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.