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The Voice is All by Joyce Johnson

The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac
reviewed by Carol Ann Sokoloff

The Voice is All
Joyce Johnson
Penguin, 2012


I’m sick of Jack Kerouac… he’s been haunting me, following me around with those sad puppy dog blue eyes I still wish I could have seen. I've been trying to review the newest biography of him for the past two years. Probably several new ones have been published, in the interim. Jack Kerouac is an industry now. His photo was used as an advertisement for The Gap, for goodness sake! What would he make of that? If Joyce Johnson is correct, former girlfriend and author of the biography, The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, he’d both hate it and love it, ’cause that was his nature – conflicted. He might have hated that he, a penniless itinerant who starved long years for his art, was bringing in profits for corporate America (except he wasn’t antipathetic towards corporate America). On the other hand, he'd likely be amazed and proud – the fulfillment of a secret dream to be quintessentially American.

Jack Kerouac’s novels dance angel-like on the porous borders of fiction and non-fiction. Why, then, read a biography, one may wonder? After his first conventional novel, The Town the City, Kerouac realized his own life provided ample content for his voice in fiction and thereafter never deviated from mining that rich vein. Yet Kerouac’s life consists of a compelling combination of forces at a moment in the universe, a trajectory that makes for absorbing reading in the hands of a good storyteller such as Joyce Johnson, author of the very readable The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac. Biographies also help track Kerouac’s translation of life to art, revealing his considerable craft, process, method and style.

In Jack Kerouac’s life story we see a fascinating convergence of elements creating an innovative voice during a period of cultural upheaval—arguably the quintessential American novelist of the mid-twentieth century. Although his work met disdain both in his own and later days, few can rival Kerouac’s output or impact. Johnson’s biography adds to our understanding of Jack Kerouac as a divided soul, torn between languages (French/English) and cultures (Quebecois / American); possessing paradoxical character traits—quiet and shy, but obnoxious when drunk; athlete / intellectual; Catholic / Buddhist—and riddled with conflicting desires, such as seeking love and relationship but refusing all responsibility. Johnson traces the roots of these conflicts and demonstrates how Kerouac sought to bridge an inner chasm through the act of writing.

A novelist herself, biographer Joyce Johnson’s warm, narrative voice takes us deeply into the psyche of a man for whom, as the title quote states, “the voice is all.” In ten parts, from birth to the start of work on the novel that eventually became Visions of Cody (published posthumously), the biography offers a thorough and compassionate examination of Kerouac’s life and art from his early years to the attainment of the mature voice it was his mission to find. Johnson scours the shadowy corners of Kerouac’s complex nature, not to raise the dirt but to gain understanding of the soul and artistry of this important author. Drawing on Kerouac’s papers, letters and journals, now available to researchers in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, Johnson relies on few external authorities, preferring to use Kerouac’s own words to illuminate the aspects of his life she writes about. Johnson also happens to have been intimately acquainted with her subject, having lived with Kerouac for two years prior to and during the explosive time of the publication of his second novel On the Road. Theirs was one of his more enduring romantic relationships. Having written about that period in a previous memoir, Minor Characters (another great read), Johnson only occasionally adds personal reminiscences to this biographical narrative, when a memory resurfaces to validate a conclusion she has drawn from Kerouac’s own work and words.

Joyce Johnson begins her Introduction to The Voice Is All with the statement: Precariously balanced between conflicting selves, between two cultures and two different languages, between ambition and self-immolation, Jack Kerouac rose suddenly to fame with a label that only half fitted him: “King of the Beats.” Suggesting that while Kerouac did come to represent the changing culture of American youth after the devastation of World War II, he also had an inner life quite apart from what was known as the “Beat” phenomenon. The other side of his being was that of his upbringing as a child of Quebecois immigrants in working class New England, growing up in Lowell, Massachusett’s “Little Canada,” steeped in French-Canadian language, culture and Catholicism, striving to be the bluff American he admired, an outsider struggling to find his place. This is the balance of “conflicting selves” Jack Kerouac sought to maintain through the act of writing and an almost sacrificial dedication to the art of literature.

Johnson’s exploration of Kerouac’s childhood is extensive, if not always profound. Tracing his lineage to grandparents who left rural Québec for work in the New England textile mills, she looks into the families of father Leo Kerouac and mother Gabrielle Levesque. After losses of siblings and parents, this marriage of “two orphans” perhaps rendered inevitable the dysfunctional family dynamics that both propelled and repelled their youngest child, Jean Louis, affectionately called “Ti Jean” who later came to be known by the Anglicized name “Jack.”

