It`s the edge of winter 1975.
Allen Ginsberg tramps across the dewy grass reading the stones. His diamond friend walks beside him; this is the crowned King of Gypsies. He wears a hat bedecked with dying flowers. His long, bony fingers are hidden in his empty pockets. The hirsute poet has come to pay his respects to an ex-lover, life-friend. The skinny king is here to acknowledge a debt long overdue.
They sit cross-legged on the grass, facing the stone that bears the legend: Ti Jean. Ginsberg squeezes his shoe-box harmonium and as the instrument wheezes he looks at Dylan and sings: "Ommmmmmm -- "
Jean-Louis Lebris De Kerouac was born on the 12th March 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts. Neal Cassady was born on the 8th February 1926 in the back of a car as his parents drove through Salt Lake City. In the year of my own birth, 1946, the two men met and nothing was ever the same again.
At 24 Jack Kerouac was already an author, albeit of an unpublished manuscript. In the panoramic `The Town and the City` Kerouac fictionalises his growing years in small town Lowell and his scoring the winning touchdown for Lowell High in the Thanksgiving game of 1938 that won him a football scholarship to Horace Mann and Columbia.
Even though it mirrors much of Thomas Wolfe`s work, `The Town and the City` is a robust and rewarding book, an American tapestry, a small tale of family life writ large. By the final page the reader feels part of the Martin family, drawn into their dreaming lives by a young, but already skilful author.
For his whole life Kerouac was bound by the emotional web of his relationship with his parents. Adding strength to these bonds were three incidents that happened to the young Kerouac. When he was four years old his brother, Gerard, died aged just nine. This tragedy terrified the child who was then unable to sleep alone. For many years he slept in his mother`s bed. Her name was Gabrielle -- but she was always mémêre.
I lay huddled against the great warm back of my mother with open eyes up-peeking from the pillow at all shadows and leafshades on the wall and at the screen, nothing could harm me now... this whole night could only take me if it took her with me and she wasn`t afraid of any shade.
Although Kerouac`s fictionalised character would bear several names, he conceived early in his writing career that his books would trace the legend of his own life: The Legend of Jack Duluoz.
-- I devized the idea of `The Duluoz Legend`: a lifetime of writing about what I`d seen with my own eyes -- a contemporary history record for future times to see what really happened and what people really thought. -- In the general vanity of Duluoz I decided to become a writer, write a huge novel explaining everything to everybody --
Not written until 1956 and not published until 1963, `Visions of Gerard` is chronologically the first volume in the legend and could be described as its cornerstone. Kerouac describes the book as a `pain-tale.` Gerard has become a saint in his brother`s memory. It is the most religious book in the legend, written at a time when Kerouac had achieved some peace of mind through long conversations with his Buddhist friend, Gary Snyder.
Written at speed like much of his work, the benzedrine Kerouac was on sustained him, but the memories of thirty years earlier were no less painful. Perhaps all Jack`s books were merely dilutions of `Visions of Gerard.` As he comments himself: `The whole reason why I ever wrote at all... because of Gerard the religious hero -- ` Jack thought of himself as Gerard and when his brother died he knew he had to attempt to recreate that part of him that had been lost, thus, the Duluoz Legend.
Secondly, what was to have been a promising football career at Columbia was dashed in 1940 when Kerouac broke a leg in his freshman year. He never came to terms with what he saw as this crushing personal defeat. He felt that he could have been `a great football player,` but was never given the chance by the coach, Lu Little, once he broke his leg. The following year he would have a dream in which he is the hero of the Columbia team that wins the Rose Bowl trophy. It was a dream he would never forget.
The third cross that Kerouac had to bear all his life was the conviction that he had disappointed his parents, particularly his father, Leo. His father lost his small printing busines in a flood in 1936. Without insurance he soon went under. Leo spent the rest of his life on mournful, drunken binges, dreaming of making a living from a foolproof gambling system. As Kerouac boarded the Greyhound for Columbia his father cried and begged him to make his family proud.
