Study Guide

Big Sur Drugs and Alcohol

By Jack Kerouac

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Drugs and Alcohol

Me drunk practically all the time to put on a jovial cap to keep up with all this but finally realizing I was surrounded and outnumbered and had to get away to solitude again or die. (1.1)

Jack claims he drinks to keep up appearances – to keep himself "jovial" – but we soon find that this isn't really the case. Drinking makes Jack retreat further from social scenes.

That feeling when you wake up with the delirium tremens with the fear of eerie death dripping from your ears like those special heavy cobwebs spiders weave in the hot countries, the feeling of being a bent back mudman monster groaning underground in hot steaming mud pulling a long hot burden nowhere, the feeling of standing ankledeep in hot boiled pork blood, ugh, of being up to your waist in a giant pan of greasy brown dishwater not a trace of suds left in it... The face of yourself you see in the mirror with its expression of unbearable anguish so haggard and awful with sorrow you cant even cry for a thing so ugly, so lost, no connection whatever with early perfection and therefore nothing to connect with tears or anything (2.1)

Much of the sickness Jack feels after drinking has to do with identity, with reconciling the morning-after alcoholic with the way he sees himself.

We all agree it's too big to keep up with, that we're surrounded by life, that we'll never understand it, so we center it all in by swigging Scotch from the bottle and when it's empty I run out of the car and buy another one, period. (12.4)

Jack's attempt at escape is very much tied to feeling overwhelmed by all the literature, people, and potential and activity of the world.

I rush to explain to Cody what happened the year before when his religious advisor at the prison had invited me to come to San Quentin to lecture the religious class -- Dave Wain was supposed to drive me and wait outside the prison walls as I'd go in there alone, probably with a pepup nip bottle hidden in my coat (I hoped) and I'd be led by big guards to the lecture room of the prison and there would be sitting a hundred or so cons including Cody probably all proud in the front row -- And I would begin by telling them I had been in jail myself once and that I had no right nevertheless to lecture them on religion -- But they're all lonely prisoners and dont care what I talk about -- The whole thing arranged, in any case, and on the big morning I wake up instead dead drunk on a floor, it's already noon and too late, Dave Wain is on the floor also, Willie's parked outside to take us to Quentin for the lecture but it's too late (13.4)

This anecdote reminds us of the futility of plans for these characters, and of their wasted potential.

And I tell this to Cody who ponders a chess problem and says "Drinkin again, hey? " (if there's anything he hates is to see me drink). (13.4)

This is an incredibly important line, and it's given in parentheses. It's important that we get the reactions of Jack's friends to his drinking. This perspective is not an easy task for the author in a first-person narrative.

There he is wearing goggles working like Vulcan at his forge, throwing tires all over the place with fantastic strength, the good ones high up on a pile, "This one's no good" down on another, bing, bang, talking all the time a long fantastic lecture on tire recapping which has Dave Wain marvel with amazement -- ('My God he can do all that and even explain while he's doing it') -- But I just mention in connection with the fact that Dave Wain now realizes why I've always loved Cody... (13.7)

The friendships between Jack and his friends are characterized by this intense amazement, bordering on hero worship. Part of the pain in reading about Jack's alcoholism and break-down is watching his friends witness it.

Any drinker knows how the process works: the first day you get drunk is okay, the morning after means a big head but so you can kill that easy with a few more drinks and a meal, but if you pass up the meal and go on to another night's drunk, and wake up to keep the toot going, and continue on to the fourth day, there'll come one day when the drinks wont take effect because you're chemically overloaded and you'll have to sleep it off but cant sleep any more because it was alcohol itself that made you sleep those last five nights, so delirium sets in -- Sleeplessness, sweat, trembling, a groaning feeling of weakness where your arms are numb and useless, nightmares, (nightmares of death)... well, there's more of that up later. (14.6)

It's all the more painful to read Big Sur knowing that Jack is aware of his own problem. He has no illusions about his alcoholism nor his delirium tremens.

Arthur Ma suddenly yells: "Hold still you buncha bastards, I got a hole in my eye" and generally the way parties go, and so on, ending with the steak dinner (I dont even touch a bite but just drink on), then the big bonfire on the beach to which we march all in one armswinging gang. (19.2)

Again, Jack gives us some scary and important information about his alcoholism through parentheses. It's as if he's ashamed of his disease and shies away from discussing it directly. Ironically, he draws more attention to this illness with these small, parenthetical asides.

But anybody who's never had delirium tremens even in their early stages may not understand that it's not so much a physical pain but a mental anguish indescribable to those ignorant people who don't drink and accuse drinkers of irresponsibility -- The mental anguish is so intense that you feel you have betrayed your very birth, […] , you feel a guilt so deep you identify yourself with the devil and God seems far away abandoning you to your sick silliness -- You feel sick in the greatest sense of the word, breathing without believing in it, sicksicksick, your soul groans, you look at your helpless hands as tho they were on fire and you cant move to help, you look at the world with dead eyes, there's on your face an expression of incalculable repining like a constipated angel on a cloud (21.13)

Jack's attempt to describe his delirium tremens to his readers is just as much his own attempt to understand and characterize his experience.

(in my drunkenness I've already projected a big trip with Billie and Elliott and Perry to Mexico but we're going to stop in L. A. to see a rich woman Perry knows who's going to give him money and if she doesn't he's going to get it anyway, and as I say Billie and I are going to be married too)

Jack lacks perspective the same way Sal did in On the Road. He suffers from living in the moment a little too much, a symptom of his constant drinking.

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