Saturday, April 25, 2009

Review: Jan Kerouac A Life In Memory

edited by Gerald Nicosia, Noodlebrain Press, 2009
$25 from USA , $30 from Canada and overseas

We all know Jack Kerouac, of course. Every poet and writer and half-hip culture fan of the last 60s knows Jack. But we still don't know his daughter, most of us. I've told people before, and while reading this book, that he had a daughter whom he largely disowned, and that Jan was a talented writer herself, author of two published books and one that she didn't complete before her death in 1996, and the reaction has always been one of bored surprise. (I say "bored surprise", if such a thing can exist, because nobody at least who I've told cares that much: let's not kid ourselves, outside the legalistic world of the literary estates, the story of Jack and Jan Kerouac is only a big deal in that people are generally appalled he could have been such a shitty father.)

Given the global sweep of the Kerouac myth, the relative invisibility of Jan Kerouac in literary terms (and she was a good writer), is surprising, and perhaps an indictment not only of the forces ranged against her in the carpetbagging frenzy that followed Jack's death and the alleged (by Jan among others) forging of Memere's will turning Kerouac's estate over to the Sampas family; but also the intrinsic sexism of the literary world, where a woman is expected to write romances and faux-historical novels, not serious books, and even the judgement of other women is predisposed to favouring their male counterparts. You could argue that attitude, that ingrained prejudice, is slowly disappearing, but if it is then it disappeared too slowly for Jan.

This book, edited by Gerald Nicosia, tries to redress the balance for Jan Kerouac. In a series of essays and short pieces by Nicosia himself, Phil Cousineau, Brenda Knight, Carl Macki and Neal Cassady's son John Allen, among many others, the story of Jan's life that doesn't feature in Baby Driver and Trainsong, with special emphasis on her efforts to write her last, incomplete novel Parrot Fever while battling the illness that took her life, is retold in what Gerry calls a "mosaic"fashion, darting back and forth through time, allowing certain repetitions for emphasis and greater elucidation, slowly building a picture of this indomitable, gifted woman that walks off the pages with (if you'll forgive me mixing my metaphors) hologrammatic clarity.

We also learn about Jan's battles with Kerouac's literary executors as she fought what she considered to be the piecemeal selling-off of Jack's marvellous works and his iconic image to the highest bidder. Though the battles surrounding Jack are horrendously complex and characterised by immense bitterness and recrimination, Jan's case--which in my opinion seems a fair enough thing for the man's daughter to undertake--culminated in her being ejected from the Beat Generation conference in New York in 1995 with the complicity of Allen Ginsberg, of all people, who claimed (as reported in the book) to have investigated Jan's claims against the Sampases and found them substanceless. Bad enough that the most famous group of underground writers in the last 60 years in America should have agreed to let their works be subsumed into the mainstream by something so bourgeois and ridiculous as a literary conference. Appalling, though, that the author of Howl should have sided with the money men against another legitimate author and the daughter of one of his best friends.

Well, Jan is gone now and Ginsberg is gone now, but the sour aftertaste left by Jack's treatment of his daughter and the Beat and wider literary world's arrogant dismissal of her talents and her claims stays in the mouth. It's something for us all to learn from. But Jan's story isn't a tragic one for all that. A vibrant, funny, intelligent, gifted woman shines through these pages, in the essays, in the many original photographs Nicosia provides. I think you'll be pleased to meet her.

Please send payment in well-concealed cash or bank cheques in US Dollars to Gerald Nicosia, PO Box 130, Corte Madera, CA 94976-0130 USA.


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J said...

Well, Jan is gone now and Ginsberg is gone now, but the sour aftertaste left by Jack's treatment of his daughter and the Beat and wider literary world's arrogant dismissal of her talents and her claims stays in the mouth. It's something for us all to learn from.

Yes, Kerouac himself doesn't come off so well, but I wager he was too f-ed up to be much of a family man. The Sampas fam. also looking to cash in, obviously. Buddha, schmooda: the Beat kitties themselves were mostly conniving little bitches, Corso included--tho' Signore Ferlinghetti did put his shoulder to the wheel (he's one I still sort of respect).

HS Thompson clips entertaining, man. Jus' another tragedy.

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