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Book Review: Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee

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Just in time for the scheduled May premiere of the first adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road at the Cannes Film Festival, Penguin books is reissuing Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee with a shor new introductory essay by Gifford. The 1978 biography combines commentary from the author’s friends and lovers, the famous and the notorious, most of whom had found their way thinly disguised into Kerouac’s published work under pseudonyms with connective tissue provided by Gifford and Lee. If Kerouac’s books taken altogether form one long narrative (“one vast book”) of his life as he saw it (an idea he often seems to have expressed in conversation), Jack’s Book creates a portrait of that life as those around him saw it.

Gifford points out that when Allen Ginsberg read the galleys of the book his first thought was: “My god it’s just like Rashomon — everybody lies and the truth comes out.” The idea that people view the world subjectively and truth is relative is not particularly new, nor is the idea that something closer to the objective truth can emerge from the collection of these subjective truths. These people all knew Kerouac, but in a very real sense they knew the Kerouac they wanted him to be. Just as he created a mythic figure out of a womanizing, petty car thief, they created a larger than life genius tormented by demons, a dark soul too beautiful for the world. This would seem to be the collective truth that emerges from those who knew him; readers will have to come to their own conclusions.

Gifford also points out that this Jack’s Book intended as a definitive biography. Much of his life — the early days in Lowell and the last years — is covered very sketchily. There is some conversation with his boyhood friends, but nothing in the kind of detail devoted to his arrival in New York to attend Columbia University and his friendship with Neal Cassady. In fact, there are long passages where Cassady is really the center of attention and Kerouac almost forgotten. To the extent that Kerouac turned Cassady into one of the iconic figures of 20th century literature the attention is certainly merited, but it does reinforce the notion that Jack’s Book is something other than the last word on the life of Jack Kerouac.

What the book does best is provide insights into what a wide variety of people saw in him. John Clellon Holmes, author of Go, calls Kerouac somewhat paradoxically “a terribly simple and conventional genius.” Musician David Amram remembers Kerouac telling him “a writer should be like a shadow, just be part of the sidewalk like a shadow. “Gore Vidal, obviously less taken with Kerouac, talks about his bisexuality and claims he “was not above using it, and his physical charms to get his way.” Ginsberg saw him as more Puritanical about his sexuality. William Burroughs and Gregory Corso describe the way he wrote, intense periods of composition with the words seemingly pouring out of him in a Thomas Wolfe kind of rhapsody.

Some people object to the way they were portrayed in his writing, taking the opportunity to tell their side of the story. It is understandable considering that it has been very easy for readers to identify most of the real life models for Kerouac’s characters and they are not always pleasing portraits. His publishers were often concerned about the possibility of legal action as a result of some of the unflattering material. Interestingly, Gifford and Lee provide an appendix identifying the fictional counterparts of many of those who appear in the book for.

Jack’s Book is an impressive picture of Kerouac and his relations with those around him. He was many things to many people, but there were few who failed to be captivated by his dynamism and passion. While it is probably true that the more familiar a reader is with Kerouac’s work, the more meaningful this book will be, there will as likely be a good many that will be led to read those books they have yet to read as a result of meeting the man who wrote them. The Kerouac of Jack’s Book is much the dark romantic genius (simple and conventional as that might seem to some) burning as many ends of life’s candle as he could manage.

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