Jack Kerouac: Troubled, Romantic, Starstruck, Doomed

His tales of youthful exuberance inspired a generation, but the end was far from romantic for one of America's best-loved writers...
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Jack Kerouac: Troubled, Romantic, Starstruck, Doomed

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Some would say later that for all Kerouac's wanderlust and quest to find the heart of the American dream through his poetic travels, it was isolation that destroyed him.

He'd first felt it holed up in a log cabin writing his omnipoetic masterpiece 'On The Road' - the real birth of rock and roll, and genuine rebellion. It had been taken to the hearts of every teenage pistolero who wanted to feel a sense of its mournful echo, but for Kerouac it almost seemed a curse. He'd intended the book to be simply another romantic footnote in the quest for the great American novel, a simple ambition to gain a little money and critical authenticity from his peers, but what had happened in its creation, and in particular that log cabin, would haunt Kerouac forever.

Loneliness, the deep and destructive kind, growing stealthily by the day, the wind blowing outside like a conspirator waiting for the blanket of the dark to come as Kerouac became more invested in his masterwork. His skeletal fingers would type out rhythms on his typewriter on one long sheet of paper that must have seemed never-ending to the writer. It was an exercise in a spirit of consciousness that critics would later describe as summing up the madness of the jazz age. Actually it was more than that. It was madness of the spiritual kind.

It was his girlfriend Joyce Johnson that noticed his dissatisfaction first. Stood on a corner in New York at midnight, holding the reviews for 'On The Road' in her hand she was surprised at just how little their gushing tones meant to him. Hadn't this been what Kerouac had strove for after all, she wondered? For Kerouac however, the way they alluded to him being the King of the Beat Generation troubled him. For all his mythic status as the kingpin poet of the counter-culture collectives, he didn't really buy into what those lifestyles had already come to stand for. He was all for sharp intellectualism challenging the authoritarian conservatism of the day through art, but for the most part all he saw was sloppy hedonism.

Ironically, it was a hedonism that would blight Kerouac's later life too - but for now, he struggled to cope with the steady and suffocating fame the novel brought him. The chat shows that would book him on the pretence of talking about his work, only to field him endless and stupid questions about the 'beatnik' scene. Kerouac would roll his eyes at the banality of it all. The whooshing of thumbs up from a Hollywood system looking to dilute and cash in on the latest youth movement. It would lead him to completely turn his back on the idea of mainstream success. Kerouac's subsequent books were a steady excercise in retaining an artistic purity. His works became more expressionistic and metaphysical, focusing on language and rhythm rather than the traditional ore of traditional American storytelling.

One such book, 'Doctor Sax', was written during a trip the writer took to Mexico with William Burroughs. The book, originally composed in 1952, was as close as Kerouac ever got to personal enchantment with his own work. It's hallucinatory tone and wild slashes of language and imagination thrilled the writer - but upon its release it was cruelly derided by critics, to the point of ridicule. Kerouac had always been a writer that had divided opinion amongst his peers, but in truth, apart from his fellow beat writers, many felt threatened by the new wave of young and exciting American writers. Kerouac in particular seemed to particularly irk both critics and traditionalists alike. He was a rock star really, speaking to the spirit of young rebellion in America and beyond, with a language that was as pure as the guitar riffs that would usher in another revolution a few years later.

He had also by this time developed a few self-destructive tendencies too. Any interviews conducted with Kerouac from this period tended to be shambolic, argumentative affairs, the writer shouting down the interviewer with a mixture of rage and
drunken impudence.

Alcoholism had long been a monkeys paw-type curse in the writers bloodline. His father had been a drunk and had been notoriously violent when under the influence of his many binges. Whatever effect this had on the young sensitive Jack hadn't served as an ominous enough warning. By 1960, and just three years after the publication of 'On The Road', Kerouac was pretty much a full time alcoholic. His best work was now behind him.


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His literary fire had long since burned out and the wanderlust of his younger years had been replaced with a simple and monastic domesticity in a Long Island harbour town called Northport, spent solely with his mother.

Kerouac had an extremely powerful relationship with his mother. He adored her and she refused to let him go far from her apron strings. To an outsider it seemed a suffocating situation for a grown man to be in. More than one of Kerouac's girlfriends who had tried to come between them had paid the price for what the writer seen as wanton disloyalty. Crucially however, Kerouacs mother didn't seem able to cast any temperance on the writers downward spiral into alcoholism.

To the residents of Northport, Kerouac wasn't so much a literary genius as a sad barfly. Unshaven, shuffling around unkempt and scruffy, the writer would hassle locals for drinks and regale them with stories and language they hardly were able to understand or really be bothered with. Occasionally an old friend would turn up from the barricades, a Neal Cassady or an Alan Ginsberg, but for the most part Kerouac shunned the narcissism of the Greenwich village set for the company of lesser known folk. He worked on various small writing projects - but unlike the 1950's, where he had written one novel after another - there was nothing burning inside him to get out. The posthumous release of his books still made him seem a lot busier than he was. In truth, by the mid-sixties, Kerouac was no longer really operating as a working writer anyway.

Fast forward to 1969, and a journalist and a photographer from the Tampa Bay Times are dispatched to the writers residence on 10th Avenue for an exclusive interview with the writer. It's October and after a series of no shows, they finally get to track their man down through a crack in the door he's finally opened up long enough to cast a suspicious eye over them. He eventually allows them inside. At first they're shocked by his appearance. Not the alcoholism, for Kerouac is well noted for that, but his physical form. An untreated hernia makes his stomach bulge through his shirt and he seems stooped as if a great weight has been pressing down on his weakened body for a long time. He seems broken mentally too. He slurs and shouts in equal measures. At one point he even offers to fight the photographer, much to the lensman's pleasant surprise.

After a while though, he begins to calm down. He steadies himself and begins to regale them with tales from his literary adventures. He tells them about strapping two pounds of raw grass to his body across the Mexican border and speeding with Neal Cassady with the accelerator pushed to breaking point. He tells them about Ginsberg, Burroughs, the Beat Generation, and as he does so the years seem to drop off him by the sentence. He paces the room like a whirlwind, smoking endless cigarettes, and he feels it returning. The hot knife in the spine and the mad energy of the storyteller. Pushing back the years. Giving him one last swing at the great American dream from a standing start. Which is more than he'd ever asked for, in truth.

It was to prove prophetic. Seven days later Jack Kerouac would die from an internal haemorrhage brought on by his constant drinking. The last act of a great American hero would be extinguished forever in the American sunset.

Troubled. Romantic. Starstruck. Doomed. He was just 47 years old.