There were always tears in my pa`s eyes when he said goodbye to me, always tears in his eyes those later years, he was, as my mother often said, `Un vrai Duluoz, ils font ainque braillez pi`s lamentez (A real Duluoz, all they do is cry and lament.)`
After leaving Columbia Kerouac spent two unsettled years in the US Marine before returning to New York where he met and fell in love with Edie Parker. In August 1944 a friend of Jack`s stabbed to death a homosexual acquaintance and Kerouac was booked as a material witness -- along with another new friend, William Burroughs -- after he had disposed of the murder weapon. Kerouac`s parents refused to stand bail for their son, threatening to disown him. Knowing it would placate his mother and father, Kerouac married Edie. But more intent on becoming a great writer than a good husband, Jack left his wife of two months and moved in with another new friend, Allen Ginsberg: `I was sitting in Johnnie`s apartment one day when the door opened and in walks this spindly Jewish kid with horn-rimmed glasses and tremendous ears sticking out, seventeen years old, burning black eyes, a strangely deep voice --`
Kerouac was soon living with both Ginsberg and Borroughs, witnessing first hand the latter`s addiction to morphine and heroin and how the writer noted his experiences for use in his later books, `Junkie` and `Naked Lunch.` Jack was now hooked on the unrelenting barb of benzedrine. As a result he developed thrombophlebitis in his legs and spent some time in hospital. It was here that Kerouac brought together his plans for his first novel, later titled, `The Town and the City,` to be written in the style of his literary hero, the verbose gentle giant, Thomas Wolfe, ` -- this dark-eyed American poet made me want to prowl and roam and see the real America -- `
At the age of fourteen Jack had actually passed his hero in a blizzard on Brooklyn Bridge:
` -- here comes this one man about six foot six, with large body and small head, striding Brooklyn-ward and not looking at me, long strides and meditation. Know who that old geezer was? Thomas Wolfe.`
Throughout his books Jack paints a loving portrait of his father: `He was a scowling, preoccupied, virile-looking man, big, genial, eagerly sympathetic, who could suddenly break out into a booming raspy laugh or just as easily grow very sentimental and misty-eyed. -- He wants to smoke all the cigars, get in on all the poker games -- make friends with all the good men and women -- make as much money as he spends, kid around, laugh and make jokes all the time -- he wants to do everything -- `
Before he died in the spring of 1946, Leo Kerouac made his son promise that he would always take care of mémêre. This was a promise Jack kept. Because of his own failures Leo had wanted success for his son: as a football champion, at college, in the navy. Jack had been unable to fulfill his father`s dream. Over the next two years Jack set about fulfilling his own dream, thereby assuaging his guilt.
Neal Cassady loved joyriding. By his own account he stole around 500 cars between 1940 and 1944 and was caught only three times. When Neal came to New York in 1946 he not only brought his 16-year-old wife, Luanne, but also his thrusting, searching hunger for excitement. Neal just loved joyriding.
When Ginsberg saw them together he considered Jack and Neal so similar in their muscular, stocky build as easily mistaken for brothers. Jack agreed:
In spite of our differences in character, he reminded me of some long-lost brother; the sight of his suffering bony face with the long sideburns and his straining muscular sweating neck made me remember my boyhood -- his dirty workclothes clung to him so gracefully -- and in his excited way of speaking I heard again the voices of old companions and brothers -- he stood bobbing his head, always looking down, nodding -- to make you think he was listening to every word, throwing in a thousand `yeses` and `that`s rights` -- a young Gene Autry -- trim, thin-hipped, blue-eyed -- a sideburned hero of the Snowy West.
They were brothers from the start. Carolyn Cassady, Neal`s second wife, observed: `They both loved each other and they both hated themselves.`
The famous photograph of the pair taken in San Francisco in 1952 confirms their likeness. They are the world`s most handsome men, arms flung casually round each other`s firm shoulders, dark hair slicked back, wide jaws, full, sensual mouths, deep, brooding eyes hidden beneath heavy brows -- the world belonged to them; this was their moment. Jack described how he and Neal `tiptoed around each other like heartbreaking new friends.`
Jack agreed to teach Neal how to write if Neal would teach him how to drive. Jack introduced Neal to marijuana.
Although Kerouac saw his relationship with Neal as ` -- some kind of new thing in the world actually where men can really be angelic friends and not be homosexual and not fight over girls -- ` his sexuality was confused. He once joined Ginsberg and Borroughs in a homosexual session in a bath-house. It was not long before Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg had become lovers. In `On the road` Jack remarks with awe and regret:
A tremendous thing happened when Dean met Carlo Marx. The holy conman with the shining mind and the sorrowful poetic conman with the dark mind. -- From that moment I saw little of Dean and was a little sorry. Their energies met head on. I was a lout compared, I couldn`t keep up with them.
