Online Edition: Summer 1999

The Long Slow Death of Jack Kerouac

The Long Slow Death of Jack Kerouac

Jim Christy

ECW Press ($12.95)

by Brian Foye

In 1962, while working a 13-hour shift selling caramel popcorn at the Bazaar of All Nations in Clifton Heights, Pennsylvania, Jim Christy came across a paperback copy of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Like a few before him, and perhaps many thousands since, Christy's own road was changed forever by the encounter. Now a sculptor and writer living in Canada, Christy has been a rigorous reader of all things Kerouac for nearly 30 years. His new book, The Long Slow Death of Jack Kerouac, distills this close attention into roughly 100 pages.

Christy's idea is that Kerouac "was a religious writer and an alien." His method here is to bend this idea around a retelling of the last dozen years of Kerouac's life. It is, as many people know, a wobbly, troubled line from the sudden fame that accompanied the publication of On the Road in 1957 to his death in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1969. The strength here lies in Christy's familiarity with the material. He's read all of Kerouac's books, all the biographies and essays, and most of the unpublished letters and manuscripts. He's seen all the obscure movies. He's listened to all the bootleg tapes.

Very few people have a grasp of the Kerouac arcana to match Christy week for week, and he puts it all to good use in The Long Slow Death of Jack Kerouac. We learn, for instance, that Kerouac did not spend his last waking moments watching the Galloping Gourmet on television; this apocryphal story is dismissed by research into that day's program guide. It was a Georgia Pine that Kerouac's neighbor cut down in St. Petersburg, robbing the writer of a breeze through the trees. Robert Boles was Kerouac's neighbor in Hyannis. At his death, Kerouac had 62 dollars in the bank.

What's troubling, however, is that Christy chastises Kerouac biographers for mindsets shaped by "the media phenomenon of the '60s," then makes many of the same mistakes. When Christy writes that Kerouac "spoke not a word of English until he was six years old" or that "Kerouac had never met a Jewish person" until he attended prep school in New York, he's only offering up the same stale reading of Kerouac's boyhood in Lowell. (Kerouac, in fact, traded French and English words in the parks and playgrounds of the Centralville neighborhood where he was born, and at Lowell High School played on sports teams with Jewish athletes.) When Christy writes that Kerouac was born "in the Little Canada section of Lowell," he's simply wrong. This reviewer is quoted twice in Christy's book--once for something I doubt I ever said and once for something I wish I hadn't.

More interesting are the ideas that Christy weaves through The Long Slow Death of Jack Kerouac. He argues for more attention to Kerouac's Catholicism, sees Kerouac as one of the "gyrovagues" (wandering monks from the early Middle Ages), and points to the "beatas"--a Catholic sect that rebelled against the excesses of the Reformation--as grandparents of the Beats. The concept of Beat was once pure in Kerouac's heart, as the inebriated writer famously told William F. Buckley in 1968, and Christy seems on the mark with his emphasis on "a spiritual continuum across centuries."

Ultimately, a discussion of these ideas alone would be worth another hundred pages. Connecting these ideas to a more comprehensive reading of specific Kerouac texts would be a welcome addition to the study of Beat Literature. Christy is certainly the right person for the job. Thirty-seven years ago, at the very moment he picked up a dime copy of On the Road at the Bazaar of All Nations in Clifton Heights, Pennsylvania, Jim Christy may have been Jack Kerouac's ideal reader.

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Summer 1999 Table of Contents