Monday is Jack Kerouac's 90th birthday.
It's a little strange to think of the literary embodiment of youthful restlessness at that age. Of course, he never came close to living that long — Kerouac died in a St. Petersburg hospital on Oct. 21, 1969, at age 47, felled by massive internal hemorrhaging brought on by longtime alcoholism. The lyrical poet of free-spirited road trips was by then living with his third wife and his mother, and grousing about hippies over cheap beers.
But for a glimpse of Kerouac crossing the boundary from boy to man, fans can now turn to his first novel. Da Capo Press will publish The Sea Is My Brother on Monday.
Kerouac wrote it when he was 21, in the spring of 1943. He had dropped out of Columbia University and joined the Merchant Marine, and the novel is based on journals he kept during his first voyage. He never tried to publish the book; in 1950, The Town and the Country became his first novel to see print.
Kerouac's most enduring and influential work, On the Road, was published in 1957 — six years and many rejections after he poured it out onto a 120-foot-long scroll of taped-together typewriter paper in a manic three-week burst. On the Road still motors through popular culture; most recently, it has inspired Katy Perry's hit song Firework and an upcoming film based on the book and starring Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Garrett Hedlund and Viggo Mortensen.
The Sea Is My Brother is unlikely to carve that kind of niche for itself. It's clearly an apprentice work. Its two main characters, Kerouac wrote to a childhood pal, represented two sides of his own personality, as he called it, "my schzoid self."
Both those characters, Bill Everhart and Wesley Martin, spout a confidence in their own wisdom and superiority that only the very young can maintain — in short, they're a couple of pretentious blowhards. They meet in Manhattan and soon ship out in the Merchant Marine, but their sea voyage never develops the impetus that Sal Paradise's road trips do.
The Sea Is My Brother is a talky book in desperate need of an editor, but many of the themes Kerouac would later write about with more craft and assurance are there in nascent form: concerns with philosophy and spirituality, the nature of freedom and of relationships between men.
For Kerouac completists, it's an interesting addition. If you're new to the author, though, the surest route into his work is On the Road.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.