Stumbling Upon “The Town and the City”
The Town and the City
By Mike McCormick
One Sunday in late April, I wandered with my friend Matt as he pointed out his favorite businesses in an upscale shopping district on Bainbridge Island, a thirty-minute ferry ride west of Seattle. As we sauntered, I remembered days during my teenage years when my girlfriend and I drove out of Haverhill to Cape Ann’s seacoast towns. We browsed art galleries and upscale boutiques. I never found anything I wanted on those jaunts.
The sun beamed brightly as we sidestepped oncoming walkers. I was ready to get out of the crowds when Matt cut a sharp turn onto a narrow passageway.
“Follow me, “ he commanded. “ You’ll love this place.”
I was far from thrilled when I realized we were entering a used record and bookstore. Since I am close to seventy years old, I am at the stage of life when I am trying to pare down oversized collections.
A cardboard box full of discarded record albums from the 60’s and 70’s sat on a chair near the entrance. Seeing the beat up albums, I concluded that the store would have nothing of interest. I reluctantly followed Matt down a short hall into a large room with bookshelves and racks of used records. A thin, middle-aged woman greeted him from behind a glass display case. As Matt introduced me to the clerk, my eyes honed in on a book propped face forward on a shelf inside the case.
The Town and the City by John Kerouac.
I froze. I’d never actually seen a hard cover edition of one of my all-time favorite novels. Since discovering Kerouac’s first published novel in my twenties, I’d read and reread it countless times in a 1978 paperback edition with a green cover.
Although this was my first actual encounter with the hard cover, the sight of it seemed familiar; I’d seen photos of it in numerous Kerouac biographies.
I asked the clerk if I could have a closer look.
“Certainly,” she said as she reached for the book to hand to me.
I studied the cover. The title, printed in white blocky letters on a black field, reminded me of the introductory scripts at the start of mid century cartoons films. Black and white line drawings of an imagined small town scene on a sickly green background triggered memories of a children’s book about Paul Bunyan. As I peered at the white scripted words “A novel by John Kerouac” on a rusty backdrop, I remembered that this was the only book where Kerouac did not use the name Jack.
It occurred to me that the book I held might have actually passed through Kerouac’s hands at a book signing. My adrenalin surged. By some stroke of luck, might this be a signed first edition?
My right hand quivered slightly as I carefully turned to the title page.
I stared at the spaces above and below the name of the author- John Kerouac.
There was no signature.
I turned the page and verified that this was indeed a first edition. Only ten thousand five hundred copies were printed and bound when the book was first released on March 2, 1950 – exactly three years before I was born.
I flipped the book to its back cover. The black and white publicity photo of the twenty-something year old author in a conservative suit coat struck me as impossibly formal.
I attempted to evaluate the book’s condition. The spine seemed firm. The pages were clean. This is a lightly used book I thought. Perhaps the former owner read it once, or received it as a gift. I imagined the book wedged untouched for decades between other novels in a floor to ceiling bookshelf.
As I fingered through the pages, I pictured it on a shelf in my own basement amongst my thirty-two other books by, and about Jack Kerouac.
“ How much are you asking for this?” I inquired as I handed the book back to the clerk.
She opened it and thumbed through a few pages. Since I am not a rare book collector and have never shopped for books as investments, I had no idea what the quoted price might be. My gut expected it’d be about three hundred fifty dollars-though five or six hundred dollar quote would not have surprised me.
“ I think he’s getting one fifty,” she said alluding to the owner who set the prices.
Her response triggered a surge of desire. I suddenly wanted the book. And, knowing I had withdrawn four fifty-dollar bills from a cash machine only a few hours ago, I had enough money in my wallet.
But should I give into my emotions and make a totally impulsive buy?
I had no desire to flip the book on the rare book market for a profit. And although I would enjoy telling Kerouac-loving friends about of my find, I had no interest in purchasing the book to impress them.
The clerk held the book in both hands and looked at me as she waited for my next words.
I knew if I walked away from the purchase I’d feel remorse. Still, it seemed irresponsible and irrational to make the purchase.
“Could you hold it for a week while I decide?” I pleaded. “I will give you my contact information and if someone comes in for it, just give me a call and I’ll decide right away.”
She pulled a business card from a pile of them on the counter and handed it to me.
