Thursday, January 5, 2012

Jack Kerouac's Tristessa Is Tangled Up

With a casual hand, Tristessa can easily be trivialized. It's a book about nothing, except a sliver of Jack Kerouac's time in Mexico City and one of the girls he meet. She was a prostitute and drug addict.

The stories he spins are sometimes all a daze and hallucination, stabbing around the subject but letting it slip from his grasp at the same time. It's everything you might expect from someone trying to live on the edge, while winding one arm around a safety rope so he might live to write about it.

In typical Kerouac fashion, the tone is raw and rambling, scratched out with more creation than craft. And yet, it can be quite dazzling when he gets a line right or a thought right. And this time around, on another trip to Mexico City after On The Road, he slushes it up into metaphor.

Tristessa is a sliver of a novella that best captures Kerouac's voice. 

There is certainly an undertow of sadness in Kerouac's voice as he struggles to understand layers and layers of contrasts. The American and Mexican. The Buddhist and Christian. The drunk and drug addict. The human and the animal. Bill Garver (a.k.a. Old Bull Gaines) and himself.

Tristessa (Esperanza Villanueva) is at the heart of the book, however. She is both beautiful and seductive to Kerouac, but equally self-destructive and out of reach. And like many of the people in the neighborhoods where he spends most of his time, he is in awe of her ability to be happy and carefree despite being impoverished or marginalized.

He draws comparions to convey his point often enough. Even in describing a cat in Mexico City, Kerouac notes that he doesn't scratch like an American cat. He just endures, except in intervals when he burst into a furious scratching.

By the same token, so does Tristessa. In America she would be gloomy. But in Mexico City, she goes about her day happy enough. Except in a fit of coughing, when she might complain the rest of the day.

It does no good for the cat or her, and Kerouac wants to understand it. And his sadness creeps in again because he knows even if he can befriend them all — the animals that live indoors and the people who live with them — he will never understand the dove, the cat, the chicken, or the rooster.

The romanticized notion of love that Kerouac denied himself. 

My poems stolen, my money stolen, my Tristessa dying, Mexican business trying to me down, grit in the sky, agh. I never dreamed it could be so bad — And because she hates me — Why does she hate me?

He never fully grasps how different their worlds really are until he returns to Mexico City maybe a year later. Tristessa almost does die, right in front of him. At first it prompts Kerouac to fancy himself a savior. But she doesn't want to be saved. She doesn't want his love but would accept him as a junkie.

For all the shortcomings of Old Bull Gaines, Kerouac eventually acquiesces that the 40-year addict could probably take care of her better. He almost can't bear the disillusionment of it all, thinking he missed his chance a year earlier during his uncharacteristic vow of celibacy. That, of course, and being too smart for his own good.

As the author who even coined the phrase "Beat Generation" to describe the underground, anti-conformist youth movement to which he and the likes of Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burrough, and Herbert Huncke belonged, it might have been an odd revelation. He was so busy living a life he could write about, one had to wonder if he was really living at all or stumbling around as an observer.

Tristessa By Jack Kerouac Racks A 8.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Tristessa doesn't compare to On The Road, but it does make a poignant companion piece that digs deeper into the author's allure with a culture he perceived as truly alien to America. While most people would be repulsed by some of it, he embraced and celebrated the ideology beneath the grim.

Still, their happiness wasn't so much a mystery. Every day is the same and, as she reminded him, tomorrow we may die. La vida es dolor. If such is life, who could afford not to grab at happiness?

Tristessa by Jack Kerouac is available from Amazon. You can also find the book at Barnes & Noble, including the recently translated Spanish edition. At less than 100 pages, it makes for a great afternoon read. For people who love the book, also check out The Dharma Bums, which Kerouac wrote between the first and second acts of Tristessa.
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