AN ABSOLUTELY GIFTED WRITER:
MEMORIES OF JAN KEROUAC
I knew Jan Kerouac as a writer before I ever met her as a person. Early on in my research for Memory Babe, I read a chapter from an autobiographical work by her tentatively called Everthreads; it was published in the City Lights Journal, No. 4, in 1978. Her writing was unbelievably lively, sensitive, humorous, and thoughtful for a young woman of 26. The little excerpt recounted her adventures with several different men in Central America, and it evoked the place and the characters with tremendous vividness. But what was really special about the piece was Jan Kerouac herself--the sense of this mind that loved to rove and play with itself. I remember she wrote something about how, wherever she traveled, she'd always ask herself how she wound up there, and the game of finding an answer kept her from ever getting bored.
When I met Jan a few months later, I was--like most other men on the planet--captivated by her stunning good looks and scintillating intelligence. She seemed to have something interesting to say about almost everything, and--what was immediately apparent--she loved language. Putting words together for her was making something permanent, something of beauty that would last, unlike the fragile earthly beauties of home and family that kept fading beyond her grasp. I remember her telling me, many times, how she hated the fact that words kept changing their meaning and pronunciation through time. She hated the corruption of language and had a special outrage at the mispronunciations of news telecasters and advertising spokespeople.
I was on the road constantly in those days doing interviews for my biography of her father. Jan was on the road because it was her way of life--and remained so almost to the very end. We met in San Francisco, at Carolyn Cassady's house in Los Gatos, at her mother Joan's house in Kittitas, Washington, and at the house of artist Stanley Twardowicz in Huntington, Long Island. Later, Jan would come to stay at my home in Lyons, Illinois, and then in my new home in San Francisco. Whenever we met, she always carried the manila folder with "Everthreads" scrawled in large letters across it. I was only two years older than Jan, but I had a couple of degrees in literature, and Jan looked to me to tell her whether what she was writing was any good. I was able to help with a little grammatical editing; but as far as I was concerned, Jan's work was basically untouchable. It already bore the mark of a unique vision and a unique voice. She was not writing because she was a famous man's daughter. She was writing because she had already lived far more broadly and intensely than most people, and because it was important to her to preserve as much of her life as possible in language. And for someone with almost no formal schooling, she picked up new words, and even the basics of several foreign languages, with an amazingly sure grasp. She was a living argument for the fact that language ability is indeed in the genes.
I began sending out chapters to various magazines and publishers as she wrote them. A lot of the replies were nasty, like one from a woman editor at Playboy, who said, "We don't need an 'On the Road with Kerouac's Daughter.'" Jan would spend her life, and her literary career, always trying to be seen beneath her father's huge shadow. But she considered herself a very different kind of writer than Jack Kerouac. "I'm more subjective," she told me once, speaking about how her own emotions interested her more than action-packed adventure. Ironically, though, when Everthreads was edited, packaged, and marketed as Baby Driver (a title which was forced on Jan by the publisher, and which she always hated), it was the picaresque aspect of the book that was touted--the wild woman in her fast Caddy--and not the mind and soul explorer that truly made her and her work so special.
Of course it was miracle enough that the book did get out. Jan had gotten halfway finished and then put the manuscript on the shelf. She was living with her mother and working in a corn cannery, and she thought of going to college because in Washington she could get an educational subsidy. Larry Lee and Barry Gifford brought her down to San Francisco for the ten-year anniversary of her father's death, a gala celebration which also marked the publication of their oral biography Jack's Book, at the Old Spaghetti Factory in North Beach, in October, 1979. One night while she was in town, we sat at the bar in Vesuvio's, and she told me she had given up writing because she could never earn a living that way, and that college might at least land her a decent job. I told her my two degrees had scarcely earned me anything, and I promised her that if she kept writing, I would do everything possible to see her published.
