Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Monday, September 01, 2014

Review of The Voice Is All, a biography of Jack Kerouac by Joyce Johnson

This review previously appeared in the Spring 2013 Edition of Rain Taxi.

Normally, when you break up with someone, you cut your losses and move on. If that someone is a writer, you might occasionally read a little bit of their work, usually hoping it’s not very good, reaffirming that you broke up with them because they lack depth, maturity, and talent. Only a few, exceptional, dedicated ex-lovers keep up with everything the other person goes on to do. Novelist and Kerouac biographer Joyce Johnson falls into the last category. Her love affair with Jack was over fifty years ago and he died in 1969, but apparently she is still haunted, or at least intrigued, by his ghostly presence in her life and as well as in American culture, as this is her third book about Kerouac.

Johnson has chosen to write about the beginning of Kerouac’s life, from his very early childhood to his writing of On the Road, roughly until the period when she dated Kerouac. What is immediately striking about the book is that while most biographies of artists are rather dull in the beginning—treating the artist’s early life as something you have to get through in order to get to the heart of the artist that can only be understood by dredging up the past—Johnson’s biography is immediately interesting, probably because so much of Kerouac’s work is autobiographical and begins with his own early childhood experiences. In its best moments, this is a true “literary biography.” It addresses many personal details about Kerouac’s life and relationships, ultimately tying almost everything back to Kerouac’s writing, from the death of his brother in his early childhood to the way people in his life became the characters of his novels and short stories, depicted both sympathetically and acrimoniously.

At worst, like all biographies, it is a collection of names and date that sometimes threatens to overwhelm the overall narrative, telling a tale of Jack that bounces from home to home to adventures—at sea, in New York, and ultimately, on the road—as well as relaying information about the people in his early life and the roles they ultimately ended up playing in his books: the boyhood friends, burgeoning writers, criminals and drug addicts, all powerful influences and characters. It is when Johnson gets into the story underneath the details, trying to get into his psyche, that the book really shines. Using his journals, novels, biographies of Kerouac, and her own personal experience, she attempts to explain some of Jack’s mental states and what motivated him in his life and in his writing. For example, talking about his marriage to Edie Parker, Johnson writes:

Here was another sobering ending in Jack’s life—one of the failures and mistakes he hoped his book would redeem . . . He was in a troubled mood one afternoon in late August after he had spent the previous night looking through a family album . . . in the city, he reflected gloomily, the people he knew felt threated by what a family album represented. (222)

In moments like this, it is easy to see the influence of Joyce Johnson the novelist on her nonfiction: I occasionally found myself stopping to ask, “how does she know what Jack was thinking?” For the most part, though, you don’t question that—you just enjoy the ride, the way you would read a novel without questioning the omniscient narrator. For the more skeptical reader, there is an acknowledgement of the role of Johnson’s assistant in helping her to wade through Jack’s extensive journals and papers, and at the end of the book, of course, there are extensive notes. She has, it would seem, a fairly firm footing into Kerouac’s psyche, both from memory and from research.

Johnson appears to have very genuine affection for Kerouac. She addresses Kerouac’s failings head-on, but does so in a generous and loving manner. Writing about Kerouac’s much-discussed relationship with his mother, Johnson says “his inability to make a commitment to any woman other than his mother took me a while to understand . . .” In this same section, she talks about one factor in the break-up of their relationship being Kerouac’s womanizing, which “went on very openly after he became famous, though he did try not to hurt me (186).” You can see the genuine affection that the two of them maintained for each other throughout their lives, “judging from what he wrote about our time together in Desolation Angels.”

Kerouac is famed for writing the quintessential road novel; On the Road played a large part in establishing the automobile and the road as part of the mythology of America. Yet Johnson talks about his affinity to his French roots throughout his life. He struggled with mastery of writing in English, as opposed to the joual, a primarily spoken form of French, that he grew up with in his early days and that he frequently returned to. Describing it as lacking “layers of subtlety and politeness,” this may in fact, explain some of Jack’s straightforward style of writing, as opposed to the more baroque style of the French writers that he had initially revered. Chapters like “Franco-American Ghosts,” “A Half-American Boyhood” and “White Ambitions” in particular discuss this continuing issue as something Jack struggled with throughout his life, rather than something that was “settled” for him early on.

Working between two languages can result in a split psyche for a writer, and ultimately, you get a sense of Jack’s ambivalence towards most things in his life: his family and personal relationships, as well as his need to be involved with groups, from his boyhood to the Beat Generation writers. Johnson also talks about the way that Jack wrestled with libertinism versus Catholic morality. This is something that Kerouac would struggle with his whole life, particularly towards the end when he had become fairly conservative and seemed to have turned his back on Allen Ginsberg, for example, in his infamous drunken rant on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line. Reading Johnson’s biography, it is easier to see that this was actually a reflection of a lifetime of contradiction between two sides of himself, but also the reflection of a lifetime of feeling pulled in multiple directions.

Avoiding, for the most part, the incessant mythologizing about Kerouac that still pervades Beat studies today, The Voice Is All adds a great deal to our understanding of Kerouac, showing how the writer can be understood by knowing the man.

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