The Subterraneans

Now that we’ve done more verse, let us return to the world of prose, and I have decided to do so with Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans. I’m sure you all know Kerouac, so I’ll just add one little, fascinating tid-bit I discovered about him: his first language was actually French, and, when he died, it was his biggest regret that he had never written a book in his mother tongue. Although, apparently, the first draft of On the Road was written in French. Anyway – The Subterraneans.


A rather awesome little newspaper article, I couldn’t help but post!


The novel is shorter than On the Road, and, in my opinion, actually better than it. It’s a fairly simple story, supposedly autobiographical, but Kerouac is supposed to have once said something along the lines of ‘If I did everything I wrote about, I wouldn’t have time to write.’ The Subterraneans is the story of an author in his thirties named Leo, a bit of a drunkard and philosophiser who spends his time with the beatniks and other such Bohemian types, who falls in love with the black girl, Mardou Fox. They love each other, the relationship goes well, and they spend their time in jazz clubs and parties. However, Leo is, as mentioned, a drunkard and self-centred, often abandoning Mardou in pursuit of another thing, ignoring her because he wants to stay up late into the night, talking to an artist; at one point, he’s going home with her in a taxi, only to leap out at a red light and go to a bar with some friends. In the end, as I’m sure you can guess, the affair ends, and Leo is regretful of it – it ends on a fantastic line, which I can’t quite remember, and I also cannot seem to find my copy right now.


Perhaps other people wouldn’t enjoy the book – Kerouac is always a bit unusual, and there is much drinking and upset and sex and all that – but I did. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always found characters such as Leo incredibly sympathetic; they know that perhaps they are wrong, yet they still go for whatever is currently on their mind. The trepidation, the foolishness – rather a common theme for most of us, I’m sure. I, also, personally found Mardou Fox rather annoying – so maybe others would be less sympathetic to Leo, for all of his knowledge that what he is doing is wrong.

The Subterraneans is written in the same, stream-of-conscious style as On the Road. Although it is rather a staple of Kerouac, and at times it is brilliantly done, I’ve always been wary of it – as the book goes on, and one sees the relationship fall more apart, and understands the foolish decisions Leo makes, yet also finding oneself almost supporting Leo, I found myself trapped in Kerouac’s mind. It is a haunting feeling, seeing a well-done piece of stream-of-conscious writing, as the thought processes and the narrative flow into one, and the mind that one sees through the writing comes out clearly – and in such a fast tale as The Subterraneans, one feels compelled to read further, and, for me at least, I find myself almost thinking the way the book thinks. The stream-of-conscious is also better done than On the Road, as Kerouac had developed his style more, and you can see it clearly in the novel. It’s hard to illustrate this through examples, as it has to be done more along the lines of reading the whole book, and then reading all of On the Road, otherwise it’s rather hard to get the true sense of the styles.

So yes, The Subterraneans is definitely a modern classic. It isn’t as well known as On the Road, which I feel is rather a shame, as I find it a stronger novel on the whole. The plot is tighter, and it pulls one in, and grips one, and the characters are far more, well, relatable than in On the Road.  I would encourage people to read the book, at least to gain an exposure to one of those classic American authors of the 50s.

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