All through the later part of this year I have had an inexplicable Jack Kerouac obsession. I’ve read virtually every book he’s written as well as listened to a number of audio books like Deever Brown’s memoir of taking a road trip with Kerouac in the sixties and Allen Ginsberg’s reading of The Dharma Bums (which is strange in itself. A man reading a book in which he is a character…)
As part of this newfound love I’ve read the new biography of the man from ex-lover Joyce Johnson.
It’s only the first volume, as it finishes just as ‘On the Road’ is about to be published but is thoroughly fascinating. Not least because Johnson is making her bid to define whom Kerouac was and will be to the world.
She appears to pour scorn on the idea that Kerouac was gay (even though many sources suggest he was bisexual) and retells much of the mythology around the man in a way that sometimes leaves no room for alternative interpretation
By comparison the oral history ‘Jack’s Book’ edited by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee, allows for contradictory ideas about a scene in Jack’s life assigning him varying motivations for his actions according to who is telling the tale.
I much prefer this approach as it allows us to keep multiple Kerouac’s in circulation both good and bad. Jack the Angel-Headed Hipster, Jack the Mother Lover, Jack the Drunk, Jack the Anti-Semite, Jack the Jazz Lover, Jack the Bebop Prose King and Jack the Lonesome Traveler.
Sometimes definition is reduction and our desire to know for sure blinds us to the complexities of a real human life. The truth of Kerouac’s life is particularly important to our understanding of his work as he is a largely autobiographical writer who intended all his novels to form one great book that covered all aspects of his life, from his childhood in Lowell to his travels around America. Originally he didn’t even intend to change the names of the people who formed the basis for ‘On the Road’ but was forced too for legal reasons by his publisher.
‘The Voice is All’ is still essential reading for all Kerouac buffs though not quite as essential as Joyce Johnson’s other great contribution to Kerouac scholarship, her memoir ‘Minor Characters’ which I recommend wholeheartedly.
Of course I also encourage others to read more of his distinctive work. Kerouac is a true original, who though hard to read at first, yields great rewards for those persevere.