Jack Kerouac's buddy William Burroughs once told an interviewer that Jack had written about a million words by the time he turned 22, and poet and editor Paul Marion publishes 80,000 of them for the first time in Atop an Underwood
: jazz reviews written in high school, several rushing headlong poems, short stories (Kerouac dashed off some 200 during his 1941 stint working in a Hartford gas station), essays, radio plays, self-exhortations, an excerpt from the novel The Sea Is My Brother
. Marion takes what he calls a "documentary approach," grouping together pieces by period, subject, circumstance of composition. And what emerges from the whole is a terrifically fresh, vivid, and engaging portrait of the Beat artist as a young man.
Kerouac, even in his teens, was riffing on his big themes--the restless quest for meaning along "the marathon alleys of life"; the lonely majesty of "the real, true, America, America in the night"; the fleeting pleasures of love, sex, comradeship, food, and drink; the compulsion to set down his experiences in swift, fluid prose. There are no buried masterpieces or stunning revelations here, but every piece hums with the spontaneity and immediacy of Kerouac's voice. Reading these youthful jottings is like hanging out at one of those all-night bull sessions when Kerouac and his pals "talked about eternity and infinity and the government and Reds and women and things..."
"I will write a play about life as life is and I will wait till it hits me in the face before I write it," he proclaimed when he was 18. "Then I will rush to my typewriter and write it. So hold on to your seats. It will soon come and I feel terrifically exuberated right just now." Atop an Underwood is a record of the many forms that exuberation took during the years when life first started to hit Kerouac in the face. --David Laskin
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From Publishers Weekly
"I am part of the American temper, the American temperament, the American tempo," writes a teenage Kerouac in a prophetic 1941 prose fragment, one of the 60 such pieces in this collection of Kerouac's juvenilia. These fugitive pieces, previously unpublished, provide a tantalizing glimpse of the future Beat generation originator, spanning Kerouac's adolescence and his first years in New York. The themes here would later find expression in On the Road and the Duluoz series: his French-American heritage, with its idiosyncratic English; his mystical identification with America; and, taking cues from Whitman, his vision of art as a means to unfold the authenticity of the self. The best pieces are the short sketches written in Hartford in 1941. Kerouac crafts, diary-style, a catalogue of daily activities (working in a cookie factory, living in a cheap apartment) while experimenting with the rhythms and forms he derived from his reading of Thomas Wolfe and William Saroyan. In the early '40s, Kerouac lived in several diverse social spheres. He worked in Hartford, attended Columbia University on a football scholarship, was kicked out of Columbia, enlisted in the Merchant Marines and simply bummed around. It is evident that radio had an overlooked influence on Kerouac's style. A piece like "Howdy," which begins, "Howdy. This is Jack Kerouac, speaking to you," obviously takes its formal cues from radio broadcasts. The last section of the book is less interesting, excerpting a section of a novel Kerouac wrote about the Merchant Marines. Although this book shouldn't be a starting place for new Kerouac readers, there is enough real Kerouac bebop here to interest even his more casual fans. (Nov.) FYI: The publication of this collection will coincide with the publication of the second volume of Kerouac's selected letters.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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