“Don’t mention his name, and his name will pass on.”
—Streets of Laredo
This is the approach I will use in trying to get my arms around the new work by Gerald Nicosia, a tale of scholarship lost, dealing with the state of Jack Kerouac’s heritage, estate and research in the latter part of the 50 years since he shuffled off. The name I’d like forgotten belongs to the family of his third wife, whose zeal to capitalize on Jack’s genius is equaled only by their unwillingness to let the truth be told, when it comes to the many aspects of his life that resist glamour, whether of a sexually experimental or politically cranky nature.
Nicosia’s extensive, career-long excellence in the pursuit of illuminating Kerouac, warts and all, is beyond dispute; except to the cartel controlling virtually every aspect of his literary output, who have decided that shutting Nicosia up will raise the value of their portfolio. While essential to any completist, this volume is much more, the only effort to fill in the vast ellipses of recent critical work on Kerouac. If Nicosia had used legally-required pseudonyms, as was done in Big Sur and other Kerouac novels, this would read in large part like a novel, with echoes of Stevenson’s Kidnapped, for the jaw-dropping machinations deployed to obstruct our protagonist, and to abscond with an inheritance. In addition to delving into the stories and fictions of his French Canadian family tree, worthy of E. Annie Proulx, the book tells movingly of the last frustrating years of Kerouac’s last blood relatives, daughter Jan and nephew Paul Blake, who lived out some of his final years in an abandoned truck in a junk yard, with only Jack’s Zippo lighter as a bequest.
Nicosia documents the saga of the forged will of Gabrielle, Jack’s mother, whose care was the main reason for his final marriage; despite the bogus will being debunked, the family manipulated the legal system to exclude any financial reward to his nephew Paul Blake, Jr. and Paul’s family. (Jack’s destitute daughter was already dead by the time the will challenge went to trial.) Is that your idea of “beat?: The book makes clear that Jack’s plan to get a divorce was a secret worth keeping at any cost to his blood relatives. All nine of the major Kerouac works that were typed onto rolls of paper are now in private hands rather than university collections, and there was even an attempt to control publication of Neal Cassady’s recently discovered Joan Anderson Letter, a major inspiration for Jack — though thankfully the Cassady family ended up with copyright ownership of that document. Further, this chill is cranked into overdrive when it comes to suppressing Nicosia’s monumental 1983 biography, Memory Babe, or any of Nicosia’s subsequent work on the subject. Unlike at the time of his death, all of Jack’s books are now in print, but this new work lays out the many gaps in editing that riddle the newer editions, all put in place by the out-of-control measure of control the in-law family had.
In keeping with the crass monetization of everything that marks our era, I suppose this corporate takeover of the original hipsters is not unexpected; but if the mainstreaming of marijuana has shown us anything, it may be this: a stoned nation is not necessarily an enlightened one. Burroughs wasn’t your average junkie. It was the individual incandescence of the personalities that made their era shine. The unvarnished, flawed, driven Kerouac that brought forth his writing cannot be glimpsed in the sanitized pop culture version that is meant for marketing.
So bang the drum slowly. Thanks in part to the diligence and effort of honest scholars like Nicosia, unlike the varmint in the cowboy song, Jack Kerouac’s name and real value will live on.