In Joyce Johnson’s insightful 1999 biography, Minor Characters, we are introduced to Jack Kerouac as a dynamic and pathetic man, bursting with words and ideas, trying to balance living by his ideals with spectral and real familial responsibilities. It’s a beautiful recounting of Kerouac in all of his complexity—neither a hagiography nor bitter tell-all, her memoir panoramically captures Kerouac at a moment when he stares deer-eyed at the approaching fame that would soon envelop him. In Johnson’s biography, The Voice is All, the younger Kerouac is in focus, from his birth in Lowell, Massachusetts, to around 1951, years before the publication of On The Road. Although it does not break new ground, it is a well-written reminder of the chaos and intensity of Kerouac’s and the other Beats’ lives—“the beautiful angels” were a hard-living bunch whose egotistical search for “truth,” painstakingly recorded in their own works, is still surprisingly fresh when retold by Johnson. Her intimate knowledge of Kerouac and his life, along with her desire to protect him from his legions of critics, lends a continual sharpness to her writing as her crisp sentences illuminate without being showy.
While there are stronger biographies of Kerouac—Gerald Nicosia’s Memory Babe is the most authoritative—Johnson’s focus on Kerouac’s French Canadian childhood, which she persuasively (although not conclusively) pinpoints as the source for his linguistic experimentation, is its most welcome addition. For example, she uncovers a fifty-seven-page manuscript “Les Travaux de Michel Bregne” in which Kerouac experiments writing in French as a way to get at his authentic speech—which Johnson claims partially allowed Kerouac to be free to write On the Road in [End Page 126] its spontaneous prose style. Is this true? We mostly have to take Johnson’s word for it because she does not elaborate or explain.
This is the main frustration of the biography. Johnson had access to the Kerouac archive in the Berg collection at the New York Public Library. In itself, this is exciting—a wonderful writer with intimate knowledge of Kerouac, pouring over his unpublished texts, could certainly lead to new discoveries. However, she was not given permission to quote extensively from these works, and while there are numerous mentions of the Berg material, they feel like unqualified asides rather than important additions to Kerouac scholarship. The result, then, is that this book feels more like a good reiteration of stories you have heard before: Johnson recounts—in all of its raw exuberance and sordid details—the “lonely” life of Kerouac by focusing on his beliefs, loves, and early writing career. Is it somewhat sensational? You bet. But for Kerouac fans whose shelves sag under the weight of books by and about him, this will be a fine, although nonessential, addition. [End Page 127]