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tristesse (French noun)

Meaning “melancholy” or “sorrow”

- Merriam Webster dictionary

Tristessa is the name of the ”...Atzeca, Indian girl with mysterious lidded Billie Holiday eyes” that Kerouac has fallen for. She is also an intriguing dichotomy of being a morphine addicted prostitute, with deep religious beliefs.

Oh the sadness in this story! Sadness by name, sadness by nature.

Written in Kerouac’s trademark, imitable style, where sentences meander and merge into one another, without pause for breath or for grammatical “rules”. Like one long jam session in a dark jazz club in the wee small hours.

Tristessa’s home is one room, with a crucifix and other religious icons sharing space with a menagerie of both people and animals. A dove, hen, rooster, cat and eeny chihuahua all sharing the same space. All breathing in the same air of abject poverty, yet still seeming to be at peace with this. At accepting life as it is.

It’s here that Kerouac finds himself, in love with Mexico, in love with Tristessa, and dancing with his own demons.

We see the colour of the shawls worn by the people, the pretty sky, the sounds of the hiss of street food stalls, and the rain! So much rain. Swish, swish.

”It starts raining harder, I’ve got a long way to go walking and pushing that sore leg right along in the gathering rain, no chance no intention what-ever of hailing a cab, the whiskey and the Morphine have made me unruffled by the sickness of the poison in my heart.”

There’s too much bourbon, too much moonshine, too much dependence on substances that steal your Soul. And this is the road that is travelled repeatedly by Kerouac and his sad, beautiful Tristessa.

But this is no mere altered state bunch of musings. There’s a lot of existential angst in it, which I enjoy. Who hasn’t spent a night or two up til all hours talking about really deep and meaningful things, only to have them forgotten by morning.

”...soul eats soul in the general emptiness.”

Kerouac’s mysticism, and blend of Catholicism and Buddhism walk hand in hand through this story. It’s a heady mix.

The first time I read this I was completely ensconced in the beauty of the story, the way the writing emitted a definite vibe of parallel abject sadness and beauty. This time around with many, many years between readings, I saw it differently. While I still completely appreciate the writing style, the story really struck me with the absolute pointlessness and desperation of Tristessa’s lifestyle, as she fell further and further into the arms of the needle, and became a shadow of her former self. A slave to her addiction.

This is one of my favourite Kerouac works (alongside Satori In Paris and Pic). I have a feeling a Jack Kerouac Odyssey is looming on the horizon. Reading this has made me realise why I love the writing of The Beats so much. It truly was an entire lifestyle. Books like this are absolute classics.

Jack Kerouac was born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac on March 12, 1922, in Lowell, Massachusetts. Jack Kerouac's writing career began in the 1940s, but didn't meet with commercial success until 1957, when On the Road was published. The book became an American classic that defined the Beat Generation. Kerouac died on October 21, 1969, from an abdominal hemorrhage, at age 47.


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