Kerouac`s first cross-country trip, from New York to San Francisco via Denver -- where Allen had gone to share Neal`s affections with Neal`s new love, Carolyn Robinson -- began in July 1947. It got off to a bad start with Kerouac hitching in the wrong direction for his Route 6 connection! In Denver Jack hung out with Neal`s crowd and almost bedded Carolyn. He soon bused on to San Francisco where he got a job as a security guard to make some money. By September he had moved on to Los Angeles where he met and fell in love with a beautiful Mexican girl:
I saw the cutest little Mexican girl in slacks -- her breasts stuck out, straight and true; her little flanks looked delicious; her hair was long and lustrous black; and her eyes were big blue things with timidities inside. -- A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going in the opposite direction in this too-big world.
With plans to marry the girl, Kerouac took a job picking cotton and for a week they lived in a tent. But, although the experience was rewarding for a writer, the poverty proved unbearable and Jack fled back to New York and mémêre`s French-Canadian cuisine.
Once back home Kerouac worked day and night to finish his novel. It weighed in at an impressive 1,100 pages but was still rejected by two publishers. `The Town and the City` was shelved while Kerouac, his confidence dented, worked on a new novel, the extra-ordinary `Doctor Sax.` But his enthusiasm soon waned and he began a new book in early November 1948.
It was to be called, `On the road.`
Kerouac was 26 years old, the new novel was proving impossible to write, no publisher would take `The Town and the City,` he was living with his mother, supported by her hand outs for drinks and notebooks. Cassady came to his rescue, hurtling to New York in a brand new Hudson sedan, burning out the bearings on the way. After a brief hiatus in New Orleans the three passengers -- Luanne was along for the ride, promising to sleep with Jack later -- staggered out of the steaming car in San Francisco. It had been a manic drive: jazz bursting from the radio, non-stop talking, a constant diet of marijuana, benzadrine, morphine and alcohol. At night they had danced naked beneath Indian stars, by day they stole bread and cheese from roadside stores. It was this trip -- and that it surely was -- that would appear in the published version of `On the road.`
Jack Kerouac had Allen Ginsberg to thank for the publication of his first novel. Ginsberg had given the mighty manuscript to Mark van Doren to read. Van Doren phoned Robert Giroux at Harcourt Brace. Giroux was impressed by the book`s poetry and lyricism, reminiscent of Wolfe`s, `Look Homeward, Angel,` and Kerouac signed up for a $1,000 advance. Exultant and revived, Kerouac left for Denver where he worked on `Doctor Sax` and `On the road.` He was also writing a lot of poetry and listening to jazz. But in less than two months loneliness had driven Jack back to mémêre.
By the summer of 1949 Jack and Neal were back on the road, driving from San Francisco to Denver, from Denver to Chicago. Neal told Jack: `The road must eventually lead to the whole world. Ain`t nowhere else it can go -- right?` The 1,180 mile drive took just seventeen hours. And the road ended predictably back at mémêre`s in New York.
With the publication of `The Town and the City` to indifferent reviews -- his homage to Wolfe too obvious -- in February 1950 Kerouac could now say he was a writer. One of his first acts was to break with Neal Cassady, who he considered `crazy,` recognising that when he was with Neal his own reason was undermined. Neal told Jack that time would see them as bums, scouring the trash cans. Jack was more optimistic:
I hope someday we`ll live on the same street with our families and get to be old-timers together.
In a first step towards this idyllic goal Kerouac married Joan Haverty, a tall, dark haired girl, a friend of Ginsberg`s. Jack moved out of mémêre`s Ozone Park apartment and into Joan`s loft.
Committed to writing his `great novel,` `On the road,` Jack was struggling to find a vibrant style, having now paid off his debt to Wolfe.
On December 30th 1950 a 23,000 word type-written letter arrived from Neal, now in San Francisco. Jack pronounced it `the greatest story` he had ever read by an American writer. But he was mortified by Neal`s humility at producing such a masterpiece and stated that Neal was `a much greater writer than I am.` He was impressed by Neal`s `muscular rush` style of narrative -- which had been written on benzedrine.
