Thursday 13 March 2014


Yesterday was Jack Kerouac's birthday, and mine, which makes his easy to remember. He would have been 92, had he not drunk himself to death at the age of 47. Last week I went on BBC Radio 4's Front Row, to discuss with host John Wilson Kerouac's newly-published novella The Haunted Life, written in 1944 and long thought lost in a taxicab, which was published that day by Penguin. Personally, I would have set the 12th for the publication date, but maybe that's why I'm not in marketing. You can access the discussion via IPlayer here; we begin about 23 minutes into the programme, just after Johnny Cash. The discussion is good, but time was limited, so I thought I'd add a few things here.

First some background to the book. The MS was sold at auction in 2002. Reading between the lines in the introduction by Todd Tietchen, a professor at Umass-Lowell, one can assume that the MS was left behind by Kerouac in Allen Ginsberg's Columbia dorm room, and put up for sale after Ginsberg's death by his partner Peter Orlovsky or his heirs, after the On The Road scroll sold to Jim Irsay for nearly $2.5 million. It's not his first 'lost' MS to be published recently; in 2011 another, slightly earlier novella, The Sea Is My Brother, was issued as an e-book.

1944 was the year he met Ginsberg, the year of the killing of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr (see the film Kill Your Darlings, which I also discussed with John on Front Row), and Kerouac's jailing as an accessory; he married his first wife, in essence, to make bail. The run-up to those events is interesting. Kerouac was already a year older than many freshmen when he entered Columbia; he had done a post-graduate year of high school at Horace Mann to get his grades up. He broke his leg playing freshman football, and when he came back his sophomore year, he couldn't get along with coach Lou Little. In 1942 he left Columbia to join the Merchant Marine; completing only one voyage to Greenland before quitting. A few months later, his ship was sunk by the Germans, with many of his shipmates lost. In 1943 he joined the Navy, but lasted less than two weeks before being discharged on psychiatric grounds. He was described as 'restless, apathetic, seclusive', and the shrinks described his 'auditory hallucinations, ideas of reference and suicide, and a rambling grandiose philosophical manner'.

Which is a pretty good description of The Haunted Life. It's very much a piece of juvenelia, which seems surprising when you consider Kerouac was already 22 when he wrote it, and had at least second-hand experience of war. You can see loss in the shadows behind this book; he is already writing about friends dead in the war. But both of these lost novellas may be seen as rehearsals for Kerouac's first published novel, which became The Town And The City—a working out of the characters and situations, and, as the introduction shows, of Kerouac's plan to use those people to reflect the changing of the times. It was all modeled on The Brothers Karamazov.

He never is able to hang such grand plans on his story. Instead his main character, Peter Martin, is mostly there to show his and Kerouac's influences, very much a Stephen Daedalus figure. He is a would-be writer, with a hugely romantic idea of what being a writer means. Mostly this is expressed through lists and descriptions of those he admires, like William Saroyan or the now-forgotten Albert Halper. Martin, like Kerouac he is also an athlete—not a football player but a runner (although he smokes incessantly, obviously not in training). He is a dreamer, but it is his brother who has already left Galloway (the stand in for Lowell) and gone to see to world; it is a friend who has the dreams of enlisting and/or traveling.

This is something that indicates the conflict between the tough persona of Kerouac the French-Canadian jock from Lowell, trying to please his reactionary and hard father, and Kerouac the sensitive poet with the adoring mother. You can see it in his naval enlistment photo, and it's always been something that's made Kerouac hard for actors to get. You don't need to look like Allen Ginsberg to play him, but with Kerouac you need the physicality along with the brooding. Jack Huston absolutely misses this in Kill Your Darlings (and he can't even throw a football); Sam Riley's far too fragile in On The Road, and John Heard gets the insecurity but not the bruised toughness, and pales before Nick Nolte's Neal Cassady in Heart Beat, which is kind of how they related in life too.

The force behind The Haunted Life, and The Town And The City, is clearly Thomas Wolfe. You can see in moments of Wolfe's breathlessness the beginnings of the stream of consciousness that would become On The Road. For all the importance of the meeting of minds between Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Carr at Columbia, none of them ever really adhered to the principals of 'The New Vision', their early manifesto. Indeed both Ginsberg and Kerouac worked their way through older models (Whitman and Wolfe) quite plainly; their creative group was driven primarily by the mix of personalities, not theoretics.

As you read the Peter Martin of The Haunted Life, you cannot help but recall the Peter Martin of The Town And The City, and remember that that novel ends with Martin putting on a leather jacket and going On The Road. He's like a working-class Holden Caufield, almost as passive to life's struggles, except he can actually take the decision to hit the road. You see a bit of Caulfield in Peter Martin, but Sal Paradise has transcended that. There's an unintentionally hilarious line in the introduction, where Tietchen comments that On The Road was the 'perfect accompaniment' to the Federal Highway Act of 1956, through which Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway system. But of course, beyond the unlikely vision of Ike reading On The Road, nothing could be further from the Kerouac experience than the hitch on the free-flowing emptiness of I-whatever. Years ago I considered just that point while hitching from Montreal to Martha's Vineyard, just as I-93 was crossing into Massachusetts and I was yearning for picturesque diner.

Kerouac's personal problem was that his first, apprentice novel would not be published finally until 1950, and On The Road would take seven more years to see print, by which time Kerouac was 35 years old, no longer a young rebel, and ill-prepared to be shot to mainstream stardom. Where Cassady moved on easily into the hippie and acid era with the Grateful Dead and Tom (not Thomas) Wolfe, Kerouac retreated, as it were, from fame into the personality of his father.

Which is why the last three pages of this novella, beautifully written, are so touching. Peter and his father have hit their point of political agreement, on the value of the working man, la pauvre peuple, the French-Canadian father's good if narrow side. Peter goes to his room, and lights his pipe (a teenaged track star) and looks out his window as 'a tender shroud was being lowered on this life'. I read 'this life' as being the comfort of the world he knows and the uncertainty of the world to which he aspires, which stretches well beyond that comfortable cocoon. 'With the darkness, and with the smell and feel of it, would come the old sounds of the suburban American summer's night...a boy's special nighttime cry and the cool swishing song of the trees: a music sweeter than anything else in the world, a music that can be seen—profusely green, leaf on leaf atremble—and a music that can be smelled, clover fresh, somehow sharp, and supremely rich.'

That is the foretaste of Kerouac at his best. Happy Birthday, Jack.

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