After hand-delivering the final manuscript of On the Road to Viking Press in Jan. 1957, Jack Kerouac spent two drunken weeks in NYC before hopping a freighter to Tangier, to visit and type manuscripts for William S. Burroughs. His mind awash in guilt and self-doubt, and his body with DT’s, he tried to concentrate on his Buddhistic disciplines and abstain from all temptations. That regimen fell apart in Tangier, which turned into a nightmarish cycle of excess and illness. Kerouac scholar Paul Maher Jr. combed some unpublished diaries Kerouac kept in Morocco, to capture the real mindset of the ‘King of the Beats’ on the verge of fame.
In January 1957, Jack Kerouac sat in the rocking seat of a train composing a haiku as it rolled along from Orlando, Florida to New York City. On the fly, he composed another in French, before brooding into the pages of a notebook diary that he was looking for reasons to be a good man.
Instead, he felt ghoulish, stung by William S. Burroughs’ critique of him as being afflicted by “unconscious sabotage.” Kerouac was passive-aggressive, checking himself after bumping a passenger in the knees with his luggage. He reminded himself that it was God that he struck, not a man. He was indifferent, shrugging off various manifestations of God as the train passed an empty cemetery, a woman pushing a baby carriage. Birth and death. Death to birth. The same samsara cycle haunted him.
Jack had just come off a good run in the past year; a spate of furious composition fueled by narcotics, alcohol and a diminishing reserve of pure mental coercion. He had written the first part of Tristessa, a novella of a drug-addicted Mexican woman whom he met in Mexico City; Visions of Gerard, a novel-length elegy to his dead brother; and the first part of Desolation Angels.
Now, in the several weeks before returning north, Kerouac was finalizing his second to-be-published novel, On the Road. His editors, Keith Jennison and Malcolm Cowley of Viking Press, had been patient, coaxing a standard novel from a long unruly typewritten scroll composed as a single paragraph. The novel itself then became a more conventional paean to the restless men and women that burned their restlessness into the by-ways of the continent. Kerouac re-typed the book into separate sheets and now, under the looming threat of libel suits and obscenity laws, he was again revising it against his will so that he could at last earn money as a writer, to shed the vestiges of his desperate existence.
Kerouac’s family had been tolerant, permitting him time and space to complete his work. Caroline “Nin” Blake, his older sister, had set up his typewriter on her screened-in porch in Orlando. He typed under the whine of buzzing cicadas and through Florida’s choking humidity. Sweating as he typed, he drank wine and whiskey, wishing for Benzedrine, he’d accomplished his goal. Not only did he finish On the Road, but also another experimental novel, The Subterraneans. Now he had to bring On the Road to New York to submit the manuscript and sign his publishing contract, not willing to risk the package being lost in the mail. However, he lacked enough money to leave Florida. He was already humiliated when he had to borrow $40.00 from his agent, Sterling Lord, in order to buy Christmas presents for his family. Lord struck the funds from Kerouac’s On the Road advance royalties.
Jack was six years removed from his last novel, The Town and the City. That effort earned him nothing. Now he brought with him a suitcase bulging with more radical yet unpublished books: Visions of Neal, Book of Blues, and Some of the Dharma, each written differently, demonstrating the far space reaches of his latent talent. They were the best he could do. The sum total of his potentiality. Nothing going forward would ever match it and he was hopeful that these works, not On the Road, would give the world notice that he was an important American novelist. All three would not be published in their entirety in his lifetime.
New York City: In order to get there, Jack borrowed money from his mother, who was also living with Caroline. He boarded, miserably and stung by guilt, both real and imagined, over leaving her. He plead for Jesus’s forgiveness. He implored Buddha to drive the devil from his frenzied brain. A fit of delirium tremens dug its claws. He tried to sleep it off but experienced vivid nightmares. The faces of his co-passengers became sinister vestiges of his haunted past. Somewhere in the train car, Jack heard a woman moan. His eyes snapped closed. He pictured an endless train rollicking through an endless graveyard. A man on an elevator; a symbol of the saṃsāra wheel of Birth and Death. All life was suffering.
And so he suffered.
