On October 28 Hannah Edber from City Lights Publishers sent me an e-mail query about my interest in reviewing Helen Weaver's new book, The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties (2009, City Lights Books). I instantly agreed, and the book appeared in the mail November 6 (see, being a somewhat dedicated blogger can pay off - free books!). I started reading it Sunday night and finished it last night. If you knew my life right now, you would know what that means: it means I simply couldn't put it down! 260 pages in three days just doesn't happen for me anymore unless I am mesmerized. And Helen's memoir mesmerized me, to be sure.
Yes, The Awakener focuses on her relationship with Jack Kerouac and so, being the #1 Kerouac fan alive on planet Earth right now, a book about Jack would have to be pretty bad for me to dislike it. On the other hand, it has to be pretty damn good for me not to want to put it down. I even stayed up well past my bedtime (important at my age) last night just because I didn't want to stop reading.
But enough about me. Let me throw some adjectives at you. Helen Weaver is not only a writer who knew Kerouac, she is an excellent writer! Her prose is clear, straightforward, and candid. It is at varying times funny, poignant, heart-wrenching, and insightful. Most importantly for me, it is engaging! It's like sitting down with an old friend and hearing all about her life. I really feel like I know Helen Weaver. And I feel like I know Jack better as well.
Jack dropped into Helen's life in November 1956, showing up at her (and her friend Helen's) apartment in the Village with beat poet friend Allen Ginsberg, Ginsberg's lover Peter Orlovsky, and Lafcadio (Peter's brother). They were a ragtag bunch, having hitchhiked nonstop from Mexico. Jack and Helen fell in love instantly and he lived with her for a short time.
This is how the memoir starts, creating anticipation in the reader for more Kerouac details, but then it switches gears - appropriately - to how Helen, a "girl from Scarsdale with a strict and even repressive middle-class upbringing" (p. 21), ended up living in Greenwich Village and experiencing the many aspects of bohemian living that she did for many years, running in the same circles as the beat writers and even having an affair with comedian Lenny Bruce. We learn of her sexual awakening, her success as a writer translating French books, and her spiritual quest. Her description of being one of the main organizers of the cause supporting Bruce's efforts to beat his obscenity rap is a certifiable, unparalleled piece of 60s history. She also spins some fascinating stories about the famous comedian.
For example, right after John F. Kennedy was killed, she went to see Bruce perform, knowing he would have to say something about the assassination and wondering how he would find humor in it. At the time, famous Mainer (go, Maine!) Vaughn Meader had a hit record called The First Family "satirizing JFK to perfection" (p. 131). Lenny walked out on stage and said nothing for a time, shaking his head as if in sad disbelief.
Then he said, "'Man....is Vaughn Meader fucked? Whew!" And the audience roared.
That is just one of many priceless stories that Helen (I can call you Helen, right?) weaves in The Awakener. There's quite a bit about Jack, of course, and her memories of him are specific, detailed and, best of all, unique to her own experiences. You won't read these stories anywhere else, and definitely not from someone with such an authentic voice.
Toward the end of the book, Helen describes how she rediscovered Kerouac after his death through his writings, leading to welcome healing and even a sort of reconciliation with his place in her life. She came to realize what a gifted writer he truly was, and her defense of his place in American literature is both pointed and scholarly.
I am absolutely convinced that anyone with an interest in the beat generation or even the 50s and 60s in general will fall in love with The Awakener, and with Helen Weaver.
Helen, thank you for persevering and finishing this masterpiece. You are a true American treasure.
Daily Beat readers - buy this book (here's the link)! You won't be disappointed.