“That’d be fine, “ she said to my relief. “ Write your contact information on the back of this.”
I set the card down and grabbed a pen from a cup beside the business card stack. As I started to write she asked, “Do you have cash?”
“ Tell you what. How about you buy it now and I’ll give it to you for $135?”
I stopped writing and looked up. I blurted my response without the slightest hesitation.
After buying The Town and the City, I tried to understand the reasoning behind my compulsive purchase; I thought about what the book has meant to me.
I first read the The Town and the City in Anchorage, Alaska at a time when I missed New England. The book brought me right back to my hometown of Haverhill. Many of the attitudes, challenges, and dreams of the people of Galloway (Kerouac’s fictional representation of his hometown of Lowell) seemed identical to those I encountered growing up. I understood that the story was only thinly fictionalized; for the most part Kerouac based the book’s stories based on real events and actual people including himself.
The tale of Peter Martin and his dad taking in the horse races at Rockingham Park moved me. Throughout my youth, my Dad bet on Rockingham’s ‘daily double” through his bookie. Each day after work he poured a beer and tuned the kitchen radio to the voice of Babe Rubenstein calling the races he ‘d bet on. I listened along with Dad and imagined how he’d react if he hit the “big money.
When I read about Peter Martin’s dad winning more than a hundred dollars on a last ditch, long shot bet, the scene filled me with pleasure. I imagined the joy of traveling to Boston for a splurge at a fancy restaurant after winning at the track. I loved Kerouac for writing the scene; for capturing and elevating an experience I might have only dreamed into literature.
As much as the Rockingham Park adventure spoke to me, Kerouac’s writing about high school football captivated me even more. From the first time I saw Haverhill’s High School football team, I wanted to play ball for them. Like Peter
Martin, I struggled for years to become a better player. Like in Galloway, working class kids in Haverhill struggled with favoritism and snobbery. Like Pete Martin, I had my most notable high school game in Galloway’s “concrete stadium” (I started for the first time in my high school football career there in a Haverhill- Lowell clash).
Kerouac, more than any other writer, captured the importance of high school football to working class and poor teenaged athletes and their communities. He was the first writer to treat the sport as a suitable topic for serious literature. Although others have followed in his footsteps, no writer has written about high school football with as much skill, or imbued the topic with Kerouac’s love and passion.
The Town and the City, like so much of Kerouac’s writing, is infused with love. The bonds between Pete Martin, his friends, his siblings, and most of all – his father are palpable. Although Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose” style had yet to emerge in this Thomas Wolfe influenced novel, his zest and compassion for friends and family already shine.
Devouring the novel for the first time four thousand miles from the Merrimack Valley, I filled up with pride. Reading it these days, I feel as though I am looking into a mirror. I see my past as I seek clues to the man I’ve become.
That said, I still don’t yet understand my visceral urge to purchase a first edition of The Town and the City.
However, I no longer think it matters.
Each time I pick up my new acquisition, I feel thankful and content.
Just holding the book brings me joy.
3 Responses to Stumbling Upon “The Town and the City”
Sounds like you did the right thing, and for the best reasons. And yes, that scene at Rockingham Park is an unforgettable piece of writing. “Green Swords!”
I’ll never forget this carefully told tale of acquiring a first-edition of Kerouac’s first novel. Why do we want it? I think there’s a bit of dust of the author on those first editions. If 10,500 were printed in a first edition, do we know how many were sold? I read somewhere that it topped out at 400, but I cannot prove that and am reluctant to repeat the figure. However, Kerouac was disappointed with the response even though the book was reviewed coast to coast. I have a hard time believing the sales were that bad. First novels are notoriously difficult to sell. The NYTimes this past year published an article in which the reporter stated that 95 percent of books published in a year will sell fewer than 5,000 copies, and my guess is that many in that 95 percent sell closer to 1,500 copies. The Town and the City in Kerouac’s time did not sell well enough to warrant a second printing. Wikipedia says JK did not earn any more than his $1000 advance, so that says something about sales. A math whiz can figure out how many books would have to sell to earn out the advance. There was an edition in the UK, so he must have been happy about that. And as we know, it would be 1957 before his next book appeared, On the Road.
This was a very enjoyable story. Avid readers sometimes turn into great writers themselves. Thank you for sharing this.