Whilst Kerouac had been striving to match Wolfe, Proust and Melville, Cassady had found a new, headlong autobiographical style that echoed the jazz music they both loved so dearly. Kerouac had also recently read the manuscript of William Borroughs first novel, `Junkie.`
Whilst in hospital in spring 1951 recovering from another bout of phlebitis, Kerouac sketched out his plan to write a series of books that would become his autobiographical `legend.` `On the road` would be written under the influence of benzedrine, Cassady and Burroughs. Jack told his friend John Holmes:
I`m going to get a roll of shelf paper, feed it into the typewriter and just write it down as fast as I can, exactly like it happened, all in a rush -- and worry about it later.
Within two and a half weeks Holmes read the finished manuscript, `a scroll three inches thick made up of one single-spaced, unbroken paragraph 120 feet long.`
Dean Moriarty (Neal) and Sal Paradise (Jack) are the heroes of `On the road,` travelling to learn about themselves: to drive, to go, is to be. They have to experience everything. Inner and outer reality, spiritual and earthly pleasures are the rich rewards of travelling through the `NOW.`
-- And just for a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows... where all the angels dove off the magic mothswarm of heaven.
`The road to heaven` is the concrete strip from Denver to San Francisco. Kerouac concertinas time to incorporate his road adventures with Cassady within the accelerated narrative.
Once the manuscript was completed Jack realised his marriage of six months had been a sham and he hurried to `the woman that wanted him most,` mémêre. But Joan was pregnant and in abandoning his wife and unborn daughter Jack was giving up the love and emotional stability for which he would hunger for the rest of his life.
After a few months living and fighting with Neal in San Francisco, Jack moved in with William Borroughs in Mexico City. Burroughs had recently killed his wife in a bizarre `William Tell` shooting accident. As Borroughs was busy writing his second novel, `Queer,` Kerouac had few distractions from his own work on `Doctor Sax,` much of it sitting on the toilet in the apartment, smoking huge marijuana cigars.
`Doctor Sax` is a book in which fantasy and reality intermingle, where real and imaginary characters populate the same space and time. Kerouac later referred to the book as a `puberty myth.` It tells of the writer`s youth, of his awareness for the first time of the finality of death, of his discovery of the emptiness of juvenile sex. The language is rich with true, rhythmic Kerouac poetry; he drops the reins and gives his writing its head:
-- Behind the thudding apples of my ground and his fence that shivers so, and winter on the pale horizon of autumn all hoary with his own news in a bigmitt cartoon editorial about storing coal, behind winter my star sings, zings, I`m alright in my father`s house.
`Doctor Sax` covers the 1930-36 Lowell period of Kerouac`s life, a colourful, surrealistic, important book in the legend of Duluoz. The book captures in its jazzy prose that midflight step between childhood and puberty, the fascination with fear, the joy of the darkest night:
-- the underground rumbling horror of the Lowell night -- black coat on a hook on a white door -- in the dark -- 0-0-h! -- my heart used to sink at sight of huge headshroud rearing on his rein in the goop of the door -- the waving trees made a swish of black ghosts flaming on all sides in a fire of black arms and sinuosities in the gloom -- million moving deeps of leaf night -- `
Kerouac himself considered it `the greatest book I ever wrote, or that I will write.`
But Jack Kerouac was thirty, broke, living on a diet of drugs and felt alienated by his friends. How ever hard he partied, loneliness always intruded: `I accept lostness forever.` He considered that the creation of `lyric epic novels` could never overcome his feeling of `doom and despair on all sides waiting for everybody and especially me who am so all alone.`
In a long prose sketch, `October in the Railroad Earth,` Kerouac recorded his experiences working as a brakeman in late 1952 on the Southern Pacific railway. But by the end of the year Kerouac was back with mémêre. The New York publishing industry had finally caught up with the jazz scene of pads, benzedrine and marijuana. Kerouac was intensely jealous of John Holmes` success with his first book, `Go,` for which the author had received a $20,000 advance. The book tells of the lives of hipsters on Times Square listening to bop and popping bennies. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Cassady and Holmes himself were central characters in the book. Jack is seen scribbling in notebooks in cafeterias waiting for somebody else to show up. In attempting to name the loose community of hipsters Jack had remarked to Holmes, `I guess you might say we`re a beat generation.`
The following year Jack wrote one of his most approachable books, `Maggie Cassidy.` The story of a youthful love affair with Mary Carney, it is realistic in style and pays homage once again to Thomas Wolfe whilst reinforcing Kerouac`s own sure grip of poetry and language: `In winter darkness, the Baghdad Arabian keenblue deepness of the piercing lovely January winter`s dusk -- I saw Maggie`s black hair in this night -- ` On the paperback`s jacket Kerouac is described with some accuracy by the publisher as `the Scott Fitzgerald of his age -- `
Mary is the perfect sex-angel:
-- you see the flash of her eyes in their pools of darkness -- the pinkness of her cheek, her hair, the crown of her eyes corona`d by God`s own bent wing -- For all I knew (she) could have been the mother or the daughter of God -- the startling sudden sweet fall of all her hair over my face and the soft downward brush of her lips, a moment`s penetration of sweet lip flesh, a moment`s drowned in thinking and kissing in it and praying and hoping and in the mouth of life when life is young to burn cool skin eye-blinking joy -- `
One of the more persistent dreams that haunted Jack for the rest of his life, saw him settled in a Lowell cottage with Mary and a bunch of kids, working the railroad. He would never know if he could have lived that dream.
