Beat Bios

The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac
Ellis Amburn
St. Martin's Griffin ($16.95)

Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life
Howard Sounes
Grove Press ($15)

A Portrait of Paul Bowles
Millicent Dillon
University of California Press ($17.95)

A Daughter's Memoir
Ianthe Brautigan
St. Martin's Press ($21.95)

by Mark Terrill

What do Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Paul Bowles and Richard Brautigan all have in common, besides these four recent biographies and memoir? Disparate as their visions and methods may have been, all left their unique and indelible signatures on the post-WWII literary landscape through a series of highly influential works. The more obvious common denominator would be the Beats, whose popularity provided a convenient window of opportunity for all four of these writers. But while all of these writers may have been included at one time or another under the Beat rubric (however loosely and to varying degrees), it was invariably against their will, and that includes the "King of the Beats" himself, Jack Kerouac.

Despite certain stylistic similarities between Bukowski's work and that of the Beats, Bukowski was too much of a lone wolf and outsider to be authentically included in any particular group, movement, or school, caught up as he was in his own claustrophobic world of blue-collar, skid row despair, that proletarian continuum of booze, broads and brawling that made him so endearingly popular. At the other end of the spectrum was Paul Bowles, always the dandy and gentleman, travelling through North Africa in his Jaguar sedan with his Moroccan driver and stacks of trunks and suitcases full of impeccable suits and ties and shoes, sometimes even accompanied by a parrot in a cage, about as far from On the Road as you could get while still being on the road. Other than a few snapshots where he appears in the company of Ginsberg, Burroughs and Corso, and despite the fact that Bowles was also an experimenter with drugs and their relation to creativity, he really didn't have much in common with the Beats. Bowles was Bowles wherever he went, which seemed to follow a course along the frontier of Western civilization, especially those places where it came into dangerously close contact with primitive or native cultures that had little respect or even understanding of Western ways, a sort of moveable confrontation which formed the basis of the majority of his work. His macabre and at time nihilistic stories and novels had more in common with post-war existentialism than anything Beat or beatific.

Charles Bukowski

Another highly individualistic and totally unique writer, Richard Brautigan got caught up in the heyday of San Francisco's legendary North Beach scene, which became the west coast locus for the Beats in the late fifties and early sixties. While Brautigan may have benefited from many of his contacts in this heady, creative era, his default inclusion in and identification with the flower-power hippie scene that followed on the heels of the Beats was profoundly detrimental to his career. When the hippies finally faded away, so did Brautigan's reputation, throwing him into an irreversible, alcohol-fueled, psychological tailspin that eventually ended with his suicide in 1984.

Reading Brautigan today, it becomes immediately apparent just how little his work had to do with any cultural epoch or "scene," his curious mixture of fantasy, reality, the surreal and deadpan humor providing the underpinning for an oeuvre that remains both timeless and transcendental, and universal in appeal. The fact that Trout Fishing in America was dedicated to both Jack Spicer (who worked closely with Brautigan on editing and revising the book) and Ron Loewinsohn shows that Brautigan's commitment was primarily to the exploration of the boundaries of language and the narrative, much more so than establishing any affinities or bonds with Ferlinghetti & Co., who represented the opposite end of the literary axis of the North Beach scene.

Kerouac's struggle with the Beat moniker was one of the key factors in his gradual self-destruction. When On the Road finally appeared in 1957, after languishing in editorial limbo for almost seven years, Kerouac had come a long way, having just finished writing Some of the Dharma, which documented his wayward spiritual search and his quasi-commitment to Buddhism, and was already a full-bore alcoholic. The wild and carefree days of On the Road were far behind him, and the Beats and all things Beat would plague him until his death from cirrhosis of the liver in 1969.

These tragic conflicts and a host of others are the basis for Ellis Amburn's excellent biography, Subterranean Kerouac. Amburn had the advantage of being Kerouac's last editor, from 1964 to 1969, shares the dedication page of Vanity of Duluoz with Kerouac's wife, Stella, and speaks with an intimate authority not always granted to other Kerouac biographers. Amburn also had access to letters and papers not previously available to other biographers, as well as full cooperation from Kerouac's literary estate and surviving relatives. In a disclaimer in the introduction, Amburn says that his biography "focuses on Kerouac and the world that would inspire his novels, as opposed to being a work that examines his oeuvre from a more literary basis. I leave that formidable task to the literary scholars." The curious thing is, by presenting such a critical and intimately detailed portrait of the author himself, Amburn's book gives the reader more insight into the genesis of Kerouac's writing than the Kerouac biographies that did attempt to focus on the more literary aspects of Kerouac's life.

A good deal of attention is given to the critical acceptance (or rejection) of Kerouac's work as it appeared, as well as Kerouac's reaction to such criticism, providing a reverse-angle point of view of how Kerouac was perceived and what he found himself up against in the conservative, reactionary atmosphere of post-war America. Kerouac's sexual ambivalence, which, according to Amburn, Kerouac tried to resolve with "compulsive heterosexuality," is also essential to understanding the extremely paradoxical nature of Kerouac's troubled personality, and is one of the many aspects discussed in detail by Amburn. Also, in this critical portrait of the King of the Beats, there is no glossing over of Kerouac's misogynist and racist tendencies, nor of his construed (confused), seemingly right wing politics. At 435 pages, with extensive notes, bibliography, index and photos, Subterranean Kerouac provides an excellent opportunity to reassess the rise and fall of this troubled genius, a story that, as Amburn says in his introduction, resembles a "Greek tragedy in which a great and talented human being is destroyed by his fatal flaws."