Before she left the Bay Area, I introduced her to Joyce Cole, who was just starting her own literary agency. With the encouragement of both myself and Cole, Jan kept writing for another year, till the book was finished, though she still labored at lousy jobs like short-order cook and dishwasher. Then Cole managed to sell the book to St. Martin's, where a sharp editor, Barbara Anderson, did a good job of focusing on the most interesting parts and giving some order to what had been a fairly rambling narrative. Jan's instinct was always to include everything. I think, had she had the time and a crisis-free life, she would, like Proust, have finally put together one huge, all-inclusive autobiography. She had invented the title Everthreads because her mother was a seamstress, but it also reflected her view of her life as one long, entangled continuum, from which past, present, and future were never completely separable.
In the last two years, when she could no longer see enough to work on a typewriter, she was trying to put as much of her life as she could remember on tape. Sadly, the kidney failure was also beginning to take away significant areas of her memory too, and the loss of whole chunks of her experience grieved her even more than the freedom she'd lost having to do dialysis four times a day.
It was Barbara Anderson who structured Baby Driver with chapters alternating between Jan as child and Jan as hell-raising young woman. It made the book a neater product, but Jan was never completely happy with it. She wished that she'd been able to find a structure to convey that the two Jan Kerouacs were really one and the same: a more complex truth, even if literarily less clever.
After the publication of Baby Driver in 1981, several years went by before I saw Jan again. She was making the most of celebrity, traveling everywhere, lecturing and reading her work, going through men, drink, drugs, and every sort of experience at a frighteningly fast pace. In 1985, just back from Baja California, she stopped in San Francisco to see me,
Taking off her clothes
was no big deal
to have lunch, show off the new paperback edition of Baby Driver with a picture of her leaning against a big car, and to tell me about her next novel. She was calling it Loverbs, a title which meant to convey that action was somehow her way of searching for love. The more I got to know Jan, in fact, the more I came to realize that where everyone saw this fantastically gorgeous, sexy, daring young woman (for whom taking off her clothes at parties was no big deal), there was really inside Jan a lonely, rejected little girl dying to be truly loved. That she never found that one big, true love was perhaps the greatest tragedy of her life.
Loverbs was finally published as Trainsong, a title which came from the area of Eugene, Oregon, near the railroad tracks where her mother lived. By and large, the book got better reviews than Baby Driver, and with good reason. Carolyn See in the Los Angeles Times picked out the tremendous sadness that underlay much of Jan's adventure writing, and it was that exquisite chord of sadness--like a Beethoven sonata--that touched me most when I read the book. My favorite passage in it will always be the scene at Allen Ginsberg's house in Boulder, on October 21, when she looks into the blue flame of the furnace grate and says "Daddy," wondering how she can ever find her father again after so much lost time.
When Jan died, she was struggling to finish her third novel, Parrot Fever, which would have completed the trilogy of what it meant to be the daughter of the Beat Generation's greatest icon. That book marks a great deal of growth in her as a writer. She was writing in the third person, to obtain greater objectivity, and she had split herself into two half-sisters, both of them scarred by a missing father. One had gone into the depths of life, into drugs, stripping, and petty crime; the other had become a rootless wanderer and a writer. Somehow she wanted to make sense of her schizophrenic life by bringing both those characters together at the death of their mother--which was to be the death of Jan's own mother, Joan, on Mother's Day, 1990. The theme of the book was to have been loss and rebirth, something Jan knew in her soul since she was old enough to notice that "Daddy" wasn't there.
Because she was working on tape at the end of her life, it is unclear how much of Parrot Fever was completed. Ideally it will be published with the other two novels someday as part of the trilogy she intended--a movement from joy and exuberance through pain, sorrow, and loss, to final understanding and redemption. No other child of a Beat hero has attempted such an ambitious chronicle. Even in its incompletion, Jan Kerouac's work is a literary milestone that will surely gain in recognition and admiration as time passes and her accomplishment can stand free of the adversity and controversy that were, besides his name, a famous father's only legacy to her. ##
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