Big Sur traces the exploits, thoughts and feelings of a narrator, Jack Duluoz, in the grip of a series of mental disruptions induced by alcohol. Duluoz is depicted as careering out of control, as he experiences ever more severe bouts of delirium tremens each time he comes to the end of a drinking bout in a prolonged series over the six-week period covered by the book. A friend, Lorenz Monsanto, has offered him the use of an isolated cabin in Raton Canyon, Big Sur. Duluoz travels West to take up this offer, yet, instead of quietly slipping off to the cabin, he instead broadcasts his arrival, precipitating an enormous drinking binge in San Francisco. He finally makes it to the cabin, stays briefly and returns there twice, but on each occasion he cannot bear to remain there for more than a short period. A famous writer, “the bloody ‘King of the Beatniks’” (4), Duluoz has become widely fêted – the reluctant spokesman for a youth cult. Consequently, he cannot confidently distinguish friends from hangers on, but both anyway want to socialize with him. He is all too readily lured out on drunken binges and one of these companions becomes a woman called Billie Dabney. She is the lover of Duluoz’s closest friend, Cody (though recently Jack and Cody have drifted apart whilst Cody was in jail on a drugs offence). Cody is, however, already married – to Evelyn, a woman whom he once “shared” with Duluoz. Since Cody therefore cannot devote sufficient time and attention to Billie to ensure the survival of the affair, he passes her over to Duluoz – in a tension-laden gesture recapitulating past, ambiguous intimacies.
Billie has a child from a former relationship, Elliot, who Dulouz feels constantly impedes his new relationship’s development, particularly when Billie lets Elliot watch their love-making. Though Duluoz recognizes that he is “jealous” of the attention Billie gives the child, this does not stop him from making it clear that he dislikes Elliot. Billie finds this stressful. Her treatment at the hands of Cody and Duluoz, the pressure that the latter places on her, and her endeavors to cope with his moody alcoholism and mental instability finally lead her to mental distress. Near the novel’s end, Duluoz describes how she digs a garbage-pit in Raton Canyon about the size and shape of a child’s coffin: exactly the size of Elliot. But this is Dulouz’s interpretation: only the night before, Duluoz was in the grip of severe hallucinations, ensuring he remained sleepless and literally raving all that night. Consequently we are unsure of his mental state, or whether what he describes is accurate, not least because he tells us that “I realize everybody is just living their lives quietly but it’s only me that’s insane” (156). The novel stylistically replicates Duluoz’s experiences as he slips in and out of the waking hallucinations of delirium tremens. To convey Duluoz’s loss of control, the style constantly skids between present and past tenses, often inter-cut with brief excursions backwards and forwards in memory. This mirrors the “skidding” occurring in Duluoz’s mind as he degenerates during the six-week period that the novel covers. Significantly, in this respect, use of the present-tense increasingly dominates the narrative, though the tense-changes always seem slightly out of control. Big Sur becomes a sharp, even acidic and completely naked representation of an individual’s decline.
From first, “groaning from another drinking bout” (3), to last the novel also depicts the thoughts and feelings of an individual in the process of recognizing his consequent mental disintegration. The novel’s spatial structure enhances this process, with each of Dulouz’s three descents down into Rayon Canyon representing a deeper descent into a personal hell of delirium tremens. Big Sur is harrowing to read, particularly in the light of Kerouac’s own life – making it one of his most truly autobiographical novels. Indeed Kerouac himself regarded Big Sur as “honester” than his other books up to this point.