Monday, September 15, 2014

Joyce Johnson's "The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac"

Joyce Johnson, The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac (Viking, 2012), 489 pp.

            “Jack’s true life novels do contain much verifiable fact, but the truths he would seek to recapture above all would be the texture of his experiences, the feelings associated with them, the Proustian epiphanies he’d had rather than the precise factual details surrounding each event.  The crucial element in his work would not be the invention of plot or the creation of composite characters, but the alchemy that turned his memories into art, shaping, altering and refining the raw material he worked from.”
                                              -Joyce Johnson, The Voice is All

Joyce Johnson’s groundbreaking biography of Jack Kerouac, The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, deserves closer attention than it has received since it was first published.  Focusing on his early years, this much-needed study is packed with new information and valuable insights into the evolution of Kerouac's method of writing and his personal and family traumas.  Johnson is the first biographer to have dug even more deeply than Paul Maher (Kerouac: His Life and Work, 2007) into Kerouac's childhood and French-Canadian heritage.  What she has unearthed explains a great deal about the Lowell-born writer’s psyche and his approach to writing; especially about the fact that he remained bi-lingual.

  Johnson is particularly helpful on Kerouac's early reading and writing, more so than his previous biographers, because so much more is now available from Kerouac’s letters and journals preserved in his archive at the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library.  Though it is practically a cliché that he was strongly influenced by Thomas Wolfe, one tends to forget about the impact of William Saroyan’s fiction on Kerouac, especially The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, which Kerouac read while still in school, along with Saroyan’s many stories.  According to Johnson, Saroyan’s use of a conversational voice in his narratives clearly made an impression on the high school athlete, who had begun writing at an early age.

               Johnson writes about Kerouac's prose from the inside, not only as someone who once knew him and lived with him (see Minor Characters. her clear-eyed memoir of their relationship during the time Kerouac had just published On the Road), but also as someone who has read him carefully and intelligently over the years.  In addition, her book offers a more in-depth analysis than earlier studies of the impact and influence on him of the writers who helped him to shape his style and find his voice, beginning with Wolfe, Saroyan and Albert Halper, now little known, but whose social realist novels of the 1930s and early 40s Kerouac avidly absorbed.  But it was Joyce and Proust that “he had come to value above all other writers,” Johnson stresses. 

               Together with the first complete biography by Ann Charters (Kerouac, 1973) and Tim Hunt's pioneering critical study, Kerouac's Crooked Road: The Development of a Fiction (1981), Johnson’s life is essential to an understanding of one of our most underrated writers.Reading her often harrowing descriptions of Kerouac’s drunken binges, his first two dysfunctional marriages, his difficulties fitting in as a merchant seaman, and his brief though tumultuous career in the Navy, during which he was erroneously diagnosed with schizophrenia and admitted to a psychiatric facility, it’s possible to speculate that Kerouac may have suffered from an oppositional-defiant disorder (ODD), coupled with alcoholism.  Both his parents drank heavily and his father exhibited most of the major traits of an alcoholic, especially the characteristic secretiveness, paranoia and explosive anger, accompanied by depression.  Leo Kerouac’s right-wing politics, which prefigure his son’s later reactionary views, were an enactment of his own pathology.  Leo couldn't keep a job—Kerouac resisted working, eventually compressing his own life into writing and drinking, especially when he was not writing.  But how he wrote, even from a young age!  His early family novel, The Haunted Life, impeccably edited and introduced by Todd Tietchen and published this year for the first time, though completed before The Town and the City (1950) and looking ahead to the more experimental Lowell novels, is more accomplished than many of today’s first novels, while containing the seeds of everything Kerouac was to achieve as a writer.