The Kerouacs spoke only French at home and young Ti Jean did not learn English until his middle grades, leaving him awkward, shy and frequently tongue-tied, even in high school embarrassed by the traces of a thick ‘Canuck’ accent. Yet his determination to master the language of America started him on a literary journey, first as a reader, which, in turn, fueled an ambition to write. While Johnson delves perhaps more deeply than other biographers into the experience of the French-Canadian immigrant family in New England, with its rigid, xenophobic and dark Catholicism, her exploration is relatively superficial, referencing the bestselling novel Maria Chapdelaine for cultural information. Quebecers might not find her treatment of their culture very nuanced, however, she deserves credit for at least trying to grapple with this aspect of Kerouac’s background.

Where Johnson is more successful in offering depth and insight is in her evocation of the haunting centrality of the ghost of older brother Gerard who died of rheumatic fever when Ti Jean was four. Kerouac’s dim recollection of his brother became another source of inner turmoil in that his own few memories conflicted with stories told by his mother, Gabrielle, who dealt with the loss by elevating the child to sainthood. The sickly Gerard had commanded all Gabrielle’s attention during long bouts of illness, leaving the young Ti Jean feeling abandoned and resentful. Jack’s last memory of Gerard was not as a saint, but as a mean older brother who slapped him for destroying an Erector set creation. Johnson writes: Jack’s last memory of Gerard was the slap across the face that had been his punishment for knocking over an elaborate crane Gerard had been carefully building with his Erector set. What particularly disturbed him, even as a man of 28, was a hazy memory like a waking dream of a ‘gaunt and ragged phantom’ standing over his crib in the middle of the night ‘intent on me with hate.’ (p. 7/8) Johnson suggests that Kerouac could never shake the guilt this memory induced, compounded by that from his own premonition that his sickly brother would die. Gerard’s elevation to sainthood in his mother’s eyes also ensured the insecure Ti Jean would always feel inadequate, even while Gabrielle now clung fiercely and seemingly without boundaries, to her only remaining son.

Of Gabrielle, who came to be known as ‘Memere,’ Johnson writes, “her cupcakes had chains in them.” Much has been written in this and other biographies about Kerouac’s domineering, alcoholic, anti-semitic and personal-boundary-defying French-Canadian mother, to whom Jack always returned—likely the most important female figure in his life. However, Johnson also illuminates the larger-than-life Leo Kerouac, a hard-drinking, gambling, bigoted and argumentative figure, with whom his son found himself in a constant power struggle. A printer and linotype operator for Lowell’s French-speaking community until a spring flood of the Merrimack River destroyed his business, Leo was ill-equipped to work for anyone else and the family fortunes began to sink. They moved houses frequently, always in a downwardly mobile direction. Eventually Gabrielle went to work in a shoe factory and Leo was forced to work out of town.

Jack already had formed an ambition to be a writer and believed that to do so he would need to go to university—unlikely, even unheard of, given his upbringing. In Lowell’s immigrant communities young men went from school, if they finished it, to factory work. Excelling in track and field, with an ability to run very quickly, Kerouac set his sights on the football team in order to both please his father and earn a scholarship out of the grim mill town reality that was otherwise his future. After scoring a winning touchdown in an important Thanksgiving game, re-created in the Town and the City, Jack was courted by coaches from both Columbia University and the more local and Catholic, Boston College. The choice became fraught when it was made clear that Leo would lose his job if Jack did not choose Boston College. But Jack dreamed of Manhattan, the setting of the movie serials and dime-store novels he devoured, and encouraged by his mother who had family in Brooklyn, chose Columbia—away from his Catholic roots and towards the stimulation of New York’s intellectual and jazz scene.

By high school Kerouac had formed close friendships with diverse boys in his neighbourhood, including the sensitive, intellectual Sebastian Sampas (whose older sister he married towards the end of his life) and the riotous, extraverted G.J. Apostolous, an early Neal Cassady-type figure. Johnson writes: When Jack was with G.J., he would become G.J., just as he would later become Neal when the two of them were together, a personality change others would notice. Perhaps that troubling permeability of Jack’s began with his mother who recognized no boundaries; perhaps it began with his imitations of Gerard. Yet looked at another way, it was the form love took for him. (p.62) Kerouac also had his first serious romance with a Mary Carney, a brakeman’s daughter, later immortalized as Maggie Cassidy in the novel of the same name. While tempted to marry and raise kids with her and take a railway job to do so, he could not abandon the call of his to mission to be a writer. Johnson writes: As he went through life, Jack would often find himself in the position of wanting two irreconcilable things simultaneously—in this case the Lowell girl he was smitten with versus the irresistible adventure of becoming an unattached young writer in the great metropolis he mostly knew from movies he’d seen at the Royal Theater.” (p. 67)

On a road trip to Vermont with a friend in the summer of 1939, Kerouac suffered a head injury in an accident. Johnson writes that the injury was “bad enough to require a couple weeks hospitalization—one more blow in addition to the ones he received playing football since he was twelve. Could there be any truth to what his mother had later claimed, that he had seemed to her a very different person after the accident? (p. 67) Joyce Johnson may be the first Kerouac biographer to address the possibility that the writer suffered brain damage in both athletic and automobile accidents. Only recently have the tragic consequences of routine sports injuries come to light with evidence of alcoholism, depression, addiction, suicide and premature death among players. Johnson raises the issue as to whether such might be the source of Kerouac’s premature decline.

