Book Review: Jack Kerouac’s “Pic” — Last But Not Least

By David Daniel

In On the Road, Jack Kerouac voiced a longing to be an “other.” He achieves this transfiguration in Pic.

Pic by Jack Kerouac. Grove-Atlantic, 113 pps, $16 (softcover).

James Baldwin claimed that writers continue to tell and retell the same story until the tale becomes more “precise and reverberating.” Jack Kerouac could be Exhibit A in support of this notion. He conceived of his oeuvresome two dozen volumes — as being part of a single sprawling epic, which he called the Duluoz Legend. In Pic, the latest entry in Grove-Atlantic’s series of Kerouac reissues, he takes up story strands that readers of his better-known books will readily recognize. In this slender (more novella than) novel, we are given the first-person account of a young road-goer who is wide-eyed with excitement about the world he is discovering. Familiar Kerouac themes of traveling “brothers,” the search for a father, the struggle to fulfill artistic dreams, recur, along with antic wordplay. But, in a rare departure from the autobiographical narration of the writer’s other work, Pic varies the pattern: the narrative is told from the perspective of a 10-year-old African American child.

Published originally in 1971, two years after Kerouac’s death, Pic focuses on the experiences of a rural North Carolina boy who has an unusual name: Pictorial Review Jackson. He is forced to live with relatives after the death of his beloved grandpa; the arrangement, fraught with familial tensions, isn’t a good one. A plan is proposed to put Pic into foster care. Before this can take place, his older brother, Slim, arrives to look after the kid. The two set off for New York City in a bus (with “the big blue dog on the side”).

But life in the Big Apple — specifically Harlem, where Slim lives — is far from easy. Grappling with joblessness and setbacks, Slim does his best to make a living as a jazz musician. He and his devoted wife Sheila and Pic finally conclude that it would be best to make their way to California. The book ends on an upbeat note:

We was now in the Sacramenty Valley, grandpa, and quick we saw Sheila’s ropelines with wash … hung dryin, flappety-flap.

Slim, he put his two hands on his back, limpied around the yard, and said, “I got Arthur-itis, Bus-it is, Road-it is, Pic-it is and ever’ other it’is in the world.”

And Sheila run up, kissed him hungarianly, and we went in eat the steak she saved up for us, with mashy potatoes, pole beans, and cherry banana spoon ice cream split.

Told in short chapters, the narrative takes the form of an after-action report to Pic’s deceased grandpa. Though completed in 1969, during the final year of Kerouac’s life, the central plot and characters derive from a story the writer had penned in 1951. Also incorporated into the text is the Prophet on Times Square scene, first drafted in 1941, along with a chapter about working in a cookie factory that was scrapped from his novel The Town and the City, as well as a fuller iteration of the Ghost of the Susquehanna episode, much of which had been cut from On the Road.

In one of the many lyrically infused passages in OTR, Kerouac writes: “At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.” The passage continues to voice the writer’s longing to be an other — “instead of what I was so drearily, a ‘white man’ disillusioned.” In a sense, Kerouac achieves this transfiguration in Pic.

Writing dialect entails risk. It can come off as unconvincing, insensitive, and hokey. Modern writers have been wise to avoid it. Using Black dialect entails particular challenges. African American vernacular is an expressive, very finely tuned, and forever evolving form of English. In this book, Kerouac chose to go for a mid-20th-century rural language. He has a good ear and a gift for sounds and rhythms, but (issues of cultural appropriation aside) whether or not his efforts here are successful, given contemporary sensibilities, is debatable.

One of the book’s strongest sequences takes place in a Harlem nightclub, a world inhabited by what Kerouac’s friend, poet and dramatist Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), called the “blues people.” Slim, with a borrowed horn, gives an impromptu performance. Pic recounts the performance vividly:

He blew in the horn, and moved his poor fingers, and I tell you grandpa he made the purtiest deepdown horn-sound like when you hear a big New York City boat way out in the river at night, or like a train, only he made it sing up and down melodious. He made the sound all trembly and sad, and blew so hard his neck shaked all over and the vein popped in his brow, and he carried along the song in front of the piano, and the other man swisht the drum with the broom brushes soft and breezy.

