Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Voice is All by Joyce Johnson

Source of book: I own this.

My wife’s brother is the reason I have read Kerouac. For whatever reason, he wasn’t one of the authors we studied in high school (presumably too modern for the curriculum to take seriously…), and I never ended up reading him later.

My brother-in-law recommended I read The Dharma Bums, in significant part because he duplicated the epic hike to California’s Matterhorn (not to be confused with the one in Switzerland) described in that book. Then, to top it off, he gave me this book a couple of years ago. I have put off reading it at least until I finished The Dharma Bums, as it seemed odd to read a book about an author I hadn’t read. 

The Voice is All was written by Joyce Johnson, who was one of Kerouac’s many lovers - she came fairly late in his life. The book, while a biography, does not deal with that relationship at all. (Other than a couple of asides at appropriate places.) The main reason for this is that the story of Kerouac in this book ends in 1951, at the point when Jack figures out how he wants to re-write On The Road. We all know that he will eventually (1957) find a publisher for the book, and make his reputation as a writer.

Two things stand out in Johnson’s approach to Kerouac’s life. First, she emphasises his French-Canadian heritage, and the fact that he spoke Breton French before he learned English. She believes that this was one reason Kerouac never felt truly part of America. He was always an outsider as an immigrant, and as a French speaker.

It sounds weird to us now, but back in the 1920s, French Canadians were looked down on as uneducated, dirty immigrants. They were hated even by other immigrant groups, as their religious beliefs kept them from joining in strikes, and they were perceived as driving wages down by working for less than anyone else. Hey, like Latinos today, right?

The other emphasis in this book is on Kerouac’s struggle to write. While the other events in his life are mentioned, his writing process takes center stage. 

 The original draft of On The Road, which Kerouac typed on a scroll of paper, so he didn't have to interrupt his thoughts to change paper.

Johnson relies heavily on the voluminous correspondence between Kerouac and his friends and family. These documents are quoted throughout, and painstakingly listed in the endnotes. Johnson did her homework well.

Don’t get the impression that this book is dry, however. Johnson is an excellent writer, with compelling prose that makes the detail of what is hardly a short book flow by painlessly. I found the book to be a delightful read, even if the subject matter is often less than pleasant.

It is no mystery why. Kerouac struggled with substance abuse and (more likely than not) some form of mental illness. (Bipolar certainly comes to mind after reading this book.) He and the rest of the Beats, in addition to their legendary drunken benders, sure seemed to be in and out of each other’s beds a lot. It is amazing they ever got any writing done, in some ways. Not the lifestyle I would like to imitate, clearly. I’m good with a stable monogamous marriage and no hangovers, thank you very much.

On the other hand, it was rather fascinating to see the dynamics of the Beats from their early college days in New York. The kind of gruesome and sad episode where Lucien Carr ends up killing the man who was both a mentor and a sexual predator was one I hadn’t heard before. (And really, Lucien is mostly notable because of this incident - Kerouac help dispose of the knife, and ended up marrying his first wife so that he could get out on bail. Also, because Allen Ginsberg was madly in unrequited love with Lucien.)

Allen Ginsberg was intimately involved in the story throughout, both as Kerouac’s friend and as a character in many of his books. I have mixed feelings about Ginsberg both personally and as an artist. I have had a hard time getting into his poetry for the same reason Whitman leaves me cold most of the time: it feels more like lists and rambling than poetry to me. I know that is an aesthetic issue, and I guess I like what I like. (At least I enjoy poetry, which is pretty rare these days…) I also had a negative impression of Ginsberg because of his connection with NAMBLA, which I find morally loathsome (see Kevin Spacey) and believe has been a major hindrance to the gay rights cause. On the other, Ginsberg as a young man seems more pitiable and sensitive than the others of the Beats. He spends a lot of this book trying to come to terms with his homosexuality, his horrible childhood with a mentally ill mother, and his unrequited crushes. In addition to Lucien Carr, Ginsberg ends up obsessed with Neal Cassady, who was likely bisexual, but also a narcissist incapable of giving back.

Also apparent in this book was the sexism of the Beats. They really expected the women they were involved with to do everything from the cooking and cleaning, to working to support them. Yet another reason I personally find the lifestyle unappealing. But as with most artists, you have to separate out the person and the art to some degree. It is difficult, for example, to find much of anyone without sexist beliefs a few hundred years ago - or even 60 years ago. It is what it is, but I am glad to live when I do.

One more thing that comes to mind in this context is the sense of sexual entitlement - and not just of the Beats. Kerouac’s parents were fairly devout Catholics. Particularly his mother. But that didn’t stop his father from sleeping with prostitutes throughout their marriage. It was amusing that they were horrified that Jack cohabited with his future first wife - his father had no problem if Jack had just gone for a hooker, but cohabiting with an (otherwise) respectable girl? Horrors! But that was the way of it then. And the Beats weren’t any better, treating women as disposable and expecting them to be sexually available whenever - and to whomever. This is also a reminder to me that our current moment when a bunch of creepy old men are being outed as predators isn’t really a tale of men being worse than before - but one of social mores changing to make predatory and assaultive behavior no longer acceptable.

Another interesting thing about Kerouac - and his portrayal in this book - is his essential restlessness (perhaps from his peripatetic childhood) and constant seeking of epiphanies which were out of reach and short lived when they finally came. As Johnson describes one of the early quests, “Jack seemed to be hoping that the voyage would be a cleansing and transformative experience from which he would emerge renewed like a character in a novel.” This is a common refrain, both in this book, and in The Dharma Bums. It seems like Kerouac had epiphany after epiphany, but nothing lasted, and he was off to find the next high. This is why I suspect he was bipolar. It also is likely a primary driver of his alcohol abuse.

One final thing that stood out to me is just how revolting I find Neal Cassady as a person. He never accomplished anything of note, abused women, toyed with the affections of everyone he knew, and acted like an entitled narcissist. The only reason anyone remembers him at all was that Kerouac and Ginsberg were obsessed with him. Ginsberg for sexual reasons, and Kerouac for, well, for being some sort of a non-sexual soulmate? It is hard to know what to call it - but it was definitely a crush. And I guess Cassady had the same charm to women too. Was he a heartthrob? I am the wrong person to ask, as I am strongly heterosexual. I guess he - and Kerouac - had that kind of James Dean look going. So maybe. If so, that makes him even more annoying. As a short man without good looks, I strongly dislike those people who get by on good looks and charm (whether male or female.) So, Neal Cassady, I dislike you already, and I haven’t read On The Road yet. Maybe I can yell at the book when I do read it.

The Voice is All is definitely an interesting book - there is so much more I haven’t even mentioned. Johnson tells the story well, and there is a lot about Kerouac’s life that is fascinating. This is a time in history that has tended to be venerated and sanitized. The narrative is that everything was great in the 1940s and 50s, before the 60s ruined everything. That is just the rose-colored glasses, though. History has always been messy, and the worst we can do is meet our heroes. This book is a reminder that there really never was a golden age without bad behavior. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys Kerouac - and also for those who don’t, but would like insight into his life and times and what the fuss is all about.


Just a fun connection: Back in September, my brother (who plays fiddle in an Irish band) put together a night of oddball music in the greater folk tradition. As part of that, he and I performed a couple of French Canadian fiddle tunes - a “Breton” set, as he called it.  The two tunes we played were Le Reve du Queteux Tremblay (Beggar Tremblay’s Dream) and Le Bedeau de l’Enfer (The Deacon from Hell), a couple of “crooked reels” with shifting time signatures and jarring rhythms. In other words, dances only the Devil himself could dance. Fitting, since we fiddle players have always been suspected of being in league with the Devil.

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