- Reviewed by
The Beat Generation, our last well-defined literary movement, continues to fascinate: as escape from mainstream culture becomes more complicated and more futile, the simple rebellions of those naive counterculturalists of the Fifties increasingly exert a nostalgic appeal, fed by the recollections of surviving members and the texts produced by a new generation of enthusiasts. The four books under review, two full-length studies and two collections of miscellaneous material, are further testimony to Jack Kerouac's position as the most compelling figure in this group and to the biographical nature of the interest that he inspires.
Morris Dickstein closed his New York Times review of Gerald Nicosia's compendious 1983 biography of Kerouac with the hope that "the very size of Memory Babe may bring about a moratorium on biographies and a greater interest, paradoxically, in the books he wrote rather than the life he lived." Critical attention to Kerouac's work has never equalled the interest in his life, and the present writers have failed to heed both Dickstein's reasonable wish and the impressive number of lengthy biographies of Kerouac already in print. Ironically, the very abundance of such books has created the need for Tom Clark's work and for the new HBJ Album Series of which it is a part, a series specifically designed to provide "compact yet thorough" studies to satisfy an appetite for biography that is something less than gluttonous. Restraint is particularly commendable in a case such as Kerouac's where a static life pattern is established early and the helpless [End Page 276] protagonist's painful degeneration must be the biography's primary theme.
Clark admirably fulfils the announced expectations of economy and depth. He has produced a readable volume whose chief virtue, the essential one for such an approach, is the well-chosen detail. This is biography as it once was written, with the biographer selecting salient information from a mass of primary data rather than passing all of these weighty materials on to the reader. In avoiding the ponderous, Clark does not oversimplify or reduce his subject; this is an intelligently comprehensive work that can both fulfill its biographical purpose and stimulate a desire for the psychobiographic interpretation that a life such as Kerouac's so obviously calls for. Referring to Kerouac's choice of Columbia over Boston College, for example, Clark describes the repercussions on Jack's father: "He was humiliatingly fired. He had been laid off before but never fired; the event did serious damage to what remained of his self-esteem." Such an outcome must have also left its mark on the son, but Clark intends simply to indicate the areas of psychic stress (nightmares about his brother's funeral that continued for twenty-five years, the absolute rejection of his life as a writer by both parents) without analyzing them.
Clark lucidly establishes the dynamic of Kerouac's unsuccessful life, a constant tension between the reality of a precarious working class existence and the ideal of the open road, a mobility that signified expansion rather than the contracted expectations of all of the Kerouac family's sad moving days. Here is Clark succinctly rendering this paradigm in a paragraph about one of Kerouac's many trips to Mexico: "As the empty weeks went by, Kerouac felt abandoned to 'Love's multitudinous boneyard of decay.' Worries about his soul and his mother troubled his sleep. He reminded himself that every living being was only 'born to die' and, disgusted by his unsuccessful pursuit of the junkie waif, swore off sexuality for the thousandth time." An act of self-assertion such as going to Mexico was invariably followed by disillusionment and retreat, but it could nonetheless be turned into a novel (in this case, Tristessa). Kerouac was always striking...