Jack Kerouac’s first published novel, The Town and the City is a story of monumental scope and great emotional depth. The book’s jacket cover talks about Kerouac’s idolization of Thomas Wolfe and this book reflects that interest. The story is about choices and regrets. It’s also about a generation robbed of choices and left wondering and apathetic and lost. The book tells the story of a family growing up in a small New Hampshire town pre-World War II and follows the family through war and loss.
The book is written in 3rd person. I realized soon after starting The Town and the City that most of what I’ve read recently is 1st person or some variation of 1st person. Which is fine; 1st person is very intimate. However, in Kerouac’s book, the choice of style really opens up the story. Instead of the reader having a close relationship with one or two people, the environment opens up and we form relationships with several people and feel part of the town. To say that in a different way, if the book were written 1st person, we would be looking through the eyes of the key character or characters. We would see the town and the rooms and the other characters, but more in a ‘Being John Malkovich’ way. Kerouac gives the reader room to appreciate the size and space of the story. We’re drawn in to the town, the sounds of the river, and late-night mournful calls of a passing freight train.
The following quote from the book reflects one of the son’s feelings while riding a troop train from one part of America to the other. He’s just finished a letter from his mother.
This is the pitiful way it was: and all the eerie feelings that young men were having in some strange part of the country far away from the places that had always been familiar in their lives, which were become unreal and fantastic now as a dream, and maddening and sorrowful too; and all the night-dreams woven out of three thousand miles of continental traveling and ten thousand miles of earth-traveling that were so gray and strange and pitiably enacted upon some deranged little map of the mind that was supposed to represent the continent of America and the earth itself. Sailors dreaming of the sea as some poignant little lake, or of their movements north and south, east and west on the terrific seas, as on some gray little canal or river, with life teeming on the banks; soldiers dreaming of America as some packed little place with mysterious fields and roads leading directly within walking dream-distance from state to state, or of islands in the Pacific as little puddle-jumps in the sweet small lake of the mind-all the vast and oceanic and terrific distances compressed by human necessity into something no bigger than a field, and a lake, or the palm of a hand.
And then the bugle blowing in some Dakota army camp, and the rawboned, windburnt boys waking up again to the clear cold mornings and great snow-distances and distant hills, to drafty barracks and rough khaki trousers and the heavy G.I. boots clomping, waking up to steaming breakfasts, hot coffee, a cigarette, and then the windswept range and the peppery chatter of rifles firing in the frozen air, the broken cry of a sergeant, a puff of smoke, and someone rubbing his raw chapped hands together and grinning steamily in the morning air.
Or the Cost Guardsmen on some heaving little cutter off Labrador waking up to the violent squeak of the ship, the pitching and flopping on the waves, the wild dawn-light over the seething field of waters, and the cook’s slop bucket flying garbage into the sea, the acrid nauseous smell of cigarette smoke in the mess, the big red-faced gunner’s mate from Iowa slopping catsup all over his eggs, the little mascot-pups yapping broken cries in the North Atlantic wind, the rigging by the afterdeck squeaking and straining and the flag cracking in the wind, and the wide mournful spread of slow, smoking merchant ships crawling in formation around the horizon all dark and low-slung and cumbrous in the sea. It seemed as though a whole nation of men and women were beginning to wander with the war.
The Town and the City is a beautiful, large and expansive novel that carries great emotional depth. I highly recommend everyone read this book.