Starred Review in PW
An intimate of Kerouac who has chronicled his life and the beat culture (including
in her award-winning 1983 memoir, Minor Characters), Johnson brings an insider’s
perspective to this insightful study of how Kerouac found his literary voice. Delving
into his formative years, she paints a portrait of the artist as a sensitive young man,
haunted from age four by the death of his older brother, Gerard, and hampered by
his family’s frequent moves. In her most novel analysis, Johnson asserts that
growing up speaking joual in his insular French-Canadian household fostered an
unwieldy internal translation process whereby Kerouac “had to figure out how to
capture his ‘simultaneous impressions’ in English.
”Kerouac’s voracious reading of Thomas Wolfe, Dostoyevski, and Céline; restless
travels; drinking and drug use; prolific writing and revising; and socializing with
fellow beats—especially Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, John Clellon Holmes,
and Neal Cassady—kept him striving to express “‘the big rushing tremendousness in me and all poets.”
In unsparing detail, Johnson depicts Kerouac’s contradictions and self-destructive tendencies, and the
recklessness of certain relationships that impeded as much as they facilitated the discovery of his true voice.
Johnson excels in hercolorful, candid assessment of the evolution of this voice—up through the genesis of On
the Road—the point where most other appraisals of Kerouac begin.
Agent: Irene Skolnick, Irene Skolnick Literary Agency. (Sept.)
Joyce Johnson. Viking, $32.95 (512p) ISBN 978-0-670-02510-7