Jack knew how to alleviate this pain, if only he possessed the mental will-power to do it. The faster solution was to wash his troubles down his gullet and flood his system with relief. The other required discipline of understanding. To abstain. To step off the wheel. This required not only disciplined understanding, but also devotion, contemplation, and meditation. Samadhi and Samapatti. Solitude. The Path required Discipline.
He had none of that.
He arrived in frigid New York on Jan. 8. No immediate cash was forthcoming from Viking, and so he found it necessary to bounce from girlfriend Helen Weaver’s bed to another, Joyce Glassman, after he pissed the former off with his prodigious drinking bouts during his first two weeks in the city. He clung to Glassman’s New York address for both his publishing concerns and to hide from his second ex-wife, Joan Haverty, who sought child support for their young daughter, Janet. He tried shaking her off in Orlando, and now he did the same in New York. Yet, he felt her presence (which he found to be vindictive) everywhere he went, from a mountaintop in 1956 to his sister’s Orlando home, to New York. But he couldn’t get free of her presence. So, he agreed to cross the ocean to Tangier to assist Burroughs in typing a growing mound of hallucinatory prose into a manuscript. If Joan should catch up to him, if he was forced to work a regular job instead of writing, he vowed to kill himself.
It was almost mid-February. The worst of New York’s savage winter had yet to pass. Jack would not wait for it leave. He yearned for springtime, that happy medium where he could write without profusely sweating or freezing. Maybe, if he timed it right, he could spend springtime in Paris. A literary expatriate waiting out On the Road’s publication in style.
It was a slow-going freighter––the S.S. Slovenia––docked in Brooklyn and then Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Tangier was its destination. On board, a flannel-shirted Kerouac ate at an expansive table draped with white linen. He was joined by a German woman as they supped on soup, chicken and a dessert smothered in raisin sauce. The night before, he had drunk up a storm and so a dreadful hangover followed him this day like an ever-lingering gray cloud.
He suffered from despair. Writing no longer brought him joy. Nor religion. Reading Kierkegaard on-board, he came into accord with the anxiety that he endured. It was a spiritual death evident from his rapid vacillation from Christianity to Buddhism, switching from one to the other again and again. He was caught in a vicious cycle: when he had money to burn, he spent it on all-night drinking binges and food. When he was broke, he repented to Jesus and Buddha. Between both, the stain of guilt haunted him. He saw like a vision of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the image of his long-suffering mother whom he felt that he was daily disappointing. He yearned to someday take care of her. She was his best companion. The only woman who ever mattered and would one day outlive him. No other came close. Other women were for sexual gratification. His mother was his true emotional intimate.
Warding off drink in an effort to stay dry for as long as possible, he sat in the ship’s cabin and read the Diamond Sutra, a text he became so enamored with that he attempted to translate it word-by-word from Sanskrit. He favored the isolation of small rooms. To be cloistered from the teeming world meant that he could be caught up in fits of brooding and creation. He envisioned a secret Parisian garret where he would never share his address.
The Slovenia rocked in heavy Atlantic seas. The decks were awash with raging ocean water and flecks of sea foam. Kerouac maintained his resolve. To keep his cool for as long as possible. To distract himself, he abandoned Kierkegaard and turned to world history: Augustus, Horace, Cicero, Virgil. As the ship traversed the ocean, he watched the full moon rise over far-off Africa. Two cats squared off the other on the evening deck. Both were faces of the Golden Eternity of God. The Unborn Light.
Kerouac arrived in Tangier on Feb. 23. He found Burroughs to be completely mad. A comic genius, even. Kerouac imagined Burroughs cackling unmentionable prophecies. Together they walked the streets of the Arab quarters in search of notebooks to write his diary. They got high on marijuana in public. No hangups. No laws or rules. Kerouac became enamored with Morocco for the same reasons as Burroughs. The apparent lawlessness and the allure of the exotic. Kerouac’s little room was to his favor. It was daily maintained by a Chinese maid and a French landlady.
He wandered through the Casbah. At a hidden Spanish restaurant, he was served a glass of port, shrimp soup and noodles, pork with tomato sauce, bread, a fried egg, an unpeeled orange, and a cup of expresso served black, all of this for 35 cents. With his limited budget, this was more to his liking. He needed to buy an alcohol stove (which he found for 50 cents), alcohol and coffee. He also wanted new slacks to go with a blue suitcoat borrowed from Burroughs. This was to visit an underaged Arab whore that he came to frequent in the coming weeks.
