and her ultracool friends at the San Remo bar “the subterraneans” (from which bob dylan derived the title of his song “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” the video of which includes Ginsberg). Primarily, though, the book is a deep Oedipal confession by Kerouac. Gerald Nicosia, Kerouac biographer, writes in the introduction to the 1981 edition, “Leo was the first name of Kerouac’s father, and Percepied is French for ‘pierced foot,’ an equivalent of the Greek oedipus. Leo Percepied has the classic Oedipal complex as described by Freud: he has replaced his father in his mother’s affections, and has in turn accepted her as his wife.” Nicosia informs his readers that Kerouac had recently read Wilhelm Reich’s The Function of the Orgasm before starting his relationship with Alene Lee. James T. Jones argues, “The Subterraneans presents an argument against Freudian psychoananlysis based on Kerouac’s recent reading of Wilhelm Reich’s Function of the Orgasm.”
   Commentators and biographers have pointed out the extensive fictionalizing of this supposedly uncensored, unrevised confession by Kerouac. Some of these alterations were made to avoid a libel suit. Alene Lee, for example, was horrified by the personal details that Kerouac revealed about her. New York City thus becomes, rather implausibly at points, San Francisco. Other “truths” in the book are obscured, such as Kerouac’s one-night stand with Gore Vidal, discussed in Vidal’s memoir Palimpsest. A film version of the novel, released in 1960 by MGM and starring George Peppard, made Kerouac cringe as Mardou is changed into a white woman. The book’s style is its most famous feature, Kerouac’s bop prosody at its best. Kerouac had to battle with Donald Allen at Grove Press to print the book as he wrote it, with his dash punctuation intact. The novel was first published in both paperback and hardback editions and received few serious reviews until decades later. Today it is considered one of Kerouac’s masterpieces.
   The book centers around a group of artists and intellectuals. Leo is more of an observer of this group than a member and has hidden motives for hanging out with them: He is consciously seeking out a great love affair and is immediately struck by the “fellaheen” princess of this group, who is called Mardou. From the beginning, it is evident that this romance will fail; in fact, the book’s interest is exactly that. Leo realizes that he is “hot” and that her crowd, younger than he, is “cool.” He also fears that he is too brash and roughly masculine to fit in with this effiminate crowd. Leo, fresh from his lover’s betrayal as he writes these opening pages, questions whether or not he wanted her simply because he felt the need as a great writer to have a great love or if it is simply that he is courting rejection by choosing an impossible partner.
   Moorad tells Leo of his aborted affair with Mardou. She is, he tells Leo, in therapy and subject to hallucinations. The three of them—Leo, Mardou, and Moorad—go out for jazz and beers, and Leo sketches a portrait of this moment. Charlie Parker sees Mardou and Leo dancing, and Leo thinks the jazz great can see how it will all end. Moorad leaves the two alone (as planned), and Leo and Mardou return to her apartment. They dance and inevitably make love. In their postcoitus conversation, Mardou wants to know why men find their essence in women but rush away from it to build things and start wars. Leo makes a graceless exit the next morning, feigning a hangover and the need to work on his books. She finds him in Moorad’s apartment a few days later and sits in his lap and tells him the story of her life.
   Her story sends Leo off on a reverie about Mardou’s Cherokee father. Leo, too, is part Native American. He transcribes her story as well as he can remember it, confessing that he has probably forgotten much, an admission that matches Alene Lee’s claim after reading the book that Kerouac mostly put his own words into her mouth in the novel. Percepied blames Mardou’s neurosis on the other subterraneans. She loses her identity living with these men and one night ends up wandering naked on the San Francisco streets. Mardou recounts the days in her life when she verges on psychosis from too much Benzedrine, marijuana, and general exposure. She has an epiphany about the endless depth of reality and the interconnectedness of things, but this beautiful vision eventually becomes sinister. She is put in a hospital, where, once and for all, she realizes that she must not risk her freedom by going too far out.
