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 oeuvre — some 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.