Tristessa

by Jack Kerouac
(1960)
   Michael McClure feels that this novel is one of Jack Kerouac’s most beautiful pieces of writing.
   Though it has been criticized for its romanticization of a Mexican woman, it is also one of the most passionate portrayals of a woman that Kerouac ever wrote. Kerouac wrote this romance about his relationship with a beautiful morphine addict in two installments as the story unfolded in Mexico City in 1955 and 1956. Kerouac was living on the rooftop in the Orizaba Street apartment where he had first visited William S. Burroughs in 1950. Burroughs’s and Kerouac’s friend, the old-time junky Bill Garver who is called Old Bull Gaines in this novel, was living in the building, and his morphine connection was a young Indian woman named Esperanza. Interestingly, Kerouac changes her name in the novel from one that means “hope” to one that means “sadness,” which reflects how Kerouac saw the world. Esperanza had been an addict since she was 16, and she had married Dave Tercerero, Burroughs’s heroin connection. When Tercerero died, Esperanza started a relationship with Garver. Theirs was a relationship of mutual dependency. Garver needed her to move through the Mexican underworld in search of morphine, and she needed his money. Kerouac fell in love with her and felt that he was trying to save her from the destructive life that she was living.
   The book is written in a spontaneous prose style, similar to that of the first part of desolation anGels (which he was also writing in 1956) and The suBterraneans, a novel whose interracial romantic relationship parallels the one in Tristessa. The novel is a sustained moving sketchbook of Mexico City’s slums, junkies, prostitutes, and drunks. Intermixed with this description is Kerouac’s own philosophical take on his surroundings. Kerouac’s Buddhism allowed him to see the world as an illusion and a dream; thus he could move in a society that to most people would be repulsive and even terrifying—moaning, sick junkies stumbling into the dawn in search of another fix, smiling bandits with their hands in their wallets. One of the readers for Viking said of this book that it should not only be turned down for publication at Viking, but also it should be kept from being published at all. Kerouac enthusiasts, of course, are glad it was not. This is pure Kerouac.
   Once again, Kerouac’s persona is Jack Duluoz. At the center of this novel is Duluoz’s love for Tristessa. But this is no simple love story. Duluoz is still a practicing Buddhist who is denying himself sex (a practice that is derided by Burroughs in letters to Kerouac), and his lust for Tristessa is sublimated into affectionate interplay with animals. Tristessa runs a fingernail down his arm, and it nearly makes him jump out of his chair. At one point, she tries to explain to him, with a pantomime of lunging hips, that friends show their affection in bed. Even then, Duluoz imagines that her tone is girlish, not seriously sexual, and he believes that the blame will all be on him if he seduces her. Duluoz returns after a year and finds Tristessa ill and self-destructive. He has given up his vow of chastity and feels that had he been sexually involved with her the year before, he might have been able to save her. Now, it appears to be too late. In one horrifying scene, after a night of drinking and morphine shooting, Tristessa falls unconscious and splits her head open. Duluoz thinks that she is dead, but she recovers, and he takes her back to Orizaba Street for help. There Kerouac slowly comes to realize that it makes much more sense for Tristessa to marry Old Bull Gaines than it does to marry him. To marry an addict, you have to be one, he says, and he cannot. In an effort to understand where Old Bull Gaines and Tristessa are coming from, he shoots morphine with them. The book is a fascinating twist on the obstructed romance motif of much of Western literature. At first, Duluoz’s Buddhism prevents him from being with Tristessa. Later, it is Tristessa’s addiction that thwarts the romance. One darkly funny scene has Duluoz trying to pass, with Tristessa, through a kitchen that is full of women to get to his rooftop bed with her, but the women will not let her in. She has been known to throw violent fits, breaking glasses and kitchenware. Tristessa’s own sincerity is also questioned by Duluoz when he suspects that she might be the leader of a gang of thieves who have robbed him, even taking his pad of poems. The book and their relationship ends with Duluoz showing his immaturity in a way that is similar to the relationship between Sal Paradise and the Mexican girl Terry in on tHe road. Kerouac’s own appraisal of the novel was that it was not as bleak as BiG sur. Tristessa’s tragedy appears far less so in light of the inevitability of her relationship with another addict, Old Bull Gaines. At times Duluoz loses his Buddhist calm and feels dismayed at a God who would treat his children this way.
   Literary critics can use this book to support the view of Kerouac as a writer who romanticized what he called the fellaheen, the indigenous peoples of the world. Yet, Kerouac honestly felt connected to the fellaheen. It is important to note that Kerouac was able to mix fairly well with these people and does so without trying to convert them to his own Buddhist philosophy. The book was published as a 35-cent paperback by Avon in July 1960. The cover proclaimed it as a “new and hauntingly different novel about a morphine-racked prostitute,” and the salacious cover art suggested a very different story than the one that Kerouac had written.
 Bibliography
■ 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.
   Rob Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Tristessa — ist ein Roman des Beat Generation Autors Jack Kerouac und wurde 1960 erstmals veröffentlicht. Das für Kerouacs Maßstäbe eher schmale Buch thematisiert zwei seiner Besuche im Mexico der frühen 1950er Jahre. Fast schon meditativ sind seine… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Tristessa — est un roman écrit par l écrivain américain Jack Kerouac alors qu il était à Mexico et publié en 1960. Le roman, écrit de 1955 à 1956, est basé sur sa relation avec une prostituée mexicaine nommée « Tristessa », de son vrai nom… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Tristessa — Este artículo se refiere a la novela corta de Jack Kerouac. Si desea consultar la canción de The Smashing Pumpkins, véase Tristessa (song) Tristessa Autor Jack Kerouac Género Novela …   Wikipedia Español

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  • tristessa — tristesso f. tristesa cl. tristesse [ cf. port. et esp. tristeza] …   Diccionari Personau e Evolutiu

  • Tristessa (song) — Infobox Single Name = Tristessa Artist = The Smashing Pumpkins from Album = Released = December, 1990 Format = Vinyl record (7 and 12 ) Recorded = 1990 Genre = Alternative rock Length = 3:32 Label = Sub Pop Records Writer = Billy Corgan Producer …   Wikipedia

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