In September 1939, Jack Kerouac left by train to New York, where his new life would begin at the prestigious Horace Mann School for Boys in the Bronx, a Junior College. There he would become at last a writer, while completing a make-up year before entering Columbia. Johnson writes: It was a school with excellent teachers where there wasn’t much emphasis on being athletic.The Jewish kids from well-to-do families who made up the majority of the student body concentrated on getting good marks...In a school dominated by upper class WASPS, Jack who was still terribly shy, might have felt intimidated. But among his new classmates, he was oddly comfortable even though he had never known any Jews before. (p. 73) A new friend, Seymour Wyse, introduced him to jazz and the Harlem clubs, then at their height of creativity. Johnson states that Kerouac claimed to write over eighty stories while at Horace Mann, many influenced by the popular William Saroyan. For the first time, he experimented with abandoning plot and began to explore the possibilities of an auto-biographical first person voice, Johnson writes. (85)

In the following seven sections of her biography Johnson narrates his time at Columbia, his summers in Lowell, the football accident that finally gave him time to read and write, his frustrations with his coach who did not recognize his abilities, and his eventually leaving Columbia to join first the Merchant Marines and then the Navy. The drums of war were beating and several boyhood friends had enlisted and even died, including his soul friend Sebastian Sampas. Johnson mentions the fiction Kerouac was writing during all these experiences and also his literary influences from Whitman and Hemingway to Saroyan, Wolfe, Celine, Rimbaud and Joyce.

Back in New York he was living with girlfriend Edie Parker and digging be-bop in Harlem. From the long jazz lines of Charlie Parker he borrowed the idea of the bop prosody of spontaneous prose. He was also drinking heavily. In the Fall of 1943, a new Columbia student appeared at Edie’s apartment, the attractive and erudite Lucien Carr. Trailing him were several admirers including the young Allen Ginsberg and an older homosexual who had served as a mentor, David Kammerer, a friend of fellow St. Louis native, William Burroughs. The group became a tight circle which Johnson calls “the libertine circle.” Much has been written of this group and these times and Johnson adds little new information but well conveys the spirit. She provides an unvarnished account of Lucien Carr’s fatal stabbing of the persistent David Kammerer, a murder in which Kerouac was arrested as an accessory, showing that all was not sweetness and light in this group.
The phenomenon that came to be known as “The Beats” was largely a boys club, where women played the peripheral roles of witness or assistant but rarely as equals in the action, although Johnson notes that Kerouac always encouraged her to take her writing seriously. Johnson writes knowledgeably and compassionately about the women involved, although where others, such as Carolyn Cassady, have penned their own memoirs, she comments only to correct the occasional misconception.

Jack Kerouac’s biography tells an absorbing story of a French-Canadian joining the melting pot of American society, of American innocence extinguished with the lives of boyhood friends dying in a far-off war, of a boy with an extraordinary memory and a drive to write who used sports as a way to out of a dreary fate, and finally of a shy figure who unwittingly finds the spotlight as the king of a cultural movement he named but does not fully embrace. After an agonizing wait of seven years between the publication of his first and second novels, Kerouac was unable to handle the attention, mostly negative, given to his innovative On the Road. Alcohol, drugs, constant movement and avoidance of all responsibility beyond the personal duty to write, to record and to “moan for man” fueled the decline which Johnson claims has been well discussed and avoids in her biography.
The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac is profound in that biographer Joyce Johnson understands that Kerouac had a mission to write, a mission he served above all, to the sacrifice, perhaps, of his own happiness. For all the faults of the overbearing Memere, we can thank her for giving Jack a home and a place to come back to, to write and to be willing to support her son as a writer by working in a shoe factory. His family could hardly have imagined the place in literature his voice would eventually fill.

Postscript: Joyce Johnson ends her biography in the Fall of 1951 with Jack trying to find a publisher for On the Road (not released until Fall1957), and writing long letters about writing to Neal Cassady. In his journal Jack writes, “I’m lost, but my work is found.” Unfortunately, the finding of his voice as an American author meant Kerouac ultimately submerged the Francophone Ti Jean to the point where he could not entirely live with himself, one suspects—a martyr at the altar of literature.

Carol Ann Sokoloff is a poet, author, editor and jazz vocalist/songwriter. She has published several books including Eternal Lake O'Hara (poetry and history) and Colours Everywhere You Go (for children); and produced Let Go!, a CD of jazz standards and originals. She is based in Victoria, BC, where she teaches popular continuing studies writing programs through the University of Victoria.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #20