Back Shelf Review: Jan Kerouac

August 18, 2009

jan_kerouac_nycAs much as Jack Kerouac disliked being called the “Father of the Beat Generation” (he once famously said “I’m not a beatnik, I’m a Catholic”) he had even more distaste for simply being called a father. His wife Joan Haverty left him while she was pregnant – and he was deep into typing the scroll that would become “On the Road” – and when asked he would regularly claim the child was the result of extramarital affairs. He met this child only twice, once to take a court-ordered blood test to prove she was really his, and once again when she was heading for Mexico and he was drunk in a rocking chair.

jack_kerouacBut for all his denials, it was impossible to deny the truth that Jan Michelle Kerouac deserved the name for more than who her mother married. For one thing, her appearance – intense blue eyes, tan skin and firm jaw – came so close to her father’s that family members and old friends saw it right away, and even Jack had to hesitate when shown a photo. For another, like her father, Jan was a person of impulse and wanderlust, not content to stay in one place and driven to chase after interesting people.

And for a hat trick of similarities, Jan was driven to write about these experiences, turning out two novels that followed the same themes of exploration and expansion. 1981’s “Baby Driver” and 1988’s “Trainsong” are both genetic and spiritual successors to the themes of the Beat Generation, but somehow possessed of a more personal and emotional touch. This mood comes from two forces working within Jan Kerouac: a talent she may have gotten from her father, and a sense of alienation and rejection she certainly did.

Baby_Driver_cover“Baby Driver” follows the first decades of Jan’s complicated life, written in an alternating chapter format that switches between domestic family life in New York City and a series of wanderings around the Southwest and South America. It’s a novel that focuses on what it was like growing up a rebellious and troubled child, with an early exposure to drugs and sex that eventually led to a stint in a psychiatric ward as an adolescent.

Jan Kerouac’s style is as full of life as her father’s, but it’s a different kind of life than the amped-up adrenaline flow of works like “On the Road.” Rather, her experiences lean towards a more poetic consideration, carefully considering the relationships between people and things and finding just the right words. Her writing is very vivid and original: at one point she is in a Santa Fe bar consuming “crystal-licorice ice clouds” of ouzo in a bar while the bartender is occupied “playing expert Ping-Pong with the alcohol-soaked souls,” walking out to be bowled over by a sunset of “scarlet-fuchsia gashes.”

The quality of the writing can measure up against any of the Beat writers or their successors, but what makes it so startling in many places is the detached nature she takes with herself. Even during the darker times in her life, of which there are many – working as a prostitute in New Mexico, birthing a stillborn child in Mexico at fifteen, attached to a deranged lover in Central America – there’s never a strong feeling of grief or remorse, but rather the feeling of going with the flow. It might seem a bit insensitive on first read, but the perspectives are so well-realized the tragedy isn’t as pronounced.

Of course, her deeper introspection also can be attributed to the world she is interacting with. While Jack Kerouac had to deal mostly with benzedrine and beer, his daughter grew up in the early days of the hippie movement, which meant a whole new cocktail of drugs she had no qualms against trying. She relives the rushes of peyote and LSD and heroin without regrets, caught up in the communal spirit of the Sixties and the pursuit of some deeper meaning.

For the most part, Jan keeps away from capitalizing on her famous name, referring to her father offhand as “the famous wino” in the first chapter, but she does talk in detail about the two occasions that they met. Viewed through her young eyes, the first meeting in particular comes across as deeply touching as the two speak shyly to each other and she holds his hand in front of other children to prove she has a father. There’s something very touching in these scenes, more so than any of Jack Kerouac’s bonding moments with Neal Cassady or Gary Snyder – a young girl longing for something she can’t have and won’t be able to understand why not until at least a decade later.

Trainsong_coverWhile “Baby Driver” shows how Jan grows up and begins to find herself, her second book shows that not only does the journey continue but it’s begun to take its toll. Published seven years after her first effort, “Trainsong” is written in much the same style, focusing on another series of continent-spanning travels, wild descriptive visits and poorly advised relationships. This time the travel takes her up and down the West Coast, through the foreign cities of Tangier, London, Paris and Berlin, and through writing conferences and book tours that cross paths with Ken Kesey and Richard Brautigan.

