Jack’s Book

A couple of months ago I wrote about a trip to Half Price Books to pick up “I Capture the Castle” for a book club read. As usual, I didn’t escape the trip without picking up some other, random purchases. More recently, I made a similar trip to pick up “The Sun Also Rises” for yet another book club read. This time, my “collateral damage” included “Jack’s Book,” an “oral history” of the famous author, Jack Kerouac, by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee. I read this book over just a couple days last weekend. I recommend it highly, but only if you are already somewhat familiar with Kerouac.

I’ve read several biographical accounts of Kerouac (& friends) in the past, but what made this one unique was the lengthy quoting of his friends (Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Carolyn Cassady, Luanne Henderson, John Clellon Holmes, Al & Helen Hinkle, Lucien Carr – the list goes on an on). It was fascinating to read again about some of these stories that I already knew but to this time hear them through some of the other characters and in their own words.

Kerouac’s interlude at Big Sur received more attention in this book than in some of my other reading. It was truly a sad stage of the author’s life to read about. Lenore Kandel (the then girlfriend of poet Lew Welch) had this to say about that: “He (Kerouac) was in a very bad place, and he went there to clear his head. But it’s a really elemental place, Big Sur, and it really burns. I guess it must be a little like an acid trip, a very heavy concentration of reality.”

Another thing I pondered while reading – and this is kind of a favorite speculation of mine – is whether or not this group of friends and aspiring writers (later to become known collectively as “The Beats”) knew they would become as famous as they did, or rather that their work and the “movement” would take hold. Clearly their ambition or goal was clear, but did they really think it would become reality? I remember a discussion at a book club meeting last year where we were talking about the book, Fahrenheit 451, which certainly has become an undisputed classic, and I posed the question “Do you think Bradbury knew he had something special when he was done writing?” I like to think he did, at least to some degree. The same goes for the “Beat Generation” standard bearers. I guess what I really hope is that it’s not just a kind of crapshoot whether books become popular or not.

Another memorable observation in the book – this one by John Clellon Holmes – was this one: “Most books that come out are contained. That is, ‘I want to read that book.’ But what happened when On the Road came out was , ‘I want to know that man.’ it wasn’t the book so much as it was the man.” He noted also that Kerouac became “more and more confused as it went on.”

This book also contained several more “convergences” with my other recent reading. The authors describe a meeting of Kerouac with Kurt Vonnegut in the late sixties in Cape Cod. Apparently, Vonnegut and others were playing poker, and Kerouac joined in but was not on his best behavior (drunk again) and kind of made an ass of himself in that company. Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” is also quoted at one point, and Holmes mentions that he had discussions with Jack regarding how “Dostoevsky wrote in the 1880’s that Russia is talking of nothing but the external questions now,” and that “with appropriate changes, something very like this is beginning to happen in America, in an American way.” The book also re-prints the famous, original New York Times book review by Gilbert Millstein, which helped launch On the Road, and within it is a reference to The Sun Also Rises: “Just as, more an any other novel of the twenties, “The Sun Also Rises came to be regarded as the testament of the “Lost Generation,” so it seems certain that “On the Road” will come be known as that of the “Beat Generation.”. I love it when all my reading starts to link together like this.

How do you feel about Kerouac?

Sent from my iPad

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2 Comments

  1. July 14, 2011 at 8:21 am

    I love love love Jack Kerouac! I think his story is wonderful and tragic at the same time. I dont know what it is exactly that I love so deeply about his writing, but I just get this sense of comfort come over me when I’m reading something of his. I also love Allen Ginsberg. This was a very nice post about Kerouac and the people who may have liked or disliked him or his writing.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      July 14, 2011 at 5:25 pm

      Thanks Jade! Great to hear from you – it’s been a long time. I didn’t ‘discover’ Kerouac until 2006. I wonder if my life would’ve turned out differently if I’d discovered and read him during my misspent youth…

      Like


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