You Are Not I

While there are almost as many books about Kerouac as there are about Hitler, there are only two extensive, full-scale biographies of Bukowski, the most recent being Howard Sounes' Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life. Bukowski was a big guy, with a big life, who left behind an even bigger body of work, and is certainly worthy of a biography of commensurate measure. Unfortunately, neither Neeli Cherkovski's Bukowski: A Life, nor Sounes' book measure up to this task. The greatest single challenge facing any Bukowski biographer is the transparency of Bukowski's already legendary existence. The semi-autobiographical nature of Bukowski's work (more than forty-five books of poetry and prose, plus hundreds of magazine publications), along with three posthumous volumes of his correspondence, as well as Russell Harrison's excellent book of essays on Bukowski, Against the American Dream, provide Bukowski's readers with almost all they need to know about his rough-and-tumble existence and the critical parameters of his writing.

Sounes, an English journalist who lives in London, never met Bukowski, and has relied mostly on interviews with Bukowski's surviving family, friends, foes, work colleagues, ex-girlfriends, and widow. He has obviously done his homework, having hunted down documents relating to Bukowski's family and employment history, his draft record, and criminal convictions, in a search that went from Los Angeles to Andernach, Germany (Bukowski's birthplace), and back again. From all of this source material, Sounes has woven a highly readable narrative that chronicles (albeit somewhat hurriedly) the life and times of the "dirty old man of American letters." Unfortunately, the end product resembles a long, breezy magazine article about a colorful and controversial character, based on the pretense of the "underdog overcoming adversity," with Bukowski's drinking, fighting and womanizing well at the forefront. Absent is any sort of attempt to place Bukowski's writing in a truly critical light. There is only a minimal mention of how Bukowski's work was initially received by the critics, the controversy that surrounded his gradual claim to fame and increasing popularity, and the true nature of the adversity that Bukowski initially faced as a writer, determined as he was to go it alone, without the safety net of any particular school of writing, movement, or academia.

Bukowski's rise from the gutter to international fame as an author remains unprecedented in American letters, and scandalous and entertaining as his day-to-day life may have been, it was Bukowski's single-minded, individualistic approach to writing that earned him his reputation as one of America's best known writers of poetry and prose, and many would claim, its most influential and imitated poet. Obviously, the definitive Bukowski biography would have to take all of these factors into account, and has yet to be written.

Diametrically opposed to Bukowski's transparency and accessibility is the opaque and enigmatic nature of Paul Bowles. Even his own autobiography, Without Stopping (dubbed Without Telling by William Burroughs), told the reader essentially nothing. Millicent Dillon, an excellent writer in her own right, and editor of Out in the World: Selected Letters of Jane Bowles, 1935-1970, and The Portable Paul and Jane Bowles, already proved her acumen and talent for biographical writing with her book, A Little Original Sin: The Life and Works of Jane Bowles. In You Are Not I, she pushes the envelope of biographical writing to new extremes. Much of this book is based on her visits to Tangier to interview Paul Bowles for her biography of his wife, Jane. Gradually, the idea for a book about Paul Bowles himself began to take shape, a project that began in 1992.

Eschewing the standard chronological mode of biography, Dillon has opted for an innovative blend of factual material, conversations, and speculations, using her first meeting with Bowles in 1977 as a point of departure. Utilizing the intimacy of her relationship to Paul Bowles that was established during Dillon's research and countless interviews concerning his wife, it required only a subtle shift to put the focus on Bowles himself. What follows is an absorbing narrative that eventually becomes a self-reflexive consideration of the biographical process itself. The resulting "portrait" is astonishingly detailed and revealing, simultaneously expanding and deconstructing the existing parameters of biographical writing.

You Can't Catch Death

With Richard Brautigan, we're back in the troubled genius, Greek tragedy department. Ianthe Brautigan was twenty-four when her father committed suicide, and has a wealth of experience from which to write. She tells her story in a series of short vignettes, highly reminiscent of her father's unique style, which incorporate childhood memories, dreams, conjecture, and travelogue. The result is a highly personal and subjective portrait, which was obviously a necessary and cathartic step in the process of coming to terms with her father's suicide.

Ianthe Brautigan's warm and at times moving memoir is a compelling read, but really only whets the appetite. In terms of altering the face of American literature, Brautigan is absolutely and unquestioningly on equal footing with Kerouac, Bukowski and Bowles, and is worthy of the same critical assessment. The fact that his work may not have received the same recognition and critical acclaim as these other writers probably lies in the fact that his work actually had more in common with postmodernism than with the Beats or the flower-power culture of the sixties. It's only a matter of time until Brautigan's recognition as a true genius is finally realized. For those of us who wish to know more about this highly original and subversive writer, we'll have to wait until someone finally writes a serious, in-depth biography, preferably something along the lines of Tom Clark's excellent biography of Charles Olson.

Considering the intensity and brilliance of the work of Kerouac and Brautigan, it's almost not surprising that they eventually burned out and succumbed to their own personal demons. Being a genius is not an easy burden to bear. Bukowski was clever enough to mete out his creative output over the years, and considering the hardships he suffered for the majority of his life, it seems only just that he was able to enjoy the eventual success and recognition that he deserved. Bowles, whose career as an artist began long before those of Kerouac, Bukowski and Brautigan, and who managed to outlive all of them, remained outside, both artistically and geographically, until his death in 1999, but left behind an oeuvre of writing, translations, and music that will continue to be appreciated for years to come.

In terms of risk, all four of these writers aimed incredibly high. The determination to follow their own individual vision, and to move against the cultural current of the time, is what brings these four writers together and sets them apart from the rest. These four books of varying scope and quality reconfirm the undying interest in these pioneers of the literary frontier, and provide an excellent point of departure for a reassessment of their work.

Click here to purchase Subterranean Kerouac at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000