               Oppositional defiant disorder is an anti-social condition.  A person with an oppositional defiant disorder refuses to obey rules, can't abide structure, has difficulty making and keeping commitments, especially emotional ones, and is also argumentative and disruptive with authority figures.  This is the kind of person who often becomes involved in brawls, especially when drinking.   While artists and writers, particularly those who favor transgressive modes, may have some of this tendency in them, most are able to channel or sublimate it into their work or political activity.   However for Kerouac, there were occasions beyond his writing when he seemed unable to achieve this necessary sublimation.  He had trouble keeping a job—in fact, he often refused to work, allowing wives, girlfriends or his mother, to support him until he began to earn enough from writing, though the emotional dimension of the support continued through his entire brief life (he died at the age of 47, on October 21, 1969, of cirrhosis of the liver, in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he lived with his invalided mother and third wife, Stella Sampas, the sister of his boyhood friend Sammy).
               Kerouac's life after sports, which could be considered a form of self-medication (the violent physical aspect of sports, the risk taking, the competition, the speed of football), gradually evolved into writing and drinking, until toward the end of his life he would basically sit around the house and drink, writing less and less, television constantly in the background.  He painted too, and quite beautifully, even toward the end of his life, so that the creative spark was not entirely extinguished (see Departed Angels: The Lost Paintings of Jack Kerouac, 2004).

               His political conservatism and Anti-Semitism, in the face of so many liberal or left –leaning Jewish friends like Ginsberg, appears to have been an expression of his ODD.  In the end, he became like his father, with his father's unwavering right wing prejudices and his drinking; also, his paranoia.  Most people have generally been able to live within accepted parameters or interpersonal and societal limits.  Kerouac, like many who suffer from drug and alcohol addictions, seemed unable to abide limits of any kind.  For Kerouac, however, there was creative gain because he broke through many of the conventions of writing, not only in questions of plot, character and structure, but also in terms of language; as did Joyce, who had his own forms of defiance, and also drank heavily, according to biographer Richard Ellmann.

               Returning to the question of ODD, the disorder is thought by some researchers to be genetic in origin, while others see it as a biochemical disorder.  The analytical view is that it is a consequence of childhood trauma.  Kerouac’s potential ODD may well have been a reaction to his Catholic education among nuns who abused him and his classmates both verbally and physically, causing him to have a lifelong hatred of authority of any kind.  He was also beaten by his father whom he both hated and loved.  Leo Kerouac, who meddled unhelpfully in his son's troubled relationship with Columbia football coach Lou Little, may also have suffered from ODD, and it is well known that styles of coping with conflicts are conditioned by families, passed down, or mirrored.
               But Kerouac should not be reduced to a diagnosis. 
There is so much more to be considered as we try to come to terms with the forces that shaped him—the pressures Leo was under as an immigrant, the language conflicts in the family, the ethnic struggles in Lowell that my Greek father and grandfather also experienced, the repressive role that the Church played in the family’s and the culture's life, and the deeper reasons for the drinking, which can also be understood as a defense against a hostile and uncomprehending society and the literary culture that embodied it.  No matter what the basis for Kerouac’s personal struggles may have been, he was a major writer, as Johnson amply documents, who brought enormous gifts and strengths to the writing of fiction.  Like Henry Miller, Celine, who also influenced him, and William Burroughs, he revolutionized the practice of writing fiction, in tandem with near contemporaries like Gilbert Sorrentino, Michael Rumaker and Douglas Woolf, all of whom became part of the movement known as “The New American Writing.”

            Most people have read Kerouac's road novels, On the Road and The Dharma Bums, bypassing The Subterraneans and Desolation Angels, which are equally important and may be considered part of the “road sequence.”   Related to but set apart from this sequence is Kerouac's masterwork, Visions of Cody (1972), the story of his friendship with the legendary Neal Cassady, whose stream-of-consciousness letters are equally considered to be an influence on Kerouac’s emerging prose style.  This is Kerouac’s most experimental book, which was not published until after his death.   Still, if Kerouac had published nothing but Visions of Gerard, Maggie Cassidy and Dr. Sax, the three seminal books in his Lowell series, he would still be considered a major American writer, clearly on a par with Sherwood Anderson.  The last novel he published before his death, Vanity of Dulouz (1968), is also masterful.  Harvey Brown, the late publisher of Frontier Press books in West Newbury, MA, had obtained an advance copy and had immediately gotten on the phone to read parts of it to Charles Olson in Gloucester.  Olson told friends he was pleased that Kerouac was again writing about what was closest to him, his origins and his life in Lowell—and he was doing it in Lowell.  Olson also said that he believed Kerouac was producing some of the most significant prose in America. 
               Johnson is extremely helpful in describing how Kerouac broke free from conventional narrative techniques and expectations, forging what Kerouac himself referred to as “wild” or “deep” form and Allen Ginsberg called "spontaneous bop prosody,” influenced by the breath, rhythms and extended musical “sentences” of be-bop.  Johnson’s narrative takes Kerouac up to the publication of On the Road.  She describes how he wrote an earlier beginning to On the Road in his Lowell French Canadian dialect, joual, and how writing in French helped to liberate him linguistically and formally. 
 After translating what he had written into English,  he knew he had found the loose, free and open personal voice in which he had been struggling for years to write On the Road.  It became the voice for the rest of his life in prose.  Other critics have written about his struggle to find that voice, but only Johnson takes a hard look at the fact that Kerouac's first language was joual, the language he and his mother always conversed in and that he thought in.  Johnson also demolishes the myth that Kerouac was undisciplined, sitting down high on amphetamines at the typewriter to tear through his novels at breakneck speed (“It’s not writing, it’s just typewriting,” Truman Capote complained).  Nothing could be further from the truth.

