Tuesday, February 02, 2016

*****Once Again The Life Of The Dharma-Jack Kerouac-A Biography By Tom Clark

*****Once Again The Life Of The Dharma-Jack Kerouac-A Biography By Tom Clark

From The Pen Of Bart Webber  

Sam Lowell has of later liked to review books, movies, musical CDs for various citizen journalist blogs and other such cyberspace outlets as relaxation writing from the drear of his professional writing, writing legal briefs, memoranda and motions for himself and other lawyers. Usually he does such avocational writing as a wisp-of-willow affair depending on some prompt that would get him going like happened recently after hearing a song on YouTube by Bob Dylan from his prime days, Like a Rolling Stone. While listening to that song he noticed on the sidebar which gives other performances that one might wish to look at a segment from the D.A. Pennebaker documentary, Don’t Look Back, where Dylan, his then shortly to be abandoned flame and great folksinger in her own right, Joan Baez, and his then road manager and folksinger Bob Neuwirth were sitting in some English hotel singing bits of Hank Williams’ Lost Highway. That got him interested in seeing the whole documentary which had just been rereleased in the Criterion films series and which he ordered on Netflix and later reviewed. Such helter-skelter choices are the norm for his selection process.           

Not so on the subject of the “beats,” those cool cats and kittens (I guess that is the way it would have been put by hipsters in North Beach and the Village when beat was pure before the movement became just another commodity to be sold on television like cars or soap) who came shortly before our coming of age time down in working-class Carver where we grew up and were slightly singed by the beat flame. That “working-class” before Carver was not accidental, not for Sam anyway since his “max daddy,” “be-bop daddy,” or any way you want to say it literary hero from that period was the hipster mad monk novelist Jack Kerouac who had grown up about sixty miles north of Carver in working-class mill town getting ready to move south for cheaper labor Lowell. So in Sam’s eyes that designation was important then although maybe not quite as deeply thought through as recently when he had been on a tear re-reading most of Jack’s work.

Here again chance plays a part in what he would review. After having read a few of the more important novels, the iconic classic (we must use the word “iconic” these days to keep up with the professional users of that word which is now something of a flavor of the month term for any event or person who had had at least fifteen minutes of fame along the way) On The Road, Desolation Angels, and Big Sur he had picked up the Ann Charter-edited Portable Jack Kerouac which led him to her early informative biography. But Sam was looking for something more than a literary appraisal of Kerouac’s work, important as that is, than the Charter biography provided. He was looking for tidbits, pieces of information about Kerouac’s time in Lowell, the effect that growing up working poor had on him growing up in that city by the Merrimac. In short Sam wanted to expand on that idea of why Kerouac had, even if at a remove, on him, us as kids growing up in working poor Carver, then the cranberry capital of the world. So he went through some other later biographies which blossomed especially around the time in 2007 of the 50th anniversary of the publication of On The Road.

One of the books that satisfied his desire for biographical information was Tom Clark’s Jack Kerouac: A Biography (Paragon House, 1990) which he told us about one night, us being Frankie Riley, Jack Callahan, Sam Eaton, Ralph Morris and me, when we gathered together for our periodic night out at the Rusty Nail in downtown Boston and which he wrote a review of later.  Here’s what Sam had to say about Jack Kerouac, warts and all:

“I have been on a Jack Kerouac tear of late (if you do not know who he is at this point either think On The Road, the famous alternate hitchhike road to life from the white picket fence norm book he wrote putting flesh and blood to the “beat” movement of the 1950s, think of the guy who the media proclaimed as the “king of the beats” after writing that novel which he wore kicking and screaming or if those suggestions fail ask your parents, or ouch, grandparents for they will know of him, probably headed out on the road themselves if only for a minute after reading the book). I have been reading not so much his works, although I have been doing some of that too but reading biographies, essays, and other sketches to get a better grasp on my fascination about this working class guy from Lowell not so far from where I grew up, about a guy who grew up from hunger as I did, and a guy who for a minute anyway gave the literary set a run for its money with a new way of writing novels.