With four manuscripts rejected by publishers in New York -- On the road; Visions of Cody, (extended notes from `Road); Doctor Sax; and Maggie Cassidy -- Kerouac took the Greyhound to San Francisco to be a brakeman in San Luis Obispo. He also worked on a freighter sailing to Panama, his experiences appearing later in `Lonesome Traveller.`
Kerouac describes himself at this point in his life: ` -- workshoes covered with dust and some oil of engines -- the crumpled jeans -- the knees white from Pajaro riverbottom finedusts, the ass black -- the dirty undershirt, sad shorts, tortured socks of my life -- ` He considers himself as ` -- old Ti Jean who`ll go anywhere follow anyone for adventure -- ` But he knows he is not destined for the endless grey drudgery of 9-to-5 employment: `Always considered writing my duty on earth -- I was a hobo but only of sorts, as you see, because I knew someday my literary efforts would be rewarded by social protection -- ` But within three months he was back in New York and had fallen in love with a black girl whom he called Mardou in the resulting book about the brief affair, `The Subterraneans.`
The affair began listening to Charlie Parker at the Open Door and continued at the girl`s tenement apartment, Paradise Alley, on the Lowere East Side. The whirlwind romance lasted only the month of August, but the book Jack gleaned from the affair pulses with vibrant bop-prose and is an excellent example of the author`s unique faster-than-a-speeding-typewriter style:
-- lying then in the dark, soft, tentacled, waiting, till sleep -- so in the morning I wake from the scream of beermares and see beside me the Negro woman -- grape little sweetbody naked on the restless sheets of the nightbefore excitement -- the rainy night blooping all over -- one wash of sad poetry -- high-shelved angels trumpet blowing up above the final Orient-shroud Pacific-huge songs of Paradise, an end to fear below.
The affair ended after a bizarre incident when Kerouac elbowed William Burroughs aside and managed to spend the night, albeit impotently, with Gore Vidal. Further complications involved Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg`s live-in poet-lover, going to bed with Mardou. `The Subterraneans` was written on benzedrine in three days and nights.
Early in 1954, at his lowest ebb, Kerouac turned for comfort to Buddhism, attracted by its first law, `all life is sufferring.` He read all the books on Buddhism he could find. Believing that all life is a dream Jack renounced all activity, including writing and sex -- but not for long; the former returned with work on poetry for `San Francisco Blues,` the latter when Jack shared three girls with Rambling Jack Elliot. His heavy drinking continued, which precipitated another bout of phlebitis. The doctors warned him that he was killing himself.
