The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac

  • By Joyce Johnson
  • Viking
  • 512 pp.

This latest biography of a Beat legend — by one who knew him — tells the story of what made him think and write as he did.

Several years ago I had dinner with a trade book editor and a writer friend who spoke enthusiastically about a book I was working on, a high-octane narrative about the lives of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and their clan. No sooner had my friend finished than the editor pronounced matter-of-factly, “Beat books don’t sell.” And so it is, this mechanical mantra from the publishing world. Apart from Jack Kerouac’s 2007 scroll edition of On the Road, the mantra seems to be true.

Buy why don’t Beat books sell? First off, most of these books bury exciting lives in tombs of turgid works. Moreover, many are pitched to Beat devotees and therefore of little interest to average readers, especially younger ones. And yet, the Beat goes on!

Recently, the prestigious Library of America released Jack Kerouac: Collected Poems, edited by Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell, who provides an informative biographical backdrop for appreciating the poems. And five years ago the Library of America released Jack Kerouac: Road Novels, 1957-1960, edited by Douglas Brinkley, whose writings on Kerouac are both sober and stimulating. About that time, John Leland published Why the Beats Matter: The Lessons of On the Road, one of the best written and most thoughtful books on the subject.

Enter Joyce Johnson with her own Kerouac contribution, The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac. This hefty biography competes with some 25 other biographies or works about the famed novelist and poet from Lowell, Mass. Nearly three decades ago Gerald Nicosia set a high biographical bar with his Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac (1983).

So, who is Joyce Johnson and what is left to be said?

Johnson is no stranger to her subject. She knew Kerouac intimately and was with him at perhaps the most important moment in his life, that time slightly after midnight on September 5, 1957, when they read Gilbert Millstein’s phenomenal New York Times book review by the light of a street lamp describing On the Road as “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat,’ and whose principal avatar he is.” Later that night, “Jack lay down obscure for the last time in his life,” wrote Johnson in another work. “The ringing phone woke him the next morning and he was famous.” Famous, yes, but fulfilled, hardly.

In 1972, as an editor at McGraw-Hill, Johnson saw to the posthumous publication of one of Kerouac’s most important works, the complete text of The Visions of Cody, Kerouac’s experimental novel. Later, Johnson published Minor Characters, a book about her life in the mid-1950s with Kerouac and others that won a National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2000 she released Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, 1957-1958. And five years ago she published a long essay in Vanity Fair titled “Kerouac Unbound.”

“For many years, I waited for the definitive biography of Kerouac to appear,” writes Johnson in the introduction to new her book. “But I have come to wonder, especially in the process of writing this book, whether there can be such a thing as a definitive biography.” Moreover, she is seasoned enough to realize that there “are many ways to tell the story of Jack Kerouac, depending on the biographer’s point of view or agenda.”  Indeed!

Johnson’s focus is on Kerouac as writer, that talented and troubled man “alone in a room writing.” To place herself on that perch makes perfect sense, for it is impossible to truly understand Jack Kerouac without having some real appreciation of the man as artist, the man who painted portraits with words. In that world of words he found his life’s purpose. To that end, Johnson tells the story, and ably, of the emergence of a great writer.

Johnson’s biographical journey ends in 1951, the year Kerouac finished writing On the Road but six years before its publication and 18 before his pathetic alcohol-induced death. It is a delightful biographical ride made all the more interesting by a well written and well researched account of Kerouac — the frolicking but lonesome writer who “did not know what to do with love.” How true. First and foremost, Kerouac turned towards his Canadian mother and his Catholic God for love. Beyond that he turned to the typewriter characters in his novels; he loved them with wild abandon. So intense were Kerouac’s feelings that sometimes he’d cry as he browsed his own work.

While there are no earth-shaking discoveries in this book, and though the research behind it is solid but not all encompassing, the author nonetheless does a marvelous job of telling the remarkable story of Kerouac’s consciousness as a writer and what prompted him to write as he did. Johnson quite skillfully explains how Kerouac turned fact into fiction and in the process gave astonishing and undying literary life to the men and women with whom he shared many amazing and tragic moments. Jack Kerouac made the real surreal.  And Joyce Johnson tells us how he did that by weaving the facts of his life into the fabric of his literary feats.

In so doing, Johnson stresses that Kerouac had little use for or interest in the conventions of fiction writing. He wanted to BLOW them away, much like a juiced jazzman creates his own maniacal melody out of discordant notes. Like an impressionist artist, Kerouac kept a pocket sketchbook in which he jotted endless notes —  pinpoints in time — in which he’d capture the truth of a moment: the intensity of red neon, the brown of the Bowery or the slope of the hats of cowboy bums.

Throughout Kerouac’s visions of new directions for his writing, images of one man appear time and again. That man is Neal Cassady, racer, jazzer and chick-chaser extraordinaire, who was catapulted into the cultural limelight with the publication of On the Road. Cassady’s impact, both literary and personal, on Jack Kerouac was immense, as Johnson and others have noted. “I’m completely your friend, your ‘lover,’ he who loves you and digs your greatness completely” is how Jack put it in a passage Johnson quotes. Jack was, by his own admission, “haunted in the mind” by Neal Cassady.

Yet never far from the excitement Neal created within Jack was the loneliness of Joyce Johnson’s title, a brooding cloud of despair, an ever “deepening melancholy” fueled by alcohol addiction. In time it would kill Kerouac, but that time was far off from when Jack and the boys roamed their world in search of a new vision, a new way of seeing life and literature. For Kerouac, writing was all about “discovering a way to capture the movements of his mind without self-censorship or second thoughts” — uninhibited, earthy, and as wide open as mountain valley. In the process, Kerouac’s words became his oxygen, the way he breathed in life and exhaled it into fiction and poetry.

After he mastered his “spontaneous prose” approach to writing, Jack Kerouac found himself “in the grip of an unstoppable rebellion against the conventions of fiction,” a rebellion that would one day “threaten the marketability of his work.” Once the fame associated with his best-selling novel On the Road subsided, would he care that “Beat books don’t sell”?  Hell no, for Kerouac was too much of an artist to worry about the bean counters of the book world.

On the cover of Johnson’s biography is a large photo of an all-too-handsome Jack Kerouac (c. 1955) looking dreamily off into the distance. It’s the sort of “memory babe” photograph a loved one puts in a prominent place. Despite the womanizing and drinking that caused her to leave Jack, with The Voice Is All Joyce Johnson reclaims her man and proclaims his glory anew. By that metaphorical measure, Johnson’s book is a love story.

More than a half-century ago Keith Jennison, one of Jack’s editors at Viking, pulled Johnson aside at a celebratory party for On the Road. As Jack downed more and more mimosas, Jennison leaned towards Joyce and quietly counseled: “Take care of this man.” And so she has … between the warmth of the covers of this loving book.

Ronald Collins is the Harold S. Shefelman Scholar at the University of Washington School of Law. In 2010 he received a Norman Mailer fellowship. He is the co-author (with David Skover) of The Trials of Lenny Bruce (2002 & 2012 e-book edition) and the forthcoming Mania: The Outraged & Outrageous Lives that Launched a Cultural Revolution (March 2013), a fast-paced narrative about several frenzied years in the lives of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and their clan. His last book (with Sam Chaltain) was We Must Not be Afraid to Be Free (2011).

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