THE VOICE IS ALL: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac. By Joyce Johnson. Viking. 489 pages. $32.95.
In the 50-plus years since he wrote his American classic, “On the Road,” Jack Kerouac has remained a hero to all those he christened the “holy goofs.”
The raw material for “On the Road” was heady stuff when he set out in 1951, all hepped up on benzedrine and nourished by a diet of pea soup and coffee, to write a fresh draft of the novel he’d been tinkering with since 1948. It is still heady stuff and likely will keep its small corner in the American literary psyche.
Joyce Johnson lived with Kerouac in 1957 and 1958 and wrote eloquently about him in her memoir “Minor Characters.” She stops her biography, “The Voice is All,” in 1951, the year of Kerouac’s greatest fulfillment. Afterward, the man who believed a writer should be no more noticeable “than a shadow on the sidewalk” was saddled with a too-solid role, King of the Beats, and it did him in.
Any account of Kerouac’s “rise” is darkened by the years after it, waiting out there like phantoms to drag him into alcoholism and a lonely death at 47. Johnson’s extraordinary and rigorous biography makes full use of the Kerouac Archive at the New York Public Library, opened in 2002, but still restricted to writers approved by the estate.
The story she tells is one of syncopated dark and bright, almost from the start. Kerouac’s parents were French-speaking Canadians, both orphans, who climbed several rungs on the class ladder to reach a French neighborhood in Lowell, Mass. They were heavy drinkers and hard partiers, both restless. By the time he was 17, Kerouac had lived at 11 locations, each of them worse than the one before. Johnson speculates that Kerouac’s divided personality (on the one hand a libertine beat, on the other a devout Catholic son) stems from the language and cultural divides of his early childhood.
Johnson’s biography traces the path of a man who craved stability but couldn’t stomach routine or authority. He wanted love but, having it, felt trapped. He sought recognition but, when it came, couldn’t handle the pressure. Always, drugs and alcohol defeated his better intentions.
Johnson is an excellent guide to the floating society of Beat dreamers: still young and for a while even innocent in their search for something outside the American middle. Out of condemned ideas and taboos, Kerouac built a counterstructure to the cozy house of the 1950s. As he told the Paris Review, “What a man most wants to hide, revise, and unsay is exactly what literature is waiting and bleeding for.”
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.