Back Shelf Review: Jan Kerouac

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.

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8 Responses to Back Shelf Review: Jan Kerouac

  1. JC says:

    Great review. I didn’t even know about Jan Kerouac’s work. I’m intrigued and might check out Train Song.
    Thanks!

  2. Very very interesting post..I like this one. gotta bookmark this one.
    Cheers

  3. Paul G says:

    Very wellwritten review; been reading Train Song and clearly the DNA is in evidence beyond the blueeyes and jawline; found this book in a Used/Rare on Palace in Santa Fe: even the smell of the pages is rife with meaning …

  4. I ind it stunning how many ways can humans live their lives, this book seems to certainly show the “hard” one…

  5. Mary R. Tritch says:

    It’s so sad that Jack couldn’t acknowledge he had a daughter.

  6. Michael R. Hester says:

    I am described as”” Bruce from Oklahoma” in Jan’s second book, Trainsong.Jan and I spent a year together in 1976-77.I knew it then as I certainly know it now,Jan was lost.She never had a chance.Joan Haverty, Jan;s mother was a neurotic flake posing as a hipster moll and a dreadful and entirely neglectful mother.Kerouac may have seperated himself from Joan because of her taste for the bizarre and outlandish.After her alienation from Kerouac Joan took up with a black cook who worked aboard merchant ships.This man’s name was Harry Pease ( sp. ? ).At age 8, Harry taught Jan fellatio.Jan related this information to me in a very offhand manner one night as we lay alongside one another in bed smoking.I remember that moment as if it were last night..It filled me with so much sorrow.I had met Joan at her hippy abode in a small town in Central Washington, living with her son David, Jan’s half -brother ,the son of the child molester Harry Pease.

    Jan acted tough and worldly on the outside, but on the inside she was a little girl who wanted her Daddy to love her and he would not.She wanted her mother to protect her but she was not protected.

    What is a man’s life worth when, though he is a celebrated author, he fails dreadfully at the only chance he had in his life to do something noble and dutiful and truly worthwhile.

    Jack Kerouac was a gob of spit in a sea of pus.

    Michael R. Hagberg Hester

    • sharon says:

      Thank you for this. I would love to hear more from people who knew Jan, as reading between the lines I suspected something was terribly wrong with her childhood, much more so than Jack’s absence. I’m just a fan, but one who feels a strange, deep connection to her. I think it might be the lack of pathos or self pity in her writing that makes me hurt for her that much more, and to be angry at all the adults who failed her, living their self absorbed arty lives while making their children suffer.

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