GUEST REVIEWER – Surly Joe
- Title: The Sea Is My Brother
- Author: Jack Kerouac
- ISBN 030682180X (ISBN13: 9780306821806)
- Series: Stand Alone
- Published: November 1st 2011 by Penguin Books
- Format: Hardcover
- Genre/s: Literary Fiction
- Print Length: 417 pages
- Source: Purchased
The Sea is My Brother is a simple quick-read of a book with an unfortunately bad title. Its plot is basic, its style is amateurish and inconsistent. it reads like the initial attempt of a young kid who just got back from travelling the world for the first time and suddenly feels like he has a wealth of experience and wisdom to share with the world. So why should we be interested in this book? Because in this case, the young kid is Jack Kerouac, and The Sea is My Brother is his first book, written fourteen years before On The Road, his classic novel that became the Beat manifesto and the bible for freedom-seekers, hedonists, and counter-culture anti-establishment rebels.
Written when he was just twenty-one years old and based on his journals, The Sea is My Brother is a highly autobiographical account of Kerouac’s experiences as a sailor with the Merchant Marine in 1943. The two main characters, Bill Everhart and Wesley Martin, are, according to Kerouac scholars, representative of how he viewed his own personality. Everhart is an assistant professor of literature at Columbia University who sees himself as “an unusually free and fortunate man, but honestly…not happy”. He is a responsible member of society but feels there is much more to life than what he is experiencing. He wants “a life with a purpose, with a driving force’.
When he meets Wesley Martin at a New York City bar with a group of his friends, he is presented with the alternative lifestyle that intrigues him. Martin is a sailor, a wanderer, a traditional-society drop-out. He had a wife, a house, a job, but he left them all to travel across America and then join the Merchant Marine. He is, in Everhart’s view, “no more than a happy-go-lucky creature to whom life meant nothing more than a stage for his debaucheries and casual, promiscuous relationships”. After a few drunken hours, Everhart is convinced, as Kerouac was too, that the sea is his answer.
Despite his decision to “drop out”, Everhart’s internal struggle, and presumably Kerouac’s as well, only intensifies as he approaches the ship after a 24-hour hitch-hike from New York to Boston harbour. In only one day, his views swing radically. He asks himself “What folly was perhaps being committed?” in a moment of doubt but then quickly admits to feeling “a fiery tingle to move on and discover anew the broad secrets of the world”.
The novel concludes as the ship sails out to sea with Everhart literally confronting his own uncharted waters. Whatever happens after is not important, the plot of the book is not important. What matters is Kerouac’s initial tackling of the themes that he would explore for his entire career – freedom versus responsibility, adventure and spontaneity versus practicality, and ideas versus action. The Sea is My Brother questioned established rules and presented an option for a new youth culture. It would take another fourteen years before Kerouac could present it perfectly, but its infancy is here, and therefore, so is its value.
Born Jean-Louis Kerouac, Kerouac is the most famous native son of Lowell, Massachusetts. His parents had immigrated as very young children from the Province of Quebec, Canada, and Kerouac spoke a local French Canadian-American dialect before he spoke English. He was a football star at Lowell High School and upon graduation in 1939 was awarded a scholarship to Columbia University. However, after an injury sidelined him on the football team, Kerouac grew unhappy with Columbia and dropped out of school.
During this period in New York City, Kerouac became friends with the poet Allen Ginsberg and the novelist William S. Burroughs, as well as Herbert Huncke and others who would be associated with the “Beat Generation.” When Kerouac finally broke through with the release of “On The Road,” he was faced with challenges presented by the fame that followed as he tried to live up to the image portrayed in his novels and facing criticism from the literary establishment for being part of what was considered a fad. He would go on to publish additional novels, many of which used settings based on Lowell – including “Doctor Sax,” “The Subterraneans,” “The Dharma Bums” and his final great work, “Big Sur.” He settled in Florida with his wife, Stella Sampas, and his mother, where he died in 1969 at age 47. He was buried in Lowell.
In his own words – Surly Joe is a moderately nondescript Toronto-based white guy who spends too much time contemplating the nature of boredom. His aspirations waver between wanting to be either a professional gambler or a Zen monk, with a touch of writing on the side. After completing university with a degree in a subject that does not readily lead to any sort of viable employment, he wandered through Europe and Northern Africa for a while collecting stories and useless trivia, Circumstance led to a career back in Toronto. He now spends his money on food, friends, wine and annual trips to Las Vegas.