Kerouac: Beatnik rebel with a conservative, grumpy streak


Kerouac: Beatnik rebel with a conservative, grumpy streak

MERCIA S. BURGER visits the writer's hometown and discovers the trick to reading his jazzy jam session prose without beginning or end.


LOWELL is about 50km north of Boston. It is a boring industrial town on the Merrimack River. Looking back from the Moody Street Bridge, you  see “the red brick smokestacks of the Lowell mills along the river on sad red Sunday afternoons.” There was a time when these textile factories hummed all night, but in 1922, when Jean Louis Kirouac was born, the “despair, raw gricky hopelessness, the cold and chapped sorrow of Lowell” had already gained the upper hand.

“This gahdam shittown on the Merrimack,” Jack's dad would grumble.

The Kerouacs are French-Canadian immigrants, an outsider group looked down upon as low-class, stupid Canucks. Their home language is a Quebec French dialect with the nice name of Joual. To Jack, the language sounded “heavily, ponderously accented, almost idiotic". In a constant balancing act, he had to make English words and French thoughts fit together, this “Canuck dualism crap" leaving him with conflicting feelings of pride and shame. A later review in Newsweek called him a “tin-eared Canuck".

Artist shmartist

The Town and the City is the first of Jack's five Lowell books. Peter Martin (Jack's character) secures a football scholarship — his chance to get away from “sweet Lowell by the river" and study in New York, “the miraculous place of places". For a moment, the American dream is in his hands, it is almost a touchdown, but he abandons his studies and chooses to walk in and write about “the Thomas Wolfe night, the American darkness", or become an “artist shmartist", according to his father.

In New York, he meets the people who will later be at the heart of the Beat generation – Allen Ginsberg, who instantly falls in love with him, the venomous William Burroughs and later, of course, Neal Cassady, who is continually compelled to move from somewhere to nowhere, leaving chaos in his wake.

Now he's Jack the “hepcat howler" who's already writing bebop; long sentences with little punctuation in a spontaneous stream of words like a jazzy jam session with no beginning or end. In between, he and Neal travel across America in “an insane revolving automatic directionless circle of anxiety".

Chats with angels

With a sharp memory and enough coffee and Benzedrine to illuminate a city, Jack now completes one manuscript after another, including three further Lowell books. “I have renounced fiction ... There is nothing to do but write truth." So every book reveals some secrets about the writer.

In Visions of Gerard, he is Ti Jean, Little Jacky. When he was four, his older brother died. Ti Jean remembers a silver cross and his mother muttering a prayer. With childlike nostalgia, he idealises his brother, now holy and untouchably pure. St Gerard engaging in chats with angels becomes the ideal that Ti Jean or Jack could never live up to. This would forever be his sin.

Doctor Sax is set after Gerard's death and reads like a runaway drug dream (which is sure to happen when you're friends with William Burroughs). It's the time of the great flood that finally breaks Lowell, of homoerotic schoolboy loves that predate his later intense friendships with men, and an imagined superhero, Doctor Sax.

Then Maggie Cassidy follows. Jack is Lowell High School's football star, a jock who sometimes hides in the city library to read Emily Dickinson and falls in love easily. His later derogatory attitude towards women is already evident here: “Don't let no broad get you, screw her then leave her, kick 'em in the pants..." Etc.

Pulling a long hot burden nowhere

In 1957, On the Road appeared, and Jack became the reluctant spokesman for the Beat generation. But in the seven years leading up to the publication and success of On the Road, he had already written most of his literary works, including his earlier, unpublished Lowell manuscripts, as well as Tristessa, Visions of Cody, The Subterraneans and most of the material that would become Desolation Angels and The Dharma Bums. At 34, he had said just about everything he wanted to say.

Bohemian life becomes an endless cycle of bennies, dope, booze and sex (with women and men), but the “eyeball kicks" are over. He's now a travelling adventurer who stays with his mother, a drunken Catholic bodhisattva who doesn't always know whether to confess or meditate, a Beatnik rebel with a conservative grumpy streak, a bisexual macho man who is unable to make his two short-lived marriages or any other intimate relationship work.

By the time the sixties arrive, Ginsberg is a political activist. Burroughs publishes unreadable “cut ups" and Cassady is the driver of Ken Kesey's hippie bus. But Jack is done. Jack writes letters to the Lord and psalms to St Paul. In Big Sur, his decline is mercilessly tragic, “pulling a long hot burden nowhere".

Boastful, drunken oracle

In 1967, Jack married Stella, a childhood friend, and they moved back to Lowell with his mother. Here he lived the life of an old man, a boastful, drunken oracle hanging over the bar counter in search of an audience and applause, only to start crying about what a colossal failure he is. The guy who talks ever louder, tells crappy jokes, later starts picking fights — the guy you never accidentally want to sit next to in a bar. The walls of the Worthen House bar are adorned with black-and-white photos from the time when he frequented the joint.

At home, he sat in front of the television wearing a baseball cap, playing with a rosary and finishing a bottle of whiskey. Sometimes he made incoherent late-night phone calls to friends. It was hard to like him. His behaviour towards Stella was cruel and uncouth. Today, he'd be cancelled as fast as a Benzedrine buzz. In the living room among glass figurines of cats, Jesus hung on his cross.

In October 1969, Jack Kerouac died of internal bleeding. At that time, the family was living in Florida. His body was brought back to Lowell, rendering a quote from On the Road sad and slightly sinister: “Everybody goes home in October."

Oh, October

Vanity of Duluoz, his fifth and final Lowell book, was completed shortly before his death. It's a heavy-handed repetition of his previous work, only more embittered and written with “an awful realisation that I have been fooling myself all my life thinking that there was a next thing to do".

But I enjoy reading to Vanity of Duluoz, because I've learned a Kerouac trick in the meantime. I read as fast as I can, throughout his word-crazed paragraphs, often his nonsense, his windswept prose, when my eye spontaneously fixes on the exact spot where he's brilliant.

At his tombstone, admirers leave poems, booze and cigarettes in case he ever gets lonely at night. Between canals and factories downtown is the Jack Kerouac Memorial Park, where a few hobos lie around. His childhood home is private property. A dog barks incessantly as I take a picture of the front porch. In the Center for Lowell History, a portion of his archives is kept, and it's available only by appointment — an appointment I don't have. But every October, Lowell holds a memorial celebration for Jack. That's what everyone tells me – October, come back in October, then everyone is here.

“My darling October, much too brief.”

♦ VWB ♦

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