JAN KEROUAC: A Life in Memory

edited by Gerald Nicosia
Noodlebrain Press ($21.95)

by Mark Spitzer

The only child of Jack Kerouac, Jan Kerouac lived a colorful and chaotic life. She was a raven-haired, blue-eyed beauty who shot heroin at thirteen, became a prostitute, surpassed her father in globetrotting goofery, and published poetry, fiction, and two memoirs: Baby Driver (St. Martin’s, 1981) and Trainsong (Henry Holt, 1988). Her highly awaited last novel, however, which was supposed to be published posthumously in 1999, got caught up in the legal struggles that dogged Jan toward the end of her short life. Like her father who died from complications from liver failure, she died of complications from kidney failure. Both were in their mid-forties.

To keep her memory alive, Kerouac biographer Gerald Nicosia has assembled an anthology of first-person narratives remembering Jan. This book includes essays by Aram Saroyan, Brenda Knight, Phil Cousineau, John Allen Cassady, Jacques Kirouac, and others, as well as an in-depth interview with Jan by Nicosia, who was her literary executor, friend to the end, and champion in life and death. If anything, this collection of new material provides further insight into the two major thematic battles of an extraordinary literary life.

The first has to do with Jan’s search for her father. His absence affected her psyche tremendously, and led to abusive relationships, fantasies of incest, and pressures to distinguish her own voice from that of her “noodlebrain” father’s. But in the interview, she basically exonerates him for abandoning her. “I didn’t want to bring the harsh reality of my needs to him . . . If he had hung around and been a father to me, he wouldn’t have written all his books.”

Jan’s other major battle was with John Sampas, the brother of Jack’s last wife. Sampas managed to commandeer the executorship of Jack’s estate, exclude Jan from her inheritance, and manipulate some powerful publishers into censoring any mention of her from numerous books by and about her father. Hence, as Nicosia notes in his introduction, “this book comes as a response to the fact that Jan Kerouac—both her life and her work, indeed her very existence—is being systematically erased from literary history.” This refers to one of the most polemically charged and complicated scandals in American lit, which came to a head in 1995 when Jan was prevented from addressing the audience at a New York University Jack Kerouac conference. At this point, she was already on dialysis four times per day, living in constant poverty, and had amassed medical bills she could never pay. Jan died exactly one year to the day after being booted from the conference, and in Florida her grandmother’s will is still being contested for forgery.

Meanwhile, Nicosia’s collection is full of reflections, meditations, anecdotes, speculations, and loads of engaging biographical material on one of the most overlooked writers in the wanderlust/lust-for-life lineage pioneered by her father. The chapters are brief, the voices reverent, and there’s a cache of rare photos collected for the first time. In an age when “the women of the Beats” (Edie Kerouac-Parker, Carolyn Cassady, Hettie Jones, etc.) are beginning to be recognized as artists outside the shadow of their men, Jan Kerouac: A Life in Memory is indispensable reading. It is also highly entertaining, provocative in many ways, and ultimately, a tragic portrait of the inescapable on-the-road spirit that has captivated generations.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009