But in July 1955 Malcolm Cowley was instrumental in Viking Press accepting `On the road` after Kerouac had made some major changes to the lengthy manuscript. Elated, Jack sped off to Mexico City to live with Burroughs. His rooftop room was damp and there was no electricity, but with candles, marijuana and Bourbon Jack produced a fine book of poems, `Mexico City Blues,` in less than a month. He wrote fast, spontaneously, the poetry subject to internal speech rhythms, some words used as sounds. Some poems were written on morphine at one line an hour. His morphine connection was a young Mexican girl, the subject of a later book, `Tristessa.`
Later that year Ginsberg introduced Kerouac to the jazz poets of San Francisco, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen and Lawrence Ferlinghetti who ran the City Lights book store and press. Jack also met Gary Snyder, a virile fellow Buddhist, a student of Japanese at Berkeley. Jack was present at the first public reading of Ginsberg`s famous poem, `Howl.`
But alcohol was undermining Kerouac`s manufactured calm and alienating close friends as he bored them with lectures on his Buddhist beliefs or bummed drinks off them. Snyder noted a `real self-destructive streak` in Kerouac, `a palpable aura of fame and death.`
Gary Snyder took it upon himself to educate Jack in the ways of the great outdoors and a climb to the top of Matterhorn mountain in Yosemite featured in the later book in the Duluoz legend, `The Dharma Bums.` Jack saw Gary as a hero, a radical with anarchist leanings, anxious for revolutionary social change. But it was Jack Kerouac who predicted the `ruck-sack revolution,` the hippies of a decade later:
`A world full of rucksack wanderers, dharma bums refusing to subscribe
to the general demand that the consume production and therefore have to
work for the priviledge of consuming all that crap they didn`t want anyway...
I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution: thousands or even millions
of young Americans wandering around - writing poems - giving visions of
eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures...`
Prophetic words indeed, written in 1956.6
At the suggestion of Snyder, Kerouac took an eight-week position as fire-watcher, working in Washington in the midst of Mount Baker National Forest. Kerouac`s wood cabin post was on the top of Desolation Peak, twelve miles from the Canadian border. But the loneliness was almost unbearable. He had gone hoping the ascetic life would purify his mind and his writing, but he found ` -- no liquor, no drugs, no chance of faking it, but face to face with ole Hateful Duluoz me.` He hit an all time low:
`All I had to do was stay home, give it all up, get a little home for me and ma, meditate, live quiet, read in the sun, drink wine in the moon in old clothes, pet my kitties, sleep good dreams -- `
He kept a journal of his thoughts, dreams and experiences which resulted in the book, `Desolation Angels.` His main writing activity of the sixty-three days on Desolation was a long letter to his mother:
Don`t despair, Ma, I`ll take care of you whenever you need me -- just yell... I`m right there, swimming the river of hardships, but I know how to swim -- don`t ever think for one minute that you are left alone.
After watching Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show and being impressed, and meeting Salvador Dali, Kerouac had some good news. Late in 1956 New York publishers suddenly became aware of the San Francisco writing scene and mistakenly included the New Yorker, Ginsberg, and the Lowell wanderer, Kerouac, in the group. Don Allen of the Grove Press published `Howl` and `October in the Railroad Earth` in his Evergreen magazine. Jack continued revising the manuscript of `On the road` at the request of the publisher.
Fame was approaching.
A characteristically short, but passionate romance followed for Jack. Helen Weaver considered him `one of the gentlest men` she had ever met. But she was dismayed by his self-destructive drunkeness. Jack talked about marriage, but Helen recognised the obstacles in the way: his devotion to his mother, his felling of impending death, and his aversion to bringing children into the world: ` -- my feeling that lust was the direct cause of birth which was the direct cause of suffering and death -- ` loving him, she threw him out.
Kerouac fled to Tangier where he lived in a room above William Burroughs who was writing `Naked Lunch.` But Jack stayed for just seven weeks. Returning to America -- via Paris, where he was refused floor space to sleep by James Baldwin, and London, where he cruised Soho admiring the Teddy Boys -- he collected mémêre and caught a bus for Berkeley. Whilst his friends advised him to leave his mother, puzzled by their relationship, Kerouac told them he and his mother were `perfect friends` -- he also believed she was God. Jack craved his mother`s love and approval. But she continually scolded her wayward son for his life-style. Her cruellest weapon in this maternal struggle was the phrase: `It should have been you that died -- not Gerard.`
When `On the road` was finally published in September 1957 it caught the critics off guard. Not one had the courage to say they simply didn`t understand this new language, this new style. Once the reader climbs aboard the jazz-high roller-coaster that is `On the road` he is off on a ride into the American psyche, a spin along the blacktop with the twins of beat, Sal and Dean. The lookalike Wolfean prose is blown away to reveal the muscular poetry of fact -- you can almost hear the roar of the engine as they throttle out across the new continent: New York to Joliet, Illinois to Iowa, Des Moines to Denver.