In his work, Kerouac often idealizes “the fellaheen” (his word for the racially marginalized underclasses), people that he perceives to have a much more vital and direct connection to existence. In a sense, he can be accused of being a white man slumming, of not giving proper shrift to the depths of the racial struggle — and yet he wasn’t just a tourist. Often living close to the bone, Kerouac was a keen observer of outsiders. Pic serves as an innocent eye, reporting on what he sees — as when a man on the street and Slim meet: “‘Well there, daddyo,’ he said, and showed Slim the palm of his hand, and Slim showed him his, and they touched up like that.”

In Pic, issues of race and class take the form of the struggle to maintain a family in poverty, of trying to survive in a system that only offers low-paying work opportunities. Slim is a bright and resourceful man with a talent for making music; he is forced to take the hardest, most exhausting jobs in order to support his household. Without turning Pic into a mouthpiece, Kerouac blames racism. As Pic and Slim travel northward, Pic discovers they are no longer confined to the back of the bus but are free to move forward and find new seats. Slim explains that the bus has run over the “Mason Dixie” line. With humor and a child’s eye, Kerouac skewers Jim Crow racism:

“What did that line look like?” I axed him, ’cause I wasn’t old enough to know it was a joke yet…. Well, Slim said he didn’t know what such a line looked like neither on account he never seed it any more than I did.

“But there is such a line, only thing is, it ain’t on the ground, and it ain’t in the air neither, it’s jess in the head of Mason and Dixie, jess like all other lines, border lines, state lines, parallel thirty-eight lines and iron Curtain lines is all jess ‘maginary lines in people’s heads and don’t have nothing to do with the ground.”

As always, an abiding compassion runs through Kerouac’s observational fiction. Beat Generation commentator Brian Hassett notes that Kerouac embraced “all peoples — black, white; gay, straight; rich, poor; city hipsters and country farmers.”

When it was first published, Pic drew a muted critical response. The New York Herald Tribune praised the book’s language, noting that it moves in “tempestuous sweeps and whorls.” Kirkus’s dismissive review was more typical: “This will be a sad last sentimental trek for those who remember Kerouac as their generation’s oracular road guide.”

In the early ’70s, a serious critical reconsideration of Kerouac’s achievements was years away. The first substantial biography came in ’73; it was another decade before revisionist thinking about the Beat zeitgeist began in earnest. When Pic was released, literary odds-makers would have put good money on Kerouac’s work fading into oblivion. At that point, the author seemed to be cooperating: he was isolated in Florida, facing health issues from years of alcohol abuse, and seemingly out of fresh ideas.

Of course, the opposite has happened. A half-century on, Kerouac is a fixture in any consideration of postwar American literature. That means even a minor work, such as Pic, invites reassessment. Those with an open mind will find that the book possesses an energy and artistic control that is surprising given Kerouac’s debilitated state of mind at the time. For readers already familiar with the writer’s twisty, often impelling landscape, this book offers a new adventure. For first-time travelers, it sets up a map for the terrain that Kerouac would create much more memorably elsewhere.

David Daniel has been the Jack Kerouac Visiting Writer in Residence at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. His newest book, a collection of stories, is Beach Town.


  1. Gerald Peary on January 17, 2024 at 11:41 am

    A very very interesting piece, and who would know that Kerouac wrote a book with an African-American boy as protagonist? But wasn’t this at a time when Kerouac had become a virulent anti-semite? I wonder about David Daniel’s ending assessment that Kerouac is “a fixture in any consideration of postwar American literature.” I think just the opposite. It’s grudgingly admitted that On the Road has an endless grip on young readers. But I think Kerouac is mostly discounted as an important writer, considered an “over-writer,” especially when placed next to Raymond Carver-style minimalism.

    • David Daniel on January 18, 2024 at 9:17 am

      Gerald, thanks for taking the time to comment. Your point about Kerouac being an “over-writer” compared to Carver is probably accurate (though in a matchup with Carver, who isn’t?). A literary canon is a loose bag and includes a broad range of features. The argument in favor of Kerouac’s inclusion is partly because of his “endless grip on young readers”–which isn’t a bad thing; it’s what keeps the work alive. But critical attention by the “academy” is also a feature of inclusion, which Kerouac gets. HIs body of work is surely uneven, but at its best it possesses an insight that defines not only a time but a continuing strand of American experience.

