Written in Mexico in 1952 but not published until 1959, Dr. Sax is Jack Kerouac’s most enigmatic novel. Incorporating themes from New England heroes Melville and Hawthorne, Kerouac revisits boyhood scenes in Lowell, Mass., in rich, hallucinogenic prose. The narrative’s unifying event is the Flood of 1936, when the Great Snake of the Merrimac River swelled to record levels and inundated the mills, homes, businesses and lives of the working-class city. Dr. Sax is an acquired taste, and Cat de Leon, who grew up years later in Lynn, not far from Lowell, acquired it early on. She explains why it’s as important a part of Kerouac’s ‘legend’ as Visions of Cody.
Here we are, children of enlightenment and revolutions, Age of Aquarian Hippies, black-clad offspring of the Velvet Underground turned Glam Rockers who sneered their way into Punk Rock No Futures, users of Jetsons’ technology, gigglers at the Cold War antics of Moose and Squirrel only to be sucker-punched by Putin-esque reality in the 21st Century. Here we are, baffled by the all-too-obvious metaphors and symbolism that smackdown like a Three Stooges routine when confronted by the Netflix satire Don’t Look Up, which in bold-face type lampoons Trump and MAGA, Zuckerberg, Tories, Brexit, climate change, and obsequious or apathetic ignorance.
Perhaps we don’t want to see. Perhaps we don’t want to look up. Even worse, perhaps we don’t want to look IN. But if you are one who dares to look internally, you’ll agree that all that connects us inside is an explanation for all that threatens us outside. So, now is a perfect time to revisit Jack Kerouac’s often overlooked masterpiece, Dr. Sax.
In 1952, Jack Kerouac visited his friend and teacher William S. Burroughs in Mexico, and it was there that he penned his own apocalyptic opus. Ah, apocalypse! That word was frequently bandied about in 1940s Times Square over coffee in Bickford’s as the Benzedrine fuelled night turned to dawn. The Beats often talked about the possibility of the apocalypse befalling the skyscrapered streets of Manhattan, and now in Mexico, Kerouac resurrects the apocalyptic night by stepping back into Lowell, to the inner apocalypse of the soul using metaphors of innocence surrounded by indecency, the annihilation of childhood by sad adolescence, the tainting of all golden eternities by the ugliness of death, and the epiphany that there is no firm line drawn between black and white. We are all in a state of flux, and the seemingly evil forces within and without which mark our destruction will morph into that which will ultimately deliver us.
Written in 1952 but not published until 1959, Jack Kerouac presented a more organic and surreal epic using the great flood of 1936 as metaphor for the apocalypse of the soul. The flood of 1936 was a real event that left a mark on 14-year-old Jack. It decimated the mill towns from Nashua, New Hampshire all the way down to Lowell, Haverhill, and Lawrence Massachusetts. Kerouac uses this part of his history to provide the disaster theme, the natural threat to life as they knew it while layering on top of it a greater battle between good and evil, the loss of childhood innocence yielding to wisdom acquired through pain.
The metaphoric great cleansing is couched in a catastrophe which threatens culture, geography, and well-being.
It’s captured in a snapshot of a time when things seemingly were better. He paints childhood memory scenes of sinister perversions that are taken for granted. He anticipates the transition from a thing of beauty surrounded, yet untouched by the corrupt, to grow into someone who believes the great cleansing preserves the spirit of childhood and creativity while knowing that once we bridge adolescence, it’s all down-hill from here. And yes, “we’re all gonna die” whether God is Pooh Bear or not, whether Neal rides in on his stolen white horse to save the day, or Lucien pens a newer Vision and rolls Jack down the hill in an old wooden beer keg yet again.
“We’re all gonna die” and Sax, the patron saint of annihilation stands seemingly neutral, laughing and leering, trying to fool us all, cloaking his wisdom behind the mask of the holy comic book character, all the while knowing that there is no way to thwart the transitional process of growing old and dying, whether it be spiritual or organic. “We’re all gonna die.” That does not preclude rising again and it does not preclude what should be the cleansing, a jadedness that comes over us once we’re free from the giggling paedophiles, the neighbourhood bullies, the dying relatives, living room funerals, and the statues of saints that turn their heads to haunt us in the night; all sepia-toned moments from Kerouac’s Lowell boyhood. It does not free us from the slack-jaw rot of our skin and muscle, the defilement of the gift from God which can only be saved in some way by spiritual and artistic enlightenment.
