This isn't Jack's best. In "On the Road" Dean Moriarty plays Huck to Sal's Tom Sawyer: a good kid at heart but prone to trouble with his wild friend. Here Leo Percepied's the bad boy, getting drunk, embarassing friends and hurting lovers with no one to blame but himself. The joy and big-hearted optimism of "On the Road" give way to boozy self-recrimination as the author berates himself for messing things up with Mardou.
The subterraneans of the title are a cool, intellectual, heroin-addled set that Leo has little time for; they're mostly a backdrop for his relationship with Mardou. Kerouac examines their love, from Leo's point of view anyway, in microscopic detail, but some of his confessions were startling to me--that he'd never get serious with a black woman, for instance, because it would ruin his fantasy of living down South like Faulkner. I'm probably just getting old, but where Sal Paradise seemed urgent and searching, Leo struck me as selfish and immature, aware that he needs to grow up but not really wanting to. Where Sal wanted kicks, Leo wants love. That's a trickier (more adult?) proposition and I'm not sure Kerouac rose to the challenge, in this novel or in life.
Don't get me wrong--I'm a big Kerouac fan. "On the Road" and "Mexico City Blues" just hit the ball harder for me. If you get a chance, see the movie version of "The Subterraneans" with George Pepard as Leo, Mardou as white (?!) and Roddy McDowell as a bongo-beating beatnik. Hollywood at its finest!