      To the bigger point you raise, anti-Semitism is ugly in any and every form. Regrettably, it and racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. were very much a part of the surround of the 1930s, ’40s & ’50s, about which Kerouac wrote. One can trace strains of it in his life (going back to his parents), though it more commonly in some of his drunken rants. But this wasn’t a facet of most of his written work, where bigotry, if it appears, is scorned. As an instance, in The Haunted Life (written in 1944 when Kerouac was 22) is a scene where the protagonist’s father (these are clearly stand-ins for Kerouac and his father) is spewing bigotry and vitriol about the vermin ruining the “real America.” Rather than counter his old man directly, the son puts on a jazz record — a Benny Goodman Trio recording — and this poses a subtle counter to the old man’s rant.The music, by Goodman, pianist Teddy Wilson, and drummer Gene Krupa — a Jew, a Black man, and a son of a Polish immigrant — makes its point with subtlety.

      In any case, as you hint, there’s a broader discussion about what we do when artists –especially from earlier times– reflect views that are bigoted and antithetical to those we hold.

      For the record, as a reviewer I’m more judge than apologist. (See my earlier Arts Fuse review of JK’s “Satori in Paris,” of which I’m quite critical.) Thanks again for writing, Gerald. My apologies for going on. Echoing Twain, If I’d had more time I’d have made this shorter.

      • Wm. C. Crutchfield on January 20, 2024 at 1:19 pm

        David — your recent consideration of Kerouac’s use of dialect in his novel Pic got me to thinking of the long line of writers who were similarly inclined, despite the inevitable criticism of racist and misogyny allegedly found within the texts. Twain, Harper Lee, Eudora Welty, Wm. Faulkner and Flannery O’Conner come to mind. More contemporary writers would be Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, and Zora Neal Huston — they make effective use of this “voice” as well.
        Your succinct review compels me to revisit them in this time of Wokeness.
        Well done Sir.

  2. Byron Hoot on January 18, 2024 at 5:43 am

    I felt that Alex Rasmussen had been resurrected and I was privy to seeing how the clues to a mystery was leading to the revealing of what was in plain sight.
    What a gift! In so few words to create a story and a critique as good as this is.
    Just ordered Pic.
    Case closed. Or just opening.

  3. Gerald Peary on January 18, 2024 at 10:05 am

    THANKS for going on, for offering such a full, thoughtful answer to my question. However, I STILL wonder if it is true that academia has embraced Kerouac the way you personally have. Are there half-a-dozen books of literary scholarship about the 1950s on which actually include Kerouac in their canon? As for his antisemitism, I think I was more taken by the fact that he wrote with Pic this sympathetic picture of a black boy at the very same period where he was going on anti-Jewish rants. How do you explain Kerouac being so split?

    • Matt on January 22, 2024 at 11:24 pm

      Fascinating and frank discussion after a 1st rate review. I’m almost astounded to see thought and reasoned discourse in today’s world.

      At any rate, I’ve lived my life in academia. For a very long time as a student, and following that as a professor. I’m not longer in that world having decided I didn’t want to live my whole life under one umbrella. Anyway, it’s always baffled me hearing people wonder if academia has ever embraced Kerouac. My anecdotal experience from a lifetime in academia has never found Kerouac far away.

      On the one hand, and I suppose this will surprise no one, students, undergrads and grad students alike love Kerouac and have for as long as I’ve been in that world (1994 onward). I was never at a school (all prestigious, all private) where I didn’t have tons of friends who counted him as something akin to a national treasure in letters.

      But same for professors – I’ve never been to a school where there weren’t professors actively teaching him, assigning him, etc. And no only literary professors. I’ve come across him in sociology, psych (my field), religion, and buddhism. I can tell you I know personally that Elie Wiesel read him, and while never assigned a Kerouac text to my knowledge, he did mention him in class more than once.

      As an undergrad I had a professor that considered him, “America’s greatest writer.” In my MA program I took a course from a noted Ingmar Bergman scholar who considered Kerouac to be cut from the same cloth. I know of at least 16 Kerouac-only courses at various universities, and a few that are on only On The Road both text and the process of writing it.

