Though I find them wildly entertaining, it’s not the stories of drinking port, smoking tea, chasing girls, hopping trains, or abruptly setting out for distant parts of Mexico that draw me to the writing of Jack Kerouac. It’s the search for meaning.
And that’s why I loved Kerouac’s first novel, The Sea Is My Brother, written in 1943, when he was 21, but just published for the first time in North America by Da Capo Press.
The book isn’t what I would describe as good—but it still left me with that feeling that life is full of poems, pain, colorful characters, and small moments that matter.
As with most Kerouac works, The Sea Is My Brother is essentially plotless, with a narrative that drifts and wanders along with its restless protagonists. In this case, that's Wesley, a distant, mysterious figure who’s always on the move (“Next to the smell of salt water,” he says, “I’ll take the smell of a highway”), and Everhart, a “confused intellectual” who feels stuck teaching English at Columbia. The two meet in a dingy bar in New York and after countless beers decide to ditch their girls and hitchhike to Boston to enlist in the merchant marines. They do, their ship goes to sea, and . . . that’s about it.
Even in Kerouac’s best work what happens isn’t nearly as important as how it happens—it's not about reaching your destination but traveling to get there. And so The Sea Is My Brother is really about the truck drivers, barkeeps, sailors, socialists, drunks, and bare-knuckle brawlers that Wesley and Everhart encounter as they seek freedom—and try to hustle up the money to get drunk again.
Missing from this early novel is the rhythm—the music—that propels Kerouac’s best writing, transforming novels like On the Road, The Dharma Bums, and Big Sur from mere accounts of boozing and driving around into reflections on indulgence and epiphany. Still, The Sea is My Brother is driven by spiritual yearning, even if Kerouac hasn’t quite found the voice to express it.
“Everybody want to go to heaven, but no one want to die!” sings the cook on Wesley and Everhart’s ship, and we learn that “he repeated this chant constantly, as though it were his litany for the new day.” Long after I finished The Sea Is My Brother, images like that lingered, urging me to come to terms with the loneliness and fears of the moment, and to celebrate the simple joys around me.