Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac

Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee was published in 1978. I have had this book for close to thirty years yet never bothered to read it until now. During my later university years I read the beat classics and still own quite a few beat novels that remain unread. This is one of four Kerouac biographies I have which, with the exception of this one now, also remain unread. Jack’s Book is a compilation of reminiscences–often lengthy ones–by his friends, girlfriends, fellow writers and wives. Gifford and Lee knit them all together seamlessly with their biographical fill-ins. It never felt like an abrupt stop-and-start whenever I left the authors’ text to read the interview subjects’ responses. 

I learned how fame and the reputation the press bestowed upon him ruined Kerouac. Succinctly put, he couldn’t deal with the attention after On the Road was published in 1957, and drowned himself in drink. Kerouac felt pressured to be something he was not, and publishers were only interested in an On the Road sequel and not so much in the work he had written in the years he waited before the beat classic could be published. Teens would hang outside his homes looking to be enlightened by the King of the Beats (an appellation he abhorred). The biography recounted numerous episodes where young people showed up and took Kerouac to bars. With his life focussed on getting drunk there must have been no attraction in having these young people around except for their capacity to drive him to the nearest bar to get hammered. 

Interviews with intimates, especially the women in his life like both of Neal Cassady’s wives, Luanne and Carolyn, sorted out the facts from the fiction in Kerouac’s novels. They proved what the authors stated at the very beginning, that Kerouac often used his friends and family in his novels as character types, but enhanced real-life events or altered reality around them within his work. His immediate pen-to-paper writing style rang true but it was not always autobiographical. The authors let their interview subjects speak freely and the responses would go on for multiple pages, which showed the degree of comfortability they had speaking with Gifford and Lee. I could even picture subtle eyebrow raises and poignant moments when Carolyn Cassady took a drag on her cigarette as she spoke. The transcriptions were astonishingly realistic. 

One remark often made was about Kerouac’s prolific memory. He wrote about the people and events in his life and it was a game among his friends to pick up his latest novel and to find themselves in it. The authors wrote:

“Superbly organized from the beginning of his career, he was a most formal curator of his own memories. He intended to make use of them.”

And indeed he did. Publishers were afraid of lawsuits but none of Kerouac’s friends cared that they had been written about, even though he did use pseudonyms. 

Over forty years since the publication of this biography, I could see that only two of the interview subjects remain with us: Luanne Henderson (Cassady) and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. 

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