Then he was high on hashi before combining Diason (codeine), goofballs, Soneryl to help his hay fever, and the savagely addictive Sympatina (a form of Benzedrine) to get him moving. This was embellished by Burroughs’ offerings of opium and red wine. When all of this coursed through his taxed system, all Kerouac could do was accomplish nothing at all. He sat in a chair in a drooling stupor.
On the first of March, Kerouac woke to a spate of newly-arrived letters. Sterling Lord informed him that his prospective publisher, Grove Press, had cut The Subterraneans right in half. He saw photostats of their changes. It was worked over so much that it threw him into despair. His precious spontaneous prose was riddled with newly-added commas and broken paragraphs. His first impulse was to imagine getting away once again. With money from On the Road, he could buy a piece of land and build a shack in Marin County, California. He required no running water. No electricity. Just an oil lamp, firewood and a clean pair of overalls. And then he would write as he pleased, without editorial interventions, “aim on into the inner life of work.”
Kerouac composed a cablegram at once: “Photostats show common halting namblypambly changes that will decisively damage my repute as a natural prose writer – Tell them return ms. & I give back money ––After they will have Tristessa as is, or 3 or 4 excerpts as is.” It drove him mad, and so he indulged.
And the next day he was sick from overdosing on opium, a bottle of Moroccan red wine and 3 sympatinas. Burroughs tried consoling him: “Just collect your scratch from your publishers and forget their shit.” He distracted Kerouac with a steak and mushroom dinner at the Panama restaurant. Afterwards, Kerouac bedded an Arab whore for a dollar. His female acquaintances were a thousand miles away. So was his God-fearing mother. Here he could debauch in relative obscurity with nobody to judge him except his own conscience. He harbored no guilt appeasing his sexual appetite with dark-haired, brown-eyed Moors trafficked in from Spain. He obtained his girls from a pimp named Paco (one of “Bill’s boys” Kerouac detailed in his diary) who took him past various houses of prostitution clustered between the Continental Hotel and along the main street. These places were plainly marked by means of the lights burning in the vestibules and open doors. The girls required no papers to be legally registered. All one had to do was to declare that she wanted to do business. Age made no difference, as long as she was over fourteen. However, most were actually twelve years of age and over. They catered chiefly to tourists.
It would not be long before the girls bought and paid for began to frustrate him. Kerouac, though he thought them cute and sweet, also felt them to be too jaded and impatient. Besides, his money was dwindling. Kerouac would rather eat and drink than fuck.
Now that he had cancelled The Subterraneans, he vowed that he would rather die than turn into a hack. Debt before dishonor. He wrote “fuck Malcolm Cowley” after he told Kerouac that he “didn’t know how to write.” Kerouac’s sacred vows of compassion had limits: “fuck this unnatural business of universal kindness! – I like to be kind to those who humbly deserve it, not to arrogant idiots –– I KNOW WHERE I AM.”
Isolated, depressed and non-communicative, Kerouac ate supper in his room. He couldn’t even talk to Burroughs; his writing conjured vivid nightmares of slimy plasma dripping from his mouth. Beach air was the antidote. Jack found it easier to “rough it” outdoors than fidget in his hotel room. The Moroccan countryside was beautiful, almost as grand as Mexico. He walked through its green hills. He pitied the old burros with listless fly-harried eyes. These people were grounded to the earth from which they were born. An old man read the Koran to some children. A woman in white hanging bright clothes from a wash-line.
Where was his source?
Dismayed, he returned to Burroughs who medicated his friend with hasheesh and brandy. They went to eat and meet acquaintances. When they returned, Kerouac ingested majoun, a pastry ball of nuts, honey, dried fruits, opium, hemp and datura seeds (a species of poisonous nightshade). Fucked up beyond belief, he was determined to write short stories about “cunt, beer and the swelling cock.” But even this effort went nowhere.
After the first week of March 1957, Kerouac felt like he was going to die. He suffered long nightmares that he wrote into a notebook of prose (to become later, Book of Dreams). By afternoon of the next day, he roamed the river bottom as the swirling tide flowed in. It reminded him of Salisbury Beach, a Massachusetts sea resort he visited as a boy. He plucked shells for Burroughs’ fish bowl. He chugged from a bottle of Los Mosqueteros Malaga wine. Pleasantly buzzed, he ran out of money and so he resorted to the New Testament and the Diamond Sutra. Outside his window, he witnessed a boy beating his burro with a stick right out of the pages of Crime and Punishment.
This is the Golden Eternity.
He began to fade fast. After rowing in the bay to look for the Yugoslavian freighter due to arrive with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, Kerouac grew deathly ill. He had a fever. A chest cold. He collapsed into his bed. Burroughs medicated him again with codeine-infused Diosans. The room grew cold and dank.
Kerouac was on the verge of turning 35.
He craved to become newly-born.
This Existential Dream is only the Golden Eternity of God’s Mind.
Who was he and where had he been? His entire life whirled past him. He saw it as nothing more than a series of disasters. All of the country criss-crossing, hitchhiking, sleeping at river-bottoms, road starvations, hopelessly moving his family, funerals, young man “anguishings,” go-nowhere love affairs with “unsympathetic girls,” “stupid” marriages, “idiot” drunks, smiles frozen in clay, the growing wreck of his face … what did it serve him?
It was no wonder he felt sick. He was already tired of Tangier. It made him depressed. To drown his anguish, he ingested hasheesh. However, it was poisoned, and he and Burroughs (and two other men) got sick. He took more Diosans and aspirin. Burroughs told Kerouac that he was dying because he still lived with his mother. Horrified, Jack got drunk and high in a flamenco bar. He passed out and woke up even more ill. He peeled and ate seven oranges in a vain attempt to get better. He fell asleep again and had a vision of God who told him not to drink anymore. He then saw the second half of his life which was only days away. It told him to get himself together or else.
Kerouac’s 35th birthday: March 12, 1957. Burroughs attempted alcoholic intervention. He read Jack the “Doctor Dent” method of treating acute alcoholism. This method, initiated by Doctor John Y. Dent, was to treat by way of apomorphine, then utilized to treat Parkinson’s disease. For alcoholism, it was used to battle and suppress craving. It sometimes worked for Burroughs who became a stoic advocate of the program. Kerouac listened. In his diary, he wrote that it was the beginning of a new life. If he relapsed, then he would seek free treatment in Geneva, Switzerland from a Doctor Friedman.
And then he forgot all about it.
By the next day, he wanted to return to America. Gabrielle, his mother, was depressed and lonely. He wanted to take her with him to California and find themselves a rustic shack where they could escape. He wrote Neal Cassady about his idea. Several months later, Carolyn Cassady wrote him back to inform him that she thought he posed a bad influence on Neal. Jack was mortified.
He wanted to camp in the desert. Brood at campfires. Meditate on the highway and watch the western horizon. In California, he felt himself a “free child.” He and his mother could possibly subsist in Berkeley for $50-a-month. However, as of now, he lacked the funds to leave. Maybe by June he could enlist on a merchant ship out of France and return to New York. Before then, he could dig London, Paris, Brittany and Dublin.
Jack grew tired of freezing in his room. Burroughs, to compensate Kerouac for his typing chores, bought him a 225-peseta kerosene stove for heating his garret. Jack dreamed that he was yanking from his throat long great gobs of undigested food and cold-jellied fat. He blamed it on Burroughs’ “evil ugly old” influence. Burroughs was freaking Kerouac out. He found Bill to be telepathic and insane. His sinister vibe, the “dreary” Arabs and their hateful environs drove Kerouac mad.
Jack sought consolation in the Diamond Sutra. High on Benzedrine, he rearranged the Buddhist text in his mind. The next day, he took a long walk with Burroughs through a field strewn with little white flowers. They had long conversations, smoked hasheesh and swallowed majoun. The call of a Muslim man praying to Mecca rung over the countryside. Lambs and goats with their shepherds traversed strangely flowing fields. The call of a bell rung by a priest echoed through the countryside. Kerouac brought up a Buddhist koan. Burroughs had his own: “Which is more holy, the priest reverently saying his rosaries or the old queen reverently studying his dirty pictures one by one?” He told Jack that the answer was that the priest got his rocks off on the feel of rosary beads on his fingertips.