I have always been amazed by the fact that many Kerouac fans shun Dr. Sax. For me, it sits at the top of the Duluoz Legend as one of my most favourite. It is not my bias as a fellow New Englander, although the book is filled with imagery that conjures memories of a 1930s childhood, fragments of which were still true in the Massachusetts of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The work is as adventurous and boundary pushing as Visions of Cody, yet easier to read. The prose is richly rhythmic, and draws the reader along effortlessly as if he were dropped into the swelling Merrimac and being pulled along to the point of illumination. The imagery is sharp, and painted in Kerouacian hues of brown, gold, bloody brick red, and dewy virginal greens which render vivid pictures of old New England, and the tattered vestiges of what remains today. What may seem as jumbled or slap-dashery to the uninitiated is a carefully constructed collection of childhood memories pasted together as a backdrop of mundane horrors alternating with the horror that lives in the castle on the hill, (the abandoned house of all our childhoods which our imaginations inhabited with ghosts, witches, vampires, or axe-wielding homicidal maniacs) with the horror of the apocryphal snake that lurks underground. The vampires, ogres, gnomes and other grotesque creatures of the castle which look down over Lowell are expected to be the real danger, yet Kerouac gives them vaudevillian routines as dialogue. Jack, his family, and his friends play out the real horrors of life as they inch ever closer to the unknown, which sits like anticipation in the pit of their stomachs. The narrative of casual memories which suggest the grotesque displace that which we expect to be grotesque and propel us forward toward the apocalyptic flood meant to clean it all away.
In a letter to Stella Sampas [whom he would marry in 1966] written in 1959, Jack says,
“I wrote it in honor of art. It is a strange work. The end is a phantasm in a boy’s mind whereby a hundred-mile long snake is made to emerge from below the Castle of the World (in Centralville hump that you see from the bridges) and all the forces of World Evil are gathered there and DOCTOR SAX (the hero, the Shadow of Lowell and Dracut Woods) with the help of the boy are on hand to prevent world destruction. It’s wild. It’s said to be the first real vision in America since MOBY DICK. The descriptions of the Merrimac in the 1936 flood are wild, the river foams and lunges like a snake through my hometown. The full title, properly, is DOCTOR SAX AND THE GREAT WORLD SNAKE, subtitle FAUST PART THREE. It is the completion of the Faust Legend and also a Gothic New England work with roots in Melville and Hawthorne. You’ll see in any case. It has nothing to do with the beat generation material I’ve published so far.”
Perhaps that is why so many fans resist Dr. Sax…it is not about the Beat Generation, but it should be considered one of the most Beat books in the Duluoz legend. It breaks with convention, it draws upon elements of classic literature and turns them on their head, all the while creating a fresh narrative style that virtually sings in rhythmic splendour.
Jack breaks the novel into six “books” and some complain that it takes him too long to meet Sax, his hero, but the tension built by the backdrops of mundane horror and vaudevillian satire are necessary. We must understand the world in which he lives, and the world which will be no more after the Flood, and allow Sax to lurk. Innocence threatened by corruptibility is a theme running throughout. The neighborhood pedophile is ridiculed, exploited, and bullied by the children. The grotesquely fat prostitute who visits family homes when the parents are away lifts her skirts for the boys…so they can see. The neighborhood idiot who masturbates in front of them is cheered on…boyhood circle jerks presented casually, but intended as a backdrop of horror. The boys accept all of this as the thread woven into the tapestry of their young lives …they take it lightly. In the castle, The Count and his minions plan great feasts and bloodlettings, but in the shadows, Dr. Sax watches, and Dr. Sax takes note. He is no judge, just an observer. Sax is the outsider. Part Lamont Cranston [The Shadow], part William Burroughs, he is an unorthodox scholar, chemist, philosopher, and denizen of the Noir who comes to thwart the great snake that lies underneath Lowell. Will the flood that threatens bring the snake to the surface or will it be obliterated and end the threat of evil destruction?