                Of equal importance as jazz and joual in an understanding of Kerouac’s attempts to arrive at what he called “a vast subjective form” is his discovery while working on On the Road of what he came to call “sketching.”  His friend Ed White had showed Kerouac some pencil sketches of New York buildings that attracted White and, according to Johnson, he suggested to Jack, “Why don’t you sketch in the street like a painter, but with words?” 
               Johnson continues:

               Sketching immediately gave Jack what he most needed—the freedom to write his ‘interior music’ just as it came to him, removing the inhibiting presence in his mind of the editor or reader whose needs and conventional expectations must always be taken into consideration.  He was about to discover what he had been looking for—a way to write passages in which he would seize the peak moment and ride it through to the end, without interrupting the flow of imagery.  Sketching would dissolve the barrier between poetry and prose.

               Johnson concludes:

               Although his need to get published had never been more desperate, he would soon be in the grip of an unstoppable rebellion against the conventions of fiction that would threaten the marketability of his work and his ability to survive.

Such is the path of an artist like Kerouac, who refuses to compromise his style or his vision.

                Kerouac’s development as a writer, as Johnson painstakingly documents, included a long, careful and often agonizing apprenticeship, culminating in a brilliantly ambitious first novel, The Town and the City (1950), in which Kerouac said he wanted “to explain everything to everybody,” followed by an equally committed struggle to find an appropriate voice in which to write more deeply about his childhood experiences in Lowell, as well as what he had lived through during and after the writing of his first novel: the experiences that would inform subsequent novels like On the Road, The Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels and Visions of Cody.  The publication of the original “Scroll Version” of On the Road by Viking in 2007 should put to rest any arguments about Kerouac’s presumed lack of discipline or damaging haste as a writer, given the magnificence of much of the writing and the clarity and coherence of the overall structure of the extended narrative.  As his friend John Clellon Holmes wrote: “I would have given anything I owned to have written such tidal prose.”

               While Tim Hunt analyzes the development of Kerouac's fiction, his voice and style, from a literary-critical point of view in Kerouac's Crooked Road, Johnson approaches it from a biographical perspective.  She is stunning in the way that she demonstrates the emergence of his voice and his determination to write the way he finally wrote, against novelistic convention, directly from the way he was living each day, the people he knew, the books he was reading and his emerging courage to plumb his own depths.  Her careful analysis of the several abandoned versions of On the Road, each one making clear that Kerouac was moving closer to what he would achieve in sitting down to write the mesmerizing complete draft of the novel in 1951, on that legendary roll of drawing paper, the version in which he began at the beginning of his journey, not only to experience America but more importantly to “heal himself spiritually,”— the ur journey that combined several trips, using himself and his road companions not only as who and what they actually were, but also as what they represented of an emerging culture of American refuseniks—is a breathtaking critical performance.  At the culmination of that process, in which his writing and life, the prose itself and the shape of the landscape he had traversed, were fused, Johnson concludes that Kerouac had “finally become the book he was writing.”

               “I’m lost but my work is found,” he said.  The rest is history.

 (This review appeared in House Organ, Number 88, Fall 2014)

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