They were still waiting for Allen and Peter. They were marked overdue by March 18. Kerouac continued typing for Burroughs. As he did, he pondered another idea for a book, a 1,000-page novel to be titled Beat Generation. It would begin in 1951, when Jack fell sick with phlebitis in a VA hospital bed; to the shooting of Joan Burroughs in Mexico by Bill’s hand; to 1952, when Jack typed Visions of Neal from his notebooks in Cassady’s attic; and then the road trips through Nogales and Culiacan before ending up in Mexico City with Burroughs. Kerouac’s Buddhist phase of 1953 would carry Beat Generation through the present day in Morocco. There was another he wanted to write: The Story of an Alcoholic. However, neither transpired. For as long as Kerouac needed money, he could no longer lavish the world with experimental prose-slinging.
Ginsberg and Orlovsky finally arrived and they all went to the Casbah. Since Kerouac could no longer see the world through fresh eyes, he relished experiencing it through theirs. They smoked tea in pipes at Arabic hangouts. Ginsberg and Burroughs seemed to enjoy gawking at the dark young boys that hovered among them. They were looking for cash in return for sexual favors. This perturbed Kerouac. He labeled them “ignorant pederasts” and was “disgusted with the scene of queers.”
Kerouac and Orlovsky took two prostitutes to bed with them. By dawn, Jack woke. He was disgusted at “uncompassionate nowhere stinking bitches.” He was getting no writing done. He was drunk again. He got sicker.
Fuck it all.
Jack longed for the romantic optimism of Paris, but he would always be miserable. He was physically and psychically poisoned. He wondered if metabolism had more to do with his alcoholism than a desire to slowly kill himself. He fought back with long brooding walks. He swam on a lonely stretch of beach. He craved purity. Anything was better than his old raunchy life of drugs and drink.
Two days later, he was served good news. On the Road would be published by Andre Deutsch. This meant an advance payment of $400, which he could pick up by going to London if the terms were agreeable. This would be his ticket out of Tangier. His optimism was temporarily recovered. He again sketched out a floor plan for a cabin in California. He could be like Thoreau. He could find himself at last.
If only Cassady would answer his letter.
He stood on his midnight rooftop and listened to the city come alive. It was Ramadan. He heard a flute and the beating of drums. He made himself fast from 3-to-7 A.M. He heard the wind, the sea crash, the rattle of drums.
He started arguing with Burroughs about the age of the universe. Jack did not like that Bill talked about killing too much. Burroughs felt that he didn’t kill enough. He pretended to torture a cat in front of a roomful of men. He called himself a religious leader as he did it. Jack tired of Bill’s routines. However, he remained on good enough terms with Burroughs, in that he agreed to bring the work he was typing, now titled Word Hoard, to Jean Genet’s translator. There he would meet Gregory Corso who agreed to let Jack stay with him. Kerouac bought a ticket to sail 4th class to Marseilles for 8,500 francs ($21.25) and save money by hitchhiking through Provence and Burgundy.
* * *
Jack wandered through the French railyards with a full backpack. Taxicabs indifferently zipped by him. France’s gay colors starkly contrasted with the dark quarters of Morocco. He found hitchhiking difficult after thumbing five miles before giving up. Unlike Morocco, it was expensive here. By the end of the day, he squabbled at the prices and became sharply critical. He called the French citizens “dishonest.”
He wanted to return home.
By the time he reached Paris, Jack failed to find a room. After getting drunk in a St. Germaine cafe, he made a phone call to Bernard Frechtman to deliver the Word Hoard typescript (known as “Word” in Interzone (1989)). When he at last found Corso that evening, Jack got drunk again with him and his girlfriend, Nicole. Drunkenly, Kerouac had it in his head that he could sleep with Nicole. He told Corso that he loved her. This made Corso renege on his offer after helping to spend 5000 francs of Kerouac’s money. He gave Jack a single night.
