Randy Roark


Jack Kerouac’s Nine Lives: Essays by Jim Jones

Jack Kerouac’s Nine Lives: Essays by Jim Jones
Elbow/Cityful Press

Jim Jones is now the author of four books on Kerouac, and was far advanced on a biography of Jan Kerouac before she pulled the plug late in their association. His encyclopedic knowledge of Kerouac and Kerouac’s writings as evidenced in the three essays included in “Jack Kerouac’s Nine Lives” is almost frightening.

The title essay is a chronological review of the ten full-scale biographies currently available on Kerouac. Jones is harshest on the first two, denouncing Ann Charters’ “Jack Kerouac: A Biography” as flawed agit-prop hagiography, and Charles Jarvis’ “Visions of Kerouac” as “rambling and idiosyncratic.” But all of the first seven biographies—including “Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography,” Dennis McNally’s “Desolate Angel,” Gerard Nicosia’s “Memory Babe,” Tom Clark’s “Jack Kerouac,” and Steven Turner’s “Angel-Head Hipster”—all come up short in Jones’ estimation, mostly because they confuse Kerouac’s self-serving “fictional autobiographies” with the truth. Ironically, Jones innocently includes an example of this practice in the final essay of his book, a delightful study of Kerouac’s two days in Seattle, where sections of Kerouac’s “fictions” and journalistic pieces are folded into the narrative equivalent with fact.

What will be most surprising to most Kerouac fans is that the two biographical works that Jones chooses to praise are Ellis Amburn’s “Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Kerouac,” the recent biography whose marketing campaign consisted of shouting that it was an expose of a “hidden” Kerouac who used homosexual relationships to further his literary career (which Jones describes as “the fullest and most rounded account of Kerouac’s life to date”), and Barry Miles’ irritable, argumentative, and (ultimately) dismissive biography “Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats,” whose preface Jones declares “is probably the most incisive and comprehensive analysis of Kerouac’s life and work yet written.”

I found “Kerouactonyms”—the central essay of the book—to be the most thought-provoking. It begins with an encyclopedic catalog and analysis of how Kerouac used characters’ names—both actual and fictional—in his work. From there, Jones examines the process of naming itself. This essay comes to its conclusion quoting extensively from the work of Tim Hunt (“Kerouac’s Crooked Road: Development of a Fiction”). The argument, as far as I can understand it, is that in his early writings Kerouac made an effort to mask his novels’ autobiographical sources in the elements of traditional realism. Beginning with “Visions of Cody,” Kerouac made an effort to reveal these autobiographical elements more explicitly, and this suggests a psychological maturation on Kerouac’s part more than purely a literary development. According to Hunt, the essence of this psychological deepening came to Kerouac via an understanding that “One can only know another self imaginatively, and if the imagination is not seen as real and able to contain the conflicts of life, then one cannot know another self and may not be real oneself.” This conundrum led Kerouac to a “metaphysical impasse” (continuing to quote from Hunt) “as the unresolvable opposition between the imagination as authority and the world as authority, between the enacting of self as an individual free of society and the possession of identity within and from society.” For Hunt, the pivotal moment for Kerouac came during his discovery during the tape transcription portions of “Vision of Cody” that the self (quoting now from Jones) “is an activity rather than an object.” Subsequent to this understanding, Kerouac’s work contained a new “self-consciousness about both the psychic and aesthetic value of self-characterization.” This leads Hunt (and presumably Jones) to his conclusion that the narrator of “Visions of Cody” “is actually more real than the Kerouac behind it, and the understanding of the Kerouac of the text transcends that of the Kerouac outside it.”

This is, I believe, the key to the critical irritation Jones expresses when reviewing the biographies of Kerouac where the authors have “fallen for” Kerouac’s creative fictions as a stand-in for the “real story.” For Jones, those biographers give Kerouac both too much credit and not enough, because his novels were works of imagination and were created in order to balance a life gone horribly wrong.

But I find it hard to find evidence that Kerouac believed anything of the sort. In fact, if there is one constant thread in Kerouac’s writing, it is that the writing itself is a probe into the world, and into others, fueled by the process of observation, not imagination. Kerouac himself may have been confused about the actual process—taking an imaginative process for an actual one—but even his narrator’s expressions of self-doubt and self-questioning are presented as ultimate truth. And I believe that the energy in his descriptions—whether of a late-night car ride or a jazz musician in a smoky bar or a Sunday afternoon football game or a row of pastries in a New York City delicatessen window—radiate from an intense seeing into an underlying reality, not an imaginative function creating what is not really there. And if Kerouac came to doubt the veracity of this process late in life—and he may have—I’m not convinced that he really believed it was not possible, only that he had failed to enter into reality completely. I imagine that both Hunt and Jones would answer that we can only experience what we experience while reading Kerouac in our imaginations, and that what we see is solely a function of Kerouac’s imagination and descriptive skills. But if this is so, then I think Kerouac’s genius is even more remarkable.