There are a lot of stories written in Thailand about bars, bar-girls, and love. And most of them are crap. This thought made me pause to consider the last good tale I had read which involved that invective trifecta. The answer came easily – it is Tristessa by Jack Kerouac. I read it this summer and again this month. The novella is 96 pages in length, a little longer than The Old Man and the Sea, and not as good.
But it is plenty good from the first sentence (which runs 189 words) on. It’s a story about Jack’s visit to Mexico City where he falls in love with a prostitute, an Aztec Indian girl with Billy Holliday eyes and a heavy appetite for heroin. An unrequited love story and an account of the futility of love, if not life itself. Kerouac was born to raise hell because he knows that he is “born to die”.
Jack falls hard for the junkie Tristessa – the writing is evocative, acutely descriptive, and glum. The novella has two parts. Part II resumes after Jack leaves Mexico City for one year only to return hoping for a delusional save of an uninterested but not uninteresting life. Jack as a Buddhist and Tristessa as a devout Catholic provide two different yet appealing points of view.
“She is giving me my life back and not claiming it for herself as so many of the women you love do claim.”
Written in the 1950s it’s a window into a time long gone and a story that lives on. What was a “new and hauntingly different novel” does not read as fresh as it must have almost 60 years ago but the haunting moments still persist. The novella was first published in 1960. Jack would not live to see another decade, dead at age 47 in 1969.
As the author states, ““The beauty of things must be that they end.” The beauty of Tristessa by Jack Kerouac is that it can be read more than once. I recommend doing just that.