THE VOICE IS ALL
The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac
By Joyce Johnson
Viking, 512 pp., $32.95
Joyce Johnson's new biography of Beat writer Jack Kerouac vies for room on a crowded shelf. Over the years, the literary industry surrounding Kerouac has produced several gems, among them Johnson's own 1983 memoir, Minor Characters (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award), which chronicled her affair with Kerouac and the lives of the other women who hitched themselves to the Beats--all the while holding down jobs, warming up pea soup, emptying ashtrays, suffering indifferent sex, and patiently awaiting the return of their wayward men. Part of the charm of Minor Characters was Johnson's acknowledgment of how young and out of her depth she had been, a point made even more painfully clear in her letters to Kerouac, collected in Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters, 1957-1958.
Yet, with so much already said about Kerouac, Johnson's latest effort struggles to justify itself. "For many years, I waited for a definitive biography of Kerouac to appear," she writes in the introduction to The Voice Is All. "But I have come to wonder ... whether there can be such a thing? She then reviews her options. "One can emphasize the Beat aspect, while treating the ways Kerouac does not seem Beat at all as puzzling inconsistencies.... One can speculate on the nature of Kerouac's sexuality; present a relentless chronicle of his drinking and dysfunctional behavior; call him a saint or a manic depressive; visit all the places he lived or to which he traveled and attempt to show that everything in On the Road or his subsequent 'true life' novels was true? Does this mean Johnson will ignore the drinking and dysfunction? That she will rise above speculating on Kerouac's sexual proclivities or the correspondence between fiction and fact? Not at all. In Johnson's biography, we learn that Kerouac's first wife aborted a black-haired baby that might have been Jack's. Even the story of the notorious knifing death of David Kammerer by Kerouac's friend Lucien Carr is filled out with new details.
Eschewing the unreliable anecdotes of others, Johnson tells us she has based her book entirely on "Jack's own written words," as well as the accounts of "his closest friends" (As the above tidbits show, she has not quite ignored the minor characters.) Because all of this latter material has already been published and picked over, what remains is the Jack Kerouac Archive.