It would not be long before Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs would be held up as being responsible for youth`s fascination with low-life: hitch-hiking, drugs, homosexuality and juke-box music. But at the start Jack was unaware of the approaching storm and reveled, albeit with considerable reluctance, in the attention paid to a new author. But the brave face he wore was a bloated, drunken mask and many journalists found him belligerent and incoherent. He was forced to cancel several scheduled TV interviews when his nerves gave out. When his first wife, Edie, visited him in New York, their date ended with Jack so drunk he collapsed crying in the gutter.
But beating his devil yet again, Jack threw himself into another episode in the Duluoz legend and wrote `The Dharma Bums` in less than a month. The book portrays Gary Snyder as the new American hero, optimistic, Zen-like, sensitive. `The Dharma Bums` was a blueprint for the coming revolution and became essential reading for all who wore flowers in their hair in the following decade. Jack Kerouac was dubbed `King of the Beats,` spokesman for the bearded Bohemians of North Beach and Greenwich Village. The beatniks begat the hippies. Jack Kerouac was reluctant father to them all.
Kerouac lived for a period in a cabin close to the Pacific ocean at Bixby Canyon, south of Monterey -- recorded in `Big Sur.` In this revealing book he tells of the problems he experienced having found fame and notoriety with `On the road.`
I`ve been driven mad for three years by endless phonecalls, visitors, reporters, snoopers -- teenagers jumping the six foot fence I`d built around my yard for privacy -- me drunk practically all the time to put on a jovial cap-- some silly beatniks trying to see me broke the windowpane in my front door -- I`m sick and tired of all the endless enthusiasms of new young kids trying to know me and pour out their lives into me so that I`ll jump up and down and say yes yes that`s right, which I can`t do anymore -- `
Hitching to the cabin proved difficult: ` -- Things have changed in America, you can`t get a ride anymore -- here I am standing in that road with that big woeful rucksack -- they see in me the very apotheosical opposite of their every vacation dream and of course drive on -- `
Once at the coast, Kerouac sets about a literary interpretation of the ocean`s voice, sitting on the beach all night with pen and paper. But the crashing darkness terrifies him -- too many ghosts. Of his face in the mirror he remarks:
The face of yourself in the mirror with its expression of unbearable anguish so hagged and aweful with sorrow you can`t even cry for a thing so ugly, so lost, no connection with early perfection and therefore nothing to connect with tears or anything -- `
Again, loneliness drives Jack back to civilisation.
Kerouac continued living with mémêre in the house he had bought in Northport, Long Island. For a while a new lover, twenty-four year old Lois Sorrells, shared the house with Jack and his mother. Money was flowing in from the publication of his books: $7,500 for Tristessa -- $10,000 for Big Sur -- and for film rights: $15,000 for The Subterraneans and $2,500 for On the Road, an advance against an agreed amount of $25,000 which he never received. He was also writing pieces for magazines, which he later regretted. At a Lee Strasberg acting class Jack met Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe, embarrassing the actress with his declaration: "I like your legs!"
After he suffered a relapse of phlebitis, Jack and mémêre moved to Orlando. But Jack was totally lost. Cassady no longer answered his letters. Jack considered the greatest friendship of his life `washed up.` Cassady had spent two years in San Quentin on a drugs charge. Some suggested the charge was cooked up to discredit the hero of `On the road.`
William Burroughs had become distant from Jack, who failed to understand the author`s new writing technique of cutting up pages of writing and pasting them together to find hidden meanings. Timothy Leary supplied Jack with a dozen Psilocybin Mexicana mushrooms which he ate all in one afternoon, desperate to see into his future. But what Jack saw after an initial euphoria was emptiness.
Sensing death Jack returned to Lowell for a ten-day nostalgia binge. When he moved back to Northport on Christmas Eve 1962, Jack set about work on a new book, `Vanity of Duluoz,` which would add the years 1935 - 1946 to the legend. But the work gave little reward and no new direction to his aimless, drunken, wheeling life:
Does it matter to five thousand sneering college writing instructors that I wrote seventeen novels after a youth of solitary practise amounting to over two million words -- ? I saw that little winding dirt road going west to my lost dream of being a real American Man...
Neal Cassady had taken up with Ken Kesey, author of `One flew over the cuckoo nest,` and had driven across country with a group of dropouts known as the Merry Pranksters. Kerouac was dismayed at the sight of the balding Cassady high on acid.