He called it, maybe disingenuously “spontaneous writing” since he was an incredible re-writer and reviser of everything he wrote as well as a meticulously organized keeper of his own archives but probably better is a take from a Norman Mailer title-“advertisements for myself” since the vast majority of his work was an on-going saga of his life and times spread out from the 1930s with Maggy Cassidy to just before his death in 1969 Vanities of Duclouz. (Allen Ginsberg, the poet, his early friend and road companion, and no mean hand as a rememberer himself called Jack “the great rememberer” of their generation and that is probably right.)

That said, I have gained a lot of information not previously known by looking into the life of the man who probably with the exceptions of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ernest Hemingway (yeah, Hemingway is always in the mix somewhere when you talk guys, guy writers in the 20th century, guys who influenced “modern” writing) has influenced me more than all others in a lifetime of reading. This is a little bit ironic since I was a shade bit too young to appreciate as a child of the generation of ’68 (you know those of us who raised hell with the government, with society, hell, with Jack who disowned us when the deal went down although we, I, did not disown him, or his influence in the 1960s).       

Now there are several ways to approach doing a biography about a writer. The two ways that come to mind most readily in the case of Jack Kerouac are, one, to do a close analysis of his writings like his first real biographer, Ann Charters did (the one whom almost all those have written something about Jack afterward own a debt to, acknowledged or not), who had the advantage of actually working with the man on his bibliography before he passed (and the disadvantage of knowing him too well so that on the personal stuff she did a great deal of sliding over as later biographers have felt no need to do). The other is to do like the writer/poet Tom Clark did in the book under review, Jack Kerouac: A Biography, and give us the more nitty-gritty details of Jack’s life, his terrible struggles to get published and his awful time with success when he became the “once and future king of the “beats”         

In a recent review of the Ann Charters biography which I think bears repeating here I noted the following:

“It is probably hard for today’s youthful generation (the so-called millennials) to grasp how important the jail break-out of the 1960s, of breaking free from old time Cold War red scare golden age dream, of creating our own sense of space was to my generation, my generation of ’68 (so-called). That “generation of ’68” designation picked up from the hard fact that that seminal year of 1968, a year when the Tet offensive by the Viet Cong and their allies put in shambles the lie that we (meaning the United States government) was winning that vicious bloodstained honor-less war, to the results in New Hampshire which caused Lyndon Baines Johnson, the sitting President to run for cover down in Texas somewhere after being beaten like a gong by a quirky Irish poet from the Midwest and a band of wayward troubadours from all over, mainly the seething college campuses, to the death of the post-racial society dream as advertised by the slain Doctor Martin Luther King, to the barricade days in Paris where for once and all the limits of what wayward students could do without substantial allies in bringing down a reactionary government, to the death of the search for a “newer world” as advertised by the slain Robert F. Kennedy, to the war-circus of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago which put paid to any notion that any newer world would come without the spilling of rivers of blood, to the election of Richard Milhous Nixon which meant that we had seen the high side go under, that the promise of the flamboyant 1960s was veering toward an ebb tide.

But we did not “invent” the era whole, especially in the cultural, personal ethos part, the part about skipping for a while anyway the nine to five work routine, the white house and picket fence family routine, the hold your breath nose to the grindstone routine and discovering the lure of the road and of discovering ourselves, of our capacity to wonder. No question that elements of the generation before us, the sullen West Coast hot-rodders, the perfect wave surfers, the teen-alienated rebel James Dean and wild one Marlon Brando and above all the “beats” helped push the can down the road, especially the “beats” who wrote to the high heavens about what they did, how they did it and what the hell it was they were running from.

Now the truth of the matter is that most generation of ‘68ers like myself only caught the tail-end of the “beat” scene, the end where mainstream culture and commerce made it into just another “bummer” like they have done with any movement that threatened to get out of hand. So most of us who were affected by the be-bop sound and feel of the “beats” got what we knew from reading about them. And above all, above even Allen Ginsberg’s seminal poem, Howl which was a clarion call for rebellion, was Jack Kerouac’s On The Road which thrilled even those who did not go out in the search the great blue-pink American West night.”              