That night, Jack complained of having to sleep on the floor while Nicole “whimpered” under Gregory. He slipped out and found a cheap room in a Paris slum. As he walked along the Seine, he drank a pint of cold milk and prayed to Buddha to free him from worldly attachments (once again). He wrote into his notebook that he failed to observe people passing by. When he did, he dismissed them as a “sad flashy dream” because there was actually no world. The next morning, after shaving to look presentable, he trekked with his 100-pound pack up Avenue de L’Opera to deliver Word Hoard to Frechtman. He hoped Frechtman would offer him a bed to sleep on. He would even take his floor.
Kerouac called another acquaintance of his, James Baldwin, and told him that he had nowhere to sleep.
“Can I sleep on your floor?”
Should he quit Paris and go straight to London? Jack made a phone call to his London publisher. He hated the city. He would soon need more money. When should he go to London? When would they be expecting him to sign On the Road’s contract? He had about 6000 francs left and another 4000 in traveler’s cheques. He saw Parisan sex workers that he wanted to sleep with, but they refused to look at him when he asked them how much. He gorged on coffee and pastries at a cafe on Boulé St. Germain, trying to figure out what to do next. Discouraged, he returned to his “beat” 75¢ skid row room at The Relais on Christine Street. It was a cold room. A narrow bed. Restlessly, he walked the boulevards that offered little respite. They only led off to further suffering. Its quaint bistros and ornate cafes in this gilded lily city were for “sadfaced” diners
He bought his ticket to London. Before leaving, he was tempted to patronize the “whore beauties” of Rue St. Denis. He paid for the first woman he met, a tall bosomy brunette in slacks that cost him 800 francs. He kissed her with each lunge and after he came from his “gay fast bang,” he reminded himself that she was worth it. Afterwards, he cashed his last traveler’s check at the Gare du Nord and splurged on a glass of port and gruyere cheese. Repenting from his lack of physical restraint, he sought forgiveness at the 6:30 P.M. Notre Dame mass.
It was time to leave Paris.
The city was a stab in the heart. It was too hectic, like New York. With one day left, Jack walked through the Louvre. He was most absorbed by Rubens and Van Gogh, and felt a clearer affinity with the latter. Van Gogh’s suffering and devotion to his art inspired Kerouac to acquire his own paints once he returned to California. He drank more red wine, and bought gruyere, pâté and a head of cheese to make a batch of sandwiches for his train ride to London.
And then he left.
* * *
Kerouac felt a sea change. He felt different, like he was decaying before his eyes. In front of a mirror, he was already old at 35. Only the week before, he was told that he appeared to be 25 What happened? Rings formed beneath his eyes. Lines deepened his face. He was unshaven. He felt ugly. A ghoul.
In London, Jack was temporarily detained by custom officials. He sat in a chair to the side as the passengers disembarked. After proving that he was an American writer picking up a royalty check, he was set free to the streets with only 14 shillings left in his pocket.
At Victoria Station, Kerouac drank a huge glass of stout at the Shakespeare bar. His head swam with fresh impressions as he walked down Buckingham Palace Road in the city of Blake and Shakespeare. He strolled past the Palace, St. James Park, the Strand, Trafalgar Square, and Fleet Street toward St. Paul’s Cathedral. At Westminster Abbey, he paused in reverence at the graves of Dickens, Spenser and Chaucer. At St. Paul’s Cathedral, Kerouac listened, stunned, to Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion.” He cried after envisioning an angel in his mother’s kitchen. In front of him, a bas relief of Christ and three Roman soldiers made him recite Luke 3:14–18.
“And the soldiers demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely and be content with your wages.”
Kerouac’s mission occurred to him at last. Through a haze of booze, drugs, sex and self-abasement, it was time to stand still. Become contemplative. Seek solitude in the woods. Teach patience and compassion. Holiness.
He paused in the emerging dusk and observed the ruins of Hitler’s blitzkrieg among the overgrown weeds at St. Paul Cathedral’s circumference. Hitler had given orders not to bomb the holy structure. Among the weeded stonework, a single yellow flower grew.
In a little over five months, Jack Kerouac’s entire life will change. On the Road was to be published, and then he would have to start all over again, to his peril.
[This article is based on the February-April 1957 Tangiers diary of Jack Kerouac, which he titled ‘Bila Kayf,’ Arabic for ‘without asking how’].