“Trainsong” continues the high quality of writing that “Baby Driver” created, but the tone has changed in some ways with quite a few subtle hints that Jan is beginning to wear out. At more than one occasion in the book she seems to spiral off into a stream of consciousness, which may be partly influenced by spending time in Boulder, Colorado and the School of Disembodied Poetics, but in context could be attributed to too many pubescent acid trips. These bits range in tone, from rapid details on the railroads of Dogtown, California to a burst of anger as she swipes all possessions off the dresser “scanning… for something else to demolish.”

Emotions do seem to be running higher in Jan’s second book, and a good part of that could be due to the fact that she’s becoming more and more conscious of her father’s ghost haunting her. Regularly throughout the course of the book she invokes his memory: erupting in screams at a photo in Allen Ginsberg’s house, feeling oddly fulfilled when she acts as an extra in a movie about her father and teaches John Heard to curl his lip, lighting a candle in his memory in a Paris cathedral and blinking back tears. As a result, there is something much sadder about “Trainsong” in comparison, right on to her last rambles on time and smoke and the lines “Daddy don’t live nowhere, no more.”

In one last sad comparison to her father, Jan’s lifestyle eventually caught up with her. While working on her third novel “Parrot Fever” in Puerto Rico her kidneys gave out and she wound up spending the rest of her life on dialysis, eventually dying in 1996. Her final years were mostly spent feuding with her stepmother Stella Sampas Kerouac over her father’s estate, a debate that has continued even in recent months. During this time she would speak of creating a writers’ sanctuary in her father’s memory, and occasionally muse what fun it would have been to drink and go on the road with him.

And as the books attest, it would have been one hell of a trip, because Jan was clearly one of those “mad ones” that her father extolled in his works  who shared the same view of everything and nothing at once, as she attests in “Baby Driver”: “But now I could really sense a page turning – even remember looking out in my mind’s eye toward Santa Fe and the rest of the general direction south, and seeing things laid out in the future – nothing in particular, but an immensely inviting vacuum waiting to be filled.” Jan Kerouac dove head-first into that inviting vacuum, and while she never completely came back the brace of books she delivered can hold their own against any Beat-inspired work.


Coming Soon: The Beat (Second) Generation

August 12, 2009

beats“I think the Beats were extremely dysfunctional people who basically had no business raising children.” – Christina Mitchell, daughter of John Mitchell, entrepreneur who ran several Greenwich Village coffeehouses in the 1950s

This quote might seem a rather harsh criticism of a group of people widely considered among the most influential writers of the century, but when you look at their personal lives – frequently their subject matter – it makes a sad amount of sense. Men like Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady and Gregory Corso were in no way Ward Cleaver types, but were independents, wanderers and frequent substance abusers, pursuing their own enlightenment and freedom over the stability of a normal life. Certainly they managed to raise a legion of spiritual children by inspiring thousands of youths to follow in their footsteps, but when it came to the very involved process of bringing a child to maturity they preferred to be somewhere else.

But despite the fact that so few of the Beats were equipped to be fathers, several of them managed to pass their genes onto the next generation – and in the cases of Kerouac and Burroughs, also managed to pass on the gift that made them famous. Like their fathers, Jan Kerouac and William S. “Billy” Burroughs Jr. possessed a grasp of language and an interest in using their lives as subject material. However, they also wound up inheriting their addictive personalities and an energy level that would convert into self-destruction.

These next two installments of Back Shelf Review will fall into a subcategory dubbed “The Beat (Second) Generation,” examining the writings of the younger Kerouac and Burroughs. In addition to the obvious evaluation as to the pros and cons of their work, I’ll take a look at just how much of their fathers’ style they seem to have inherited and see where they differ for better or worse.

So, check back on August 18 for “Back Shelf Review: Jan Kerouac” and on August 25 for “Back Shelf Review: William S. (Billy) Burroughs Jr.”