      In sum, I’m not sure there’s a writer of any form more openly read for pleasure and admired both by students and professors alike as Kerouac.

      As to anthologies – Of course he’s not in many of them. Most of them focus on the short story, and well, Kerouac didn’t write a ton of those and anything short that did come to light was almost always an abridged piece of something much larger in his mind/plans. Besides all that, my experience with literature professors is that they’re almost never artists. They’re more apt to enjoy talking about words, like to read sure, but they don’t live it. I’m not sure their opinion should hold much water. My experience is they’re more likely to be told who to like that to figure it out on their own.

      I can go to campus today and mention Kerouac and the kids will come. I can mention Raymond Carver (who I also adore) and 1/10 will know who I mean. Maybe.

  4. Joshua Shapiro on January 18, 2024 at 12:32 pm

    I am used to seeing criticism/scholarship of this level in places like the New Yorker. Arts Fuse is lucky to have David Daniel, both as critic and as fiction contributor (his stuff is killer). This review is deep without being dry, of-the-moment without being DEI. Most important, it brings to our attention a neglected work by an American genius–not a perfect work, evidently, but worth the road trip for sure. As for the antisemitism alluded to in the above comment: I wasn’t aware of that, and it contrasts strangely with Kerouac’s inclusiveness elsewhere. But it doesn’t matter — not when judging the work. You don’t kick a writer out of the canon because of a personal flaw.

  5. Timothy J. Coats on January 19, 2024 at 2:55 am

    Ginsberg’s description of each of Kerouac’s books being a “telepathic discord” doesn’t make sense to me; I don’t know what it means. The review is interesting in many ways; I thought Kerouac became more right-wing; now I don’t see how he could have with his consciousness of racial prejudice, and his seeming love and appreciation of all humanity: He doesn’t think that the lowest of the low are just welfare moochers. Also, it seems like he never stopped writing, even during the rum-soaked final years. As usual, Dave’s review is a very thoughtful and thought-provoking piece.

  6. Jim Provencher on January 19, 2024 at 7:24 pm

    This indeed is a wonderfully enlightening revision of Kerouac’s last work, viewed through a fresh lens. I remember my obeying Ginsberg’s imperative about his close friend Kerouac: ‘Read him!’ My ensuing canonical reading of this artist was a revelation, paying great dividends I could dare term as spiritual renewal. Blake’s phrase, ‘Energy is Delight!’ comes to mind. Kerouac is alive and dancing on the page. What Truman Capote snidely dismissed as ‘just typing’ to me is lightning caught in a bottle — an improvised spontaneity speaking true to the moment of deeply engaged composition.

    This modus operandi is ultimate, courageous. Or, as Kerouac said: Speak Now or forever hold your peace! Academically trained and taught, I too was apt to be dismissive of this poetic-prose master, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.

  7. Amy on January 21, 2024 at 9:57 am

    I didn’t know about this book either — looking at the cover photo I thought it was a posthumous collection. Nobody writes about Jack Kerouac like David Daniel.

  8. Matt on January 22, 2024 at 11:32 pm

    I think to begin to understand that you should first read a bit on what Kerouac called, “sketching.” With that weapon in hand wade into the Pandora-esque forest of Visions of Cody.

    Kerouac wasn’t so much trying to author a story. He was more trying to capture and put to page the natural story that humans tell themselves. We relate to stories on such a primal way because they are who we are. And stories are who we are because they’re the way (the only way) we make sense of the sum total data our senses collect.

    And as to discord: an active quarreling or conflict…

    Combine those the ideas in those two paragraphs and you start to ascertain Kerouac.

  9. Jason Trask on January 28, 2024 at 10:30 pm

    This is the first I’ve heard of this novel.Thanks for writing about it, David. One of the questions that came to mind as I was reading your review is whether today a White writer could get a novel published that was written from the perspective of a Black person. In fact, I’m surprised that Grove chose to publish it in this post-George Floyd era. That said, that paragraph you quoted from Pic about Slim playing the trumpet was amazingly beautiful. The same is true of those two paragraphs about the Mason Dixon line. Both sounded completely authentic to this cracker’s ear.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts