Free Beer: Kicks & Truth with Jack Kerouac, and other strong drinks is a collection of twelve stories by Cliff Anderson. Also included is Kerouac scholar Rod Anstee’s 1990 interview with Anderson, titled “Dare to be Kind.”
In the tale that gives this collection its title, “Free Beer,” Anderson recounts his friendship with Jack Kerouac, which began in St. Petersburg, Florida and spawned many entertaining adventures over the course of several years in the nineteen-sixties. This tale, along with the interview, is the heart of the book.
“So hang on all you bums and I’ll tall you the woo and true tale of old Ti Jean Kerouac’s last desolation years on this side of the curtain….”
After an accidental encounter with a drunken Kerouac at the Tic-Toc Whiskey Bar in St. Petersburg, Florida, the two quickly became friends.
“Jack danced out of his room, wisping the air with a twenty dollar bill and we were off for a fifteen day introductory course in American literature and Dharma combat, stopping by his house every once in a while for more money.”
Anderson recalls the two playing pool, bar-hopping at “every bar I knew of in town and on the beaches felt our awful presence.” Their adventures together include Anderson bailing Jack out of jail for peeing in public, wild nights at the Wild Boar tavern (“a bum’s Camelot”), encounters with the local press and Jack’s family, among others. There’s also a drunken road trip to see Allen Ginsberg and John Clellon Holmes, and Lowell, Jack’s hometown.
Others have painted Kerouac as an unpleasant, desperately sad character toward the end of his life; in “Free Beer” Cliff Anderson shows him instead as a brilliant man, full of life, human moods and complexity (Anderson labels his alternating moods “Jeckyll” and “Hyde”).
The short story Anderson and Jack wrote together, “The Bottom Drawer Affairs of Woolie Williams or Kicks and Truth,” is also included here.
Rod Anstee’s interview with Anderson goes into the pair’s adventures, Kerouac’s Jeckyll and Hyde personality, family relationships & friendships, pacifism, and health, among a slew of other topics.
Most of the stories have in common that they involve groups of friends finding excitement and meaning in relatively ordinary circumstances: raising a barn in a storm, collecting a mortgage payment from a poor man, tragically over-trimming an oak tree. Bars and manual labor are other common story elements.
The collection begins with “A Big Apple Christmas.” As a southerner in 1970, Anderson moves to NY and meets a guy with a Christmas tree farm, who gives he & his friend some trees to sell. Their difficulties in actually selling the trees make for a engrossing and entertaining tale.
In “Midnight Passage,” a group of friends meet in a bar and wind up the night in a drunken, harrowing experience. “Flight 1170 Delayed,” about the drama surrounding a cowboy and his guitar at an airport, has a surprising ending. In “Holiday in Austria,” a group of friends meet in a ski resort and leave with some vivid memories.
I read this book on Kindle where I noticed a number of formatting issues and little editing errors. However, the stories are compelling enough that these minor issues didn’t stop me from plowing through “Free Beer” on a lazy afternoon. (Free Beer is also available in paperback.)
While readers interested in Kerouac will certainly find the title story and the interview to be the highlights of this collection, Cliff Anderson’s ability to spin a tale, combined with his wit and writing style (which is influenced by that of his famous drinking buddy) make the other stories in Free Beer well worth reading.