Phew! What a long, strange trip it’s been. I read this book simultaneously on audio (read by the amazing Will Patton) and paper. I finished the audiobook first and then kept going with the actual book, underlining favorite passages etc. By the time I was done, I was exhausted. Exhausted of traveling back and forth across the American continent with Sal Paradise and his helpless, hopeless friend Dean Moriarty. And I think this was the point. Hidden beneath their euphoric, madcap adventures there is a great sadness, as there was to the whole Beat generation. These “boys and girls in America” lived hard and burned out fast. Something about their wild search for spiritual and sexual liberation, and their rejection of materialism, simply didn’t hold. Both Neal Cassady (the real-life Dean Moriarty) and Jack Kerouac (Sal Paradise) drowned themselves in drugs and alcohol, dying young. But for the short time they were here, they burned “like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'” And there you have it: Kerouac wrote some truly transcendent prose, and I’m looking forward to reading The Dharma Bums and Big Sur next.
This book reminded me of W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe in several ways. Both are big-hearted books about family; both are set in a down-homey, rosy-eyed version of the South where life is one big peach cobbler and no one’s ever heard of racism or poverty; and both books were turned into movies I loved long before I read the source material.
Of the two, Shoeless Joe is my favorite. It’s just a heartwarming book. It’s a nice warm blanket, a big warm hug of a book. Kinsella writes somewhere: “Moonlight butters the whole Iowa night.” Butters! It’s that kind of book.
Big Fish, in contrast, feels sterile. It’s barely a book, but more a collection of vignettes, lacking the warmth and catharsis of the movie, and only hinting at the complicated and ultimately heartbreaking father-and-son relationship that made me fall in love with the movie. The stories themselves are still funny, clever, enchanting, and very much worth reading. But this is one of those rare examples where a movie managed to take a central idea from the source material and expand on it and thereby make it better and more cohesive.
This is the most straightforward Vonnegut book I’ve read so far and also the longest, but it was still very good, very funny, and very bizarre in that unique Vonnegut way.