   Mardou stays overnight with Leo at Adam’s and the next day misses her appointment with her analyst at the county hospital. Moorad tries to tell Leo how serious this oversight is, but Leo misses the significance of such events as they unfold. That night, after a round of parties in literary San Francisco, Leo makes another crucial error. Drunk and in the company of some witty gay men, he sends Mardou home in a taxi at 3 a.m. while he continues partying. On the surface, the fault of the narrator lies in his alcoholism and late-night habits—both hardly conducive to a long-term relationship. However, there is the suggestion that Leo prefers the company of homosexuals to the company of women. Leo’s failure here leads directly to Mardou beginning an affair the next night with Yuri Gligoric (based on gregory corso). For the rest of his life Corso felt the need to defend himself about this relationship, which he claims happened before he was truly friends with Kerouac. Other pressures separate Leo and Mardou as well, particularly Leo’s need to go back to the domestic stability of his mother’s apartment, where he can dry out and write. Mardou resents that he has such a stable place to which to return.
   The second half of the book begins with a long self-examination by the narrator regarding his feelings about Mardou as a “Negro” and how that might have been affecting their relationship. He notes that it will be impossible for him to visit his family in the South with a half Cherokee, half African-American girlfriend. He also confesses his childish fears of Mardou’s black body, and she allows him to closely study her anatomy in full daylight. Leo exorcises all kinds of fears and hangups in his portrait of their relationship. He feels a competition between Mardou and his mother. The subterraneans also question his sexual orientation, calling him a fag, and Leo even compares himself to the “little fag whose broken to bits” at the hand of the African-American masseur in Tennessee Williams’s short story “Desire and the Black Masseur.” Leo recounts the night that he spent with Arial Lavalina (based on Gore Vidal). (The details of his one-night stand with Kerouac were later revealed by Vidal in his memoir Palimpsest.) The evening begins with Leo meeting up with Frank Carmody (based on Burroughs), who is just back from Africa. Leo takes the opportunity to introduce Carmody to Lavalina, who is across the bar from them. Leo once again puts Mardou in a cab and stays out partying. Carmody leaves the two to their own fun, and Leo and Arial go back to his hotel. Leo wakes up the next morning guilt-ridden but unspecific about the details of the night. He later writes Lavalina a letter apologizing for being drunk and acting the way he did.
   Mardou does not stay mad at Leo because of this incident, but a few days later she writes a rather abstract letter to him, which he analyzes for the next several pages. In the letter he reads between the lines that she hates to see him making himself sick with drink, and Leo recalls a disastrous drunken party with Yuri and Mardou at the house of Sam Vedder (based on Lucien Carr), ending up with Sam falling-down drunk next to his wife, who is holding their newborn. The letter also reveals to Leo what he sees as Mardou’s fear of losing her sanity.
   The next section of the book centers on a dream that Leo has following a long night of drinking with Mardou, Moorad, Carmody, and Yuri. Leo makes a fool of himself by insisting that a beautiful young man in a red shirt accompany them on their rounds—further fueling speculation regarding his sexuality. They become completely inebriated, and back at Mardou’s apartment, she rolls around with a balloon, pantomiming lovemaking and trying to arouse jealousy in Leo. That morning, they both have the same dream that features all of their friends; most significantly, Leo sees Mardou making love to Yuri in the dream. Later, it becomes clear that Leo has, in a way, created a love affair between the two—dreamed it into existence. In fact, he tells Yuri and the rest of the subterraneans about the dream. Mardou, too, seems to understand that Yuri will provide her a way out of the affair with Leo. Later, he tells Yuri that he is in love with Mardou, a fact that makes the young poet even more heartless in his betrayal. Leo believes that he betrays him because the younger poet wants the status of older poets Leo, Carmody, and Moorad, and he can show his mastery of them by taking Mardou.
   Leo admires Mardou for her deep understanding of jazz and literature. He dreams of the two of them disappearing as Indians down into Mexico. But he later stands her up on a date, disappears for no reason, and tortures her unnecessarily by telling her that Moorad broke it off with her because she is a “Negro.” When she goes off on a date with a young black man, he takes it out on Mardou’s neighbor. Later, in an infamous passage Leo describes performing cunnilingus on Mardou. One drunken evening, Yuri steals a pushcart and pushes Mardou and Leo all the way to Moorad’s apartment. Moorad is upset that stolen property has been parked in front of his apartment, but Leo is less upset about this situation than he is at discovering Yuri and Mardou playing intimately like children in the next room. Leo feels the age difference keenly. His instinct to be jealous conflicts with his desire to break-up with Mardou to return to his mother and the writing of his books. As the book moves between good and bad times, Leo describes the “most awful [night] of all.” Yuri accompanies him and Mardou, and Leo discusses Yuri’s emerging vision as a poet. Throughout the evening, various men approach Leo and ask him if Mardou is his girl, and each time he draws up short of claiming her. They drive out of the city with a young novelist and visit an estate. Leo, knowing how out-of-place Mardou is becoming in his drunken wanderings, sees his relationship with her falling apart. He knows that he is in trouble when even the dawn birds sound bleak. He chastises himself for past infidelities and for dragging along Mardou, who is unstable at best, on an exhausting alcohol-fueled nightmare in which she figures as an outsider.
