Jack Kerouac: A Biography

2022 is the year of Jack Kerouac’s centenary and we will mark that day on March 12, which also happens to be my birthday. In my fifth year of university after I had obtained my degrees I went back for only four translation courses. My workload was low, so in between my morning and evening classes I had hours of free time. I hung around downtown Toronto and spent that time with two particular friends. These were two men who were older than me. In hindsight they were my mentors whom I idolized–one an owner of a second-hand record store, the other one owned a vintage clothing shop–and they taught me about style, art and literature. Their personal libraries included works by Kerouac and William S. Burroughs and I discovered the Beats through them, as well as the fashions of the period. Thirty years ago I hung around Queen Street West, where Herman’s shop was, and dressed in black, sunglasses, a goatee and beret. I ran into a high school friend on Queen who couldn’t believe the beatnik change in me. From Bert and Herman I expanded my mind not through drugs but through books, and read many novels by Kerouac and Burroughs, including the beat oeuvres On the Road and Naked Lunch. Now that three decades of my life have passed since I read each author’s signature work, I should take the opportunity to read those two books again. As I mark the centenary of one of my literary heroes, I will embark on reading the books that I have in my collection that are either by Kerouac or about him that are heretofore unread.

Jack Kerouac: A Biography by Tom Clark was written in 1984 yet this is a 1990 edition which I likely bought that year. It was a short work of 222 pages, padded generously with photos and supplemented by extensive endnotes and a bibliography. Unlike Jack’s Book, which was told in interview segments by those who knew Kerouac personally, Clark relied on the author’s own words in interviews or from his own novels, as well as by interviews with other people. For such a brief book Clark certainly covered Kerouac’s early years thoroughly. I don’t recall reading elsewhere about the countless times he and his family moved house. They did so as Leo Kerouac, Jack’s father, travelled in search of work. Perhaps these constant upheavals led to a sense of groundlessness, where young Ti Jean and family never stayed anywhere long enough to grow roots. Right up until he remarried for the third time in 1966, Jack, his wife Stella, and his mother were always on the move. I can imagine that a Kerouac pilgrimage to all the houses he lived in would be an endless journey, on the road indeed.

Clark covered the trouble Kerouac had in first getting published, which continued with all of his subsequent novels. Even On the Road was rejected multiple times. Aside from that, the quintessential beat novel, Kerouac was not a critical success, and publishers didn’t like his follow-up works. This frustrated him, and Clark detailed the long string of agents and publishers who passed on his work. Kerouac was not considered a literary legend when he died.

Kerouac had a voracious appetite for literature and read constantly. As a young adult riding the rails or trying to find work aboard ships, he always had a stack of books with him. I admired his ability to quote the classics and adapt what he read into his own life. On multiple occasions I had to consult a dictionary for definitions of words he had used, such as incunabular and concupiscence.

Kerouac was not comfortable being in the public eye. He drank in advance of audience appearances, whether giving readings live or for television. The sixties were a decade-long drunken stupor, and the book’s accompanying photos are full of later shots of an overweight, unkempt Kerouac. This is the Kerouac I cannot identify with. While we were both diarists insistent on recording the truth, I don’t drown my insecurities in drink or drugs. This is what killed him in 1969. It is tragic to consider that Kerouac’s mother Gabrielle outlived all her three children.

In spite of the small type and the page numbers which I found difficult to decipher (as I could not easily tell what the numbers even were; only the 7’s seemed immediately recognizable) Clark wrote a biography that I raced through. Solid bricks of text in tiny font were broken by photo inserts which were always placed exactly where the author had just written about them. I would recommend this book as a first Kerouac biography. I have two others, each much longer than this one, that I will finally get around to reading after having them for over thirty years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *