“The only way his feelings came out was through his writing” – Jan Kerouac (Jack Kerouac’s daughter)
I discovered Jack Kerouac in the way many people do, with reading On the Road in my teens. Now I think I was far too young to properly appreciate the book but I was still fascinated by it; the breakneck speed of it, the poetic language, and the romantic myth behind its creation, written in three weeks by a genius fuelled by coffee and Benzedrine. To this day, On the Road is the only book of Kerouac’s that I have read, but I have made my way though a lot of the other Beat generation literature and poetry. When I saw a documentary in Laser entitled What happened to Kerouac knew it was one to watch.
What happened to Kerouac attempts to deconstruct the myth of Kerouac and central to this is the archive footage of Kerouac on television talkshows and being interviewed. He’s funny, rapid fire and quick witted with an obviously short boredom threshold. He seems physically awkward, despite his good looks, but once he starts reading his prose he becomes clear, confident, charismatic. His performance on The Steve Allen Show, reading On the Road to a backdrop of jazz, is mesmerising.
The documentary contains interviews with practically every household name from the Beat Generation: poet Gregory Corso (who comes across as wily, sharp and very funny), Beat legend Herbert Huncke, Fran Landesman, Allen Ginsberg,William Burroughs (who says that Jack was the person who persuaded Burroughs to become a writer and gave him the title for his famous novel Naked Lunch), poet Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (co-founder of City Lights Bookstore and poet) and Gary Snyder. There’s also rare footage of Jack’s muse Neal Cassady who was the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in On the Road, and interviews with Kerouac’s daughter Jan, and his first wife Edie Parker Kerouac. The soundtrack features footage and recordings of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and the jazz musicians that influenced the Beats.
Kerouac believed in spontaneous prose, the idea that honing one’s prose often took it further away from the point one was trying to make or the initial emotional reaction, and his 30 rules of spontaneous prose are often cited as inspirational by other writers. He defied convention and wrote in the way he wanted to which meant that he put his career on the line and came under fire from critics. Most famously Truman Capote said, ‘That’s typing, not writing.’ However there are many who believe that Kerouac was the most exciting writer of his generation.
In the documentary Corso describes the degrees of ability in terms of creativity. He classifies it, in ascending order, as talent, genius and divine. He believed Kerouac was divine and certainly many of Kerouac’s contemporaries believed he was a visionary. Everything in Jack’s life was secondary to writing: women, family, even his health. He found relationships stifling and knew he was not ready for a family of his own, and so sought affairs with married women as being perfect for his needs.
Jack was very handsome when young and was described as possessing ‘movie star good looks’. His looks and his writing suffered as his alcoholism progressed. When asked why he drank so much, Fran Landesman said he told her, ‘I’m a Catholic and I can’t commit suicide so I’m going to drink myself to death’. He knew his fate many years before it happened. Kerouac died from an internal hemorrhage caused by cirrhosis of the liver, the result of a lifetime of severe alcoholism.
The documentary is a brilliant insight into not just Kerouac and his writing but the Beats in general. Highly recommended.