In June 1965 Kerouac spent ten days in France attempting to trace the roots of the de Kerouack family. `Satori in Paris` was the book Kerouac wrote about his trip when he returned to Florida where mémêre had settled once more. `I was the loneliest man in Paris if that`s possible.`
Now all his horizons were inner vistas of self-doubt and despair:
As I grew older I became a drunk. Why? Because I like ecstasy of the mind. -- This cowardly Breton -- this runaway slave of football fields -- this strikout artist and base thief -- this whimperer at police stations and over long-distance telephones, this prude -- this pinner of flowers and mocker at thorns -- this tester of men`s patience and ladies` panties -- this, in short, scared and humbled dumbhead loudmouth -- descendant of man.
After the death of his sister Nin, Jack bought his mother a house in Hyannis. There was no reason to move, but that never stopped them before. When his biographer, Ann Charters, visited the house in August 1966 she was confronted by a `sad figure` whose face was `puffy and petulant.` Jack was forty-four years old. Mémêre cooked a meal that Jack picked at, preferring to drink. He proudly showed Charters a photograph of his mother as a young girl. "That`s the picture of the girl I want to marry someday," he commented seriously.
True to character he wouldn`t let Charters leave until he had attempted, and failed, to talk her into spending the night with him. Ann Charters` photograph taken that day shows a forlorn man sitting dejectedly beside his mother in a room filled with shadows.
Later that year mémêre suffered a stroke and, needing a live-in nurse, Jack married Stella Sampas, sister of his old Lowell buddy, Charlie. The Sampas family, along with his own, had been the model for the Martins in his first book, `The Town and the City.`
In February 1968 Carolyn Cassady phoned Jack at his new house in Lowell. Neal was dead.
Incredibly, Jack moved again, back to St.Petersburg. In September 1969 he was badly beaten in a bar brawl. The following month a favourite tree of Jack`s was cut down and he flew into an uncontrollable rage. On Monday 20th October Jack was busy planning a new novel, when he collapsed, vomiting blood.
The following day he died. In his will Jack Kerouac left his entire estate to his mother.
JACK WAS DEAD.
All his life Jack Kerouac was lost. Ironically, the man who was always travelling was going nowhere. The sadness was that he knew it.
Jack lived to write and he wrote to live. He became a legend because that`s how he wrote it. He created a character on which millions modelled their own lives. But Jack was uncomfortable with that character. In many ways Jack Duluoz was a disguise that Kerouac designed and wore to shield him from the world. He was vulnerable to anyone penetrating that disguise. The disguise, of course, was transparent.
Interviewed thirty years later, Neal Cassady`s wife, Carolyn, commented that all Jack wanted was ` -- home and kids and the picket fence and the station wagon. He wanted that desperately and he began to realise as time went on that he could never handle the responsibility of that. His whole life was about escape.` She also knew Jack to be `terribly shy, guilty and difficult.`
Jack Kerouac was difficult. Difficult to know. Difficult to love. Difficult to understand. Difficult to tolerate. But this is because he lived his whole life in self-revealing nakedness, a condition not one of his friends or lovers understood.
He roamed the world, but was never a free man. Wherever he went he took his own cell, the bars of which were made of guilt, self-doubt, melancholy and disappointment. The lock was rusted from too much alcohol -- and Jack had lost or thrown away the key somewhere on his journey.
We will never know what it was that Jack was looking for.
From the age of four Jack was haunted by the perfection of his brother, Gerard. His father joined the world of ghosts to constantly remind his son of his short-comings. Mémêre was truly a living ghost, sitting astride Jack`s shoulders all his life, dogging his every world- weary step. She portrayed herself as a martyr, having slaved at menial jobs all her life to provide for her wild and wayward son.
Jack drank to drown ghosts. Jack drank to drown himself.
The Duluoz Legend is a masterpiece. Kerouac stands shoulder to shoulder with the other geniuses of modern American literature: Thomas Wolfe, the fated giant who simply loved words; William Faulkner, brilliant, but opaque Nobel Prize-winner; F.Scott Fitzgerald, Jazz-Age hero who married a dream and found only a nightmare; Ernest Hemingway, macho master of a unique, terse, journalistic prose.
In the redbrick neon American night the spirit in the rear-view mirror is Jack Kerouac.
They sit cross-legged on the weeping grass, facing the quiet stone that bears the heart-breaking legend: `Ti Jean.` Ginsberg squeezes his battered harmonium and as the instrument wheezes he looks at Dylan and sings:
`Ommmmm -- `
COPYRIGHT: PETER DALTREY 2012