The Shadow explained:
Death sits at the kitchen table, the relative’s living room, the grotto and the 12 stations of the cross. Death shows itself to Jack piling mystery upon mystery, as he walks from Station to Station (oh, Bowie!) with his mother and cousin pondering the mysteries of life, the cruelty of fate, the tragedy of solitude in art and artistry. Later, when a man carrying a watermelon across a bridge that spans the heaving Merrimac suddenly drops dead of a heart attack, Jack sees the light fade from the man’s eyes and notices that his gaze is fixed upon the reflection of the full moon in the river. His mother is hard, harsh, pragmatic, too. A good Samaritan hopes the man might yet be saved if he can get to a hospital, but Kerouac’s mother notices that the watermelon man had wet his pants, a sure sign that he had given up the ghost. She is blunt, matter of fact, as she pronounces that the man is dead, and points to the full moon where she sees the image of a skeleton. The fear in young Jack is not in seeing death played out before his eyes, but in the mystery of the thing; the mystery of what the man saw, what the full moon’s reflection in the river was telling him. The death of the watermelon man is an omen of what is yet to come. Lowell is now permeated with the scent of flowers…the phantom smell of flowers is a harbinger of death.
Oh, “How eagerly the youth doth pursue his legends with a hungry eye,” Sax tells young Jack. In Book 6 of this legend, Kerouac gifts us some of the most beautiful and hauntingly prescient prose of his career. In his soliloquy (pp. 202-203), Sax outlines all that we should fear… mortality, old age (“for which we have benefits” ha.), sex, marriage, childbirth, manual labor, the Editorial Cartoon Russian Bear, and the knowledge that throughout all of this necessary journey, “you’ll never be as happy as you are now in your quiltish, innocent, book-devouring, boyhood immortal night.” And if this coiled snake which waits beneath the earth will raise the river with it and wash away all evil, will it wash away all goodness too? Can wrong be the other side of right? Are both necessary? Is it all futile? Illusionary? The fledgling Buddhist here in Kerouac tries to make sense of it all with the vestiges and tattered vestments of the Jesuit Catholic, whose logic is haunted by guilt, by sin, by death.
Amidst all this flood and fury, amidst all this existentialist dread, we await our hero, Sax, to stave off the snake, to deliver us from evil. We fly with young Jack, clutching onto Sax’s cape, hoping he has something up his sleeve, something that will draw the line between good and evil, light and dark, a miracle without question. Sax produces his potions as the snake emerges from beneath the Castle, destroying the seat of evil. Jack looks the snake right in the eye. Here, innocence in transition faces the agent of transition, and Sax, the protector is now behind him. His slouch hat, his cloak, the vestments of his supernaturality, gone. He sees this event without amazement, saying (p. 240), “Ah, you know, I always thought there’d be something dramatic in dying. Well, I see that I have to die in broad daylight where I go around in ordinary clothes.” The perversity rising from beneath the earth is stripping Sax of his mystery and simultaneously stripping death of its mystery too, making it mundane. Oh, the horror.
And just like that, the snake is destroyed, with a backdrop of “girls of eternity screaming on rollercoasters” (p. 241), The Great Black Bird, once thought of as accomplice, rends the snake, and all these elements of evil (and good?) are scattered into the sky, not in a nuclear blast, but in a peaceful silence that opens a crack in the sky to let the Spring shine through…rebirth. And with that, Sax, hands in pockets, says, “I’ll be damned. The universe disposes of its own evil.” (p. 245)
Kerouac’s disaster, the “end of the world as we know it”, the banishment of childhood shadows and mysteries opens the gate to The Road out of childhood into the adolescent goals of a path out and beyond. He passes the grotto again, the Stations, a testament to the mysteries of death and resurrection, but no fear rests here. He puts a rose in his hair, and goes on home.
Today, we face a myriad of snakes. Every abandoned building is The Castle. Every childhood neighborhood bears a sign pointing to disaster, natural or otherwise. Every day we see that the word does indeed dispose of its own evil. The best thing we can do is embrace the mysteries, not fear them, take our hands out of our pockets, and put a rose in our hair, “by God.”