The Town and the City is a complete joy, Jack Kerouac’s holiday present to the world.
As the New England chill turns to cold and colored leaves fall from trees, girls and boys, it’s time to dust off copies of The Town and the City and settle down to an autumnal read for the fall season of football games and big Thanksgiving turkey dinners and American life seen through the glorious, golden, rose-colored glasses of Jack Kerouac. Nostalgia never tasted so good: big families, hometown USA Galloway, life along the river, mother and father, brothers and sisters who are best friends, dozens of neighborhood and school pals, big roast beefs and eggs and bacon and coffee smells, cakes and pies, cigars, cigarettes, and whisky, a wonderful jubilation of Christmas and New Year’s holidays and dances and songs, followed by spring and summer and swimming under shade trees.
A delight to read and fun, sentence after sentence, there’s a bounce to the words, a spark and sparkle, like firecrackers crackling on a big night. In a stunning essay “The Blind Follow the Blind” (The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats) Carolyn Cassady states, “Kerouac’s appeal was his joyous celebration of life . . . giving us descriptions so intimate, intense and colorful, few others have matched his gift.” This is especially apparent in The Town and the City where warm-hued descriptions break wave after delightful wave. As in this scene when Mr. Martin [father] and young Mickey [a brother] win at the track. “Now we’ll go to Boston and have a big feed . . . Whattayou say we both eat a couple of steaks apiece, . . . All the ice cream you want! . . . All the steaks and chops and lobster you want . . . all the ice cream and pie and cake in the world! Everything! Fried Clams! hot dogs! hamburgers! sauerkraut and franks! . . .” The excitement, the good times, the adventure is delicious: grab a slice of life and relish it.
The book is divided into five parts; about half is set in the town of Galloway, Massachusetts, a time of idyllic youth, and the other half, after World War II, is set in the city, New York City, that is, mainly Manhattan. The second half is less innocent than the first. The war has changed the world and life has changed the Martin family. The kids have grown up and the family’s fortunes have dwindled. The protagonist has met up with “wild” friends, who of course turn out to be Levinsky, Dennison, and Wood [Ginsberg, Burroughs, Carr] and the whole gang. Mr. Martin muses, “I wish Petey [Jack] could make friends with some nice normal young people,” which of course is hilarious, and how dull things would have been without such intimates. He continues, “I’m proud of you to have dope fiends and crooks and crackpots for friends.” Pete defends his choices, his friends, and just as he thinks he’s found the meaning to love and life, the police come to the door, and then another explosion from the old man, and tears from Ma.
This is a family saga that comes full circle, ending where it began for Dad, George Martin, in the green rolling hills of New England, surrounded by family, home, tradition. But Jack is who he is, “And Peter was alone in the rainy night . . . on the road again, traveling the continent westward . . .” The rest is history, his story, Jack’s stories, autobiographical poetic prose.
Lucien Carr said about Jack (Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac), “I tell you, you will never find as pure a man as that.” And Jack’s purity, his light-shining spirit certainly illuminate the five hundred pages of this, his first published novel. Originally, the novel was about a thousand pages, but the publishers insisted on cuts.