   The book takes on a tragic tone. Leo sees the relationship breaking up, but it is already too late to stop. Race really does come between them. Mardou will not let Leo hold her hand in public for fear that people will think that she is a prostitute. His attitude toward her blackness changes from loving her as an “essential” woman to now seeing her as the “hustler” whom she dreads resembling. (Readers should note that Kerouac portrays Leo’s changing attitude with self-awareness.) They go to a birthday party for Balliol MacJones (based on john clellon holmes), and in the subsequent scene in a downtown bar Leo bounces off the crowd delivering half insults and embarrassing people at random, such as Julien Alexander, whom he hits on in mock-homosexual interest. The night of the party for MacJones ends with Leo insisting on continuing on to one more bar and leaving Mardou stranded in a cab with no fare for home. Having made a dreadful mistake, Leo remembers her kind words in a letter, wishing he were not a drunk. Leo has lost all ability to balance the tensions in his life and thus loses Mardou. She seems to have honestly hoped that someday they would be together. Knowing that he is on the brink of despair, Leo, with Sam, heads to Adam’s apartment where he and Sam become intoxicated. He awakens the next morning truly ill and heads out of the city where, at the end of one of Kerouac’s greatest long sentences, he “went in the San Francisco railyard and cried.” Staring at the moon, he sees his mother’s face, and it is apparent to him that only a mother, quite literally, could love him in this state.
   Leo and Mardou reunite only to discuss their break-up. She tells him that she has had sex with Yuri, a fact that almost completely undercuts Leo. Mardou explains to him how she knows that women are only trophies to men and that she now has less value in Yuri’s eyes for having slept with him. Originally the novel ended with Leo breaking a chair over the knife-wielding Yuri’s head. Corso himself convinced Kerouac to render this in a fantasy that merely flashes in the narrator’s mind. Mardou has the last calm word: “I want to be independent like I say.” Then the narrator goes home to his mother—as did Kerouac—and writes this book.
   Jon Panish criticizes Kerouac’s portrayal of Mardou in The Subterraneans: “Not recognizing their own complicity in perpetuating racist ideology, Kerouac and others continued the tradition of primitivizing and romanticizing the experiences of racial minorities (particularly African Americans) and raiding their culture and contemporary experience for the purpose of enhancing their own position as white outsiders.” Nancy McCampbell Grace reminds us that “It’s critical that we not lose sight of Kerouac’s [ethnic] hybrid status.” In recent years more attention has been spent looking at Kerouac’s portrayal of race than in his use of language. Yet during its time Henry Miller praised Kerouac’s artistry: “Jack Kerouac has done something to our immaculate prose from which it may never recover. A passionate lover of language, he knows how to use it. Born virtuoso that he is, he takes pleasure in defying the laws and conventions of literary expression which cripple genuine, untrammeled communication between reader and writer.”
■ Grace, Nancy McCampbell. “A White Man in Love: A Study of Race, Gender, Class, and Ethnicity in Jack Kerouac’s Maggie Cassidy, The Subterraneans, and Tristessa.” In The Beat Generation: Critical Essays, edited by Kostas Myrsiades, 93–120. New York: Peter Lang, 2002.
■ Jones, James T. Jack Kerouac’s Duluoz Legend: The Mythic Form of an Autobiographical Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.
■ Miller, Henry. Preface. The Subterraneans, by Jack Kerouac. New York: Avon, 1959. i–iii.
■ Nicosia, Gerald. Introduction. The Subterraneans, by Jack Kerouac. New York: Grove Press, 1981, i–iv.
■ Panish, Jon. “Kerouac’s The Subterraneans: A Study of ‘Romantic Primitivism.’” MELUS 19, no. 3 (Fall 1994): 107–123.
   Rob Johnson and Kurt Hemmer

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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