Here the odd thing, as Tom Clark’s biography insightfully brings out better than Ann Charters who as I said perhaps was too close to the scene , Kerouac except for that short burst in the late 1940s was almost the antithesis of what we of the generation of ’68 were striving to accomplish. He spent after some modest success with the semi-autobiographical Town And City writing about six versions of Road, other unpublished material and lots of frustration although not much self-doubt trying to break through the arcane New York publishing scene. He said when fame did come he was no longer physically, mentally or philosophically the same man who sought out the mid-20th century version of the great American West dream of his youth even though his admirers thought he still had those inclinations. As is fairly well known, and if not you can google YouTube for the famous debate Kerouac was part of in 1968 on William Buckley’s PBS show Firing Line where he lays it, by those who lived through the 1960s, Kerouac would eventually disown his “step-children.” Be that as it may his role, earned or not, wanted or not, as media-anointed “king of the beats” is worthy of investigation along with his obvious literary merits as a member in good standing of the American literary pantheon.           

On the face of it a poor working-class kid from the textile mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, from a staunch Roman Catholic French-Canadian heritage of those who came south to “see if the streets of America really were paved with gold” would seem an unlikely person to be involved in a movement that in many ways was the opposite of what his generation, the parents of the generation of ’68 to put the matter in perspective, born in the 1920s, coming of age in the Great Depression and slogging through World War II was searching for in the post-World War II “golden age of America.” Add to those factors his being a “jock,” a corner boy (at least that is the feel from a read his antics with his boys and his forlorn love in Maggie Cassidy), and a guy who liked to goof off and that only adds to the confusion about who and what Jack Kerouac was about.

But here is the secret, the secret thread that runs through the Clark biography (and Charters too as well as Jack’s friend and rival John Holmes in his remembrances of Jack), he was a mad man to write, to write and to write about himself and his times. And had enough of an ego to think that his writing would carry out his task of making a legend of his own life. Yeah, a million word guy (probably much more than that and without a word processor to keep count, to make editing easier, despite his theory of spontaneous writing to the contrary, and to easily store his output).

So the value of this biography is the material presented about his rough-hewn upbringing in down and out Lowell, the dramatic effect that the death of his older brother at a young age had on his psyche, his football prowess and disappointments, his coming of age problems with girls, his going off to New York to prep school and college, his eventual decision to “dig” the scene in the Village, his checkered military record during the war, the shock of the death of his father, his inability to deal with women, and marriage, his extreme sense of male bonding, his early and often drinking problems and other personal anecdotes offered by a host of people who knew, loved and hated him do not play second fiddle to this literary strand here.       

Mister Clark does his best work when he goes by the numbers and discusses Kerouac’s various troubles trying to be a published paid serious writer, and to be taken seriously by the literary establishment. The fate of On The Road which after all is about his and Neal Cassady’s various cross-country trips, drug and alcohol highs, partying, women grabbed in the late 1940s and not published until 1957 is indicative of the gap between what Kerouac thought was his due and what the finicky publishing world thought about him. Of course after he became a best-seller, had his “fifteen minutes of fame plus fifty plus years” getting his work published was the least of his problems.

While he was to write some more things after he became famous there is a real sense that he ran out of steam. And as Clark’s last chapters summarily detailed beginning with the 1960 events which made up the short novel Big Sur about his increasing alcohol and drug problems and breakdowns highlight those problems and how the problem of fame itself got the better of him. Although no way can you consider Jack Kerouac a one-note literary Johnny. However if he had only written On The Road his niche in the pantheon would be assured.          

At the end of my review of the Charters biography I made a suggestion to the millennials who need to read Kerouac -after you read On The Road - read Charter’s something of an early definitive biography (with lots of good notes at the end about her sources for various opinions and questions of fact) to get a feel for what it was like to be there at the creation of the big jail-break “beat” minute which spawned your parents, or ouch, grandparents “hippie” minute. I can now make another addition. Read this one too. While other later biographies have been produced, especially around the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of On The Road in 2007, this is the one to check out next.   

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