cover image Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings

Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings

Jack Kerouac. Viking Books, $24.95 (249pp) ISBN 978-0-670-88822-1

""I am part of the American temper, the American temperament, the American tempo,"" writes a teenage Kerouac in a prophetic 1941 prose fragment, one of the 60 such pieces in this collection of Kerouac's juvenilia. These fugitive pieces, previously unpublished, provide a tantalizing glimpse of the future Beat generation originator, spanning Kerouac's adolescence and his first years in New York. The themes here would later find expression in On the Road and the Duluoz series: his French-American heritage, with its idiosyncratic English; his mystical identification with America; and, taking cues from Whitman, his vision of art as a means to unfold the authenticity of the self. The best pieces are the short sketches written in Hartford in 1941. Kerouac crafts, diary-style, a catalogue of daily activities (working in a cookie factory, living in a cheap apartment) while experimenting with the rhythms and forms he derived from his reading of Thomas Wolfe and William Saroyan. In the early '40s, Kerouac lived in several diverse social spheres. He worked in Hartford, attended Columbia University on a football scholarship, was kicked out of Columbia, enlisted in the Merchant Marines and simply bummed around. It is evident that radio had an overlooked influence on Kerouac's style. A piece like ""Howdy,"" which begins, ""Howdy. This is Jack Kerouac, speaking to you,"" obviously takes its formal cues from radio broadcasts. The last section of the book is less interesting, excerpting a section of a novel Kerouac wrote about the Merchant Marines. Although this book shouldn't be a starting place for new Kerouac readers, there is enough real Kerouac bebop here to interest even his more casual fans. (Nov.) FYI: The publication of this collection will coincide with the publication of the second volume of Kerouac's selected letters.