The novel begins with Jackie Duluoz
, based on Kerouac himself, relating a dream in which he finds himself in Lowell, Massachusetts
, his childhood hometown. Prompted by this dream, he recollects the story of his childhood, along with his childhood fantasies, which have become inextricable from the memories.
The fantasies pertain to a mansion in Lowell atop a hill that Jackie calls Snake Hill. Underneath the mansion, the Great World Snake sleeps. Various vampires, monsters, gnomes, werewolves, and dark magicians from all over the world gather to the mansion with the intention of awakening the Snake so that it will devour the entire world (although a small minority of them, derisively called "Dovists", believe that the Snake is merely "a husk of doves," and when it awakens it will burst open, releasing thousands of doves).
The eponymous Doctor Sax, also part of Jackie's fantasy world, is a dark, but ultimately friendly, figure with a flowing black cape, a black slouch hat, a haunting laugh, and a "disease of the night" called Visagus Nightsoil that causes his skin to turn green at night. Sax, who also came to Lowell because of the Great World Snake, lives in the forest near the town, where he conducts various alchemical experiments, attempting to concoct a potion to destroy the Snake when it awakens.
When the Snake is finally awakened, Doctor Sax uses his potion on the Snake, but the potion fails to do any damage. Sax, defeated, discards his costume and watches the events unfold as an ordinary man.
Originally, Kerouac had intended for Doctor Sax's potion to succeed in destroying the Great World Snake. However, shortly after completing the first draft, Kerouac watched for the first time the film "The Wizard of Oz", the ending of which inspired him to change the ending of his novel to one in which Sax, having been built up throughout the book as a great alchemist, is ultimately revealed to be an ineffectual, ordinary man.
Kerouac also wrote a screenplay adaptation of the novel entitled Doctor Sax and the Great World Snake. It was never filmed, but in 1998, Kerouac's nephew Jim Sampas discovered the text in Kerouac's archives. He proceeded to produce the piece in audio form, much like a radio drama,(Dr. Sax is loosely based on "The Shadow") and release it in 2003 from his independent record label, Gallery Six (named for the site of the famous Six Gallery reading). The release consisted of two CDs and a book containing the screenplay with illustrations by Richard Sala.
Robert Creeley: narration
Jim Carroll: Jackie Duluoz, Count Condu
Robert Hunter: Doctor Sax
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: the Wizard
Kate Pierson: Vamp Contessa
Graham Parker: Baroque
Ellis Paul : Lousy
Score by John Medeski