Sunday, April 15, 2012

A review (of sorts) of Jan Kerouac's Baby Driver

Jan Kerouac was Jack Kerouac's daughter, but that is not the primary reason you should put Baby Driver on your list of "must-read" books. Yes, she references the two times she ever met her father in person, and alludes to him on a couple of other occasions; but, other than that, Baby Driver has very little to do with Jack Kerouac and very much to do with a free-spirited and vibrant young woman coming of age in the counterculture 1960s.

Yes, like Jack, Jan writes from personal experience, and so Baby Driver is quasi-autobiographical. A note on the copyright page states:
This is a work of fiction based in part on the experience of the author. The names of people and places appearing in this book do not necessarily reflect the actual names of locations or characters they may represent.
The title comes from the Paul Simon song, "Baby Driver":
They call me Baby Driver
And once upon a pair of wheels
Hit the road and I'm gone ah
What's my number
I wonder how your engine feels.
Ba ba ba ba
Scoot down the road
What's my number
I wonder how your engine feels.
It's a fitting title choice, as Jan's life epitomized hitting the road in search of the next place, next adventure, next lover, next mind-altering substance. Jack didn't give her much attention throughout her life (hardly any, in fact), but he sure passed on his wanderlust, his passion for life, and his ability to write about myriad experiences engagingly and with great attention to detail. Jan lived and loved and learned from New York City to Mexico to Washington (State) to New Mexico to South America, moving from one place to another with no plan (or not much of one), and little in the way of belongings. She supported herself in various jobs - maid, waitress, dancer - and even tried prostitution for a time, but she never portrays herself as someone to be pitied. She made choices. Sometimes they worked out and sometimes they didn't, but she always learned from them.
Yet it was all my fault that I'd gotten into that situation, and suddenly it became clear. I should never have let him think that he was my reason for coming to South America. If I had just been brave enough to admit that it was only the trip I wanted to experience. What a shameful opportunist I'd been. That was the demon inside me. I thought I understood then what Venus in Capricorn meant, or could mean at its worst . . . the planet of love in the sign of use, the mark of the prostitute
This revelation struck such heavy horror into my soul that I lost my mood of victory and became obsessed with guilt. I gritted my jaws and vowed never to use anyone again (p. 166).

Jan spent time in mental hospitals - including New York's infamous Bellevue - and describes those experiences with stark detail:
Every Thursday night, Q-6 was visited by the men's ward, and we had our weekly shindig. The men brought three scratchy Motown 45s with them and they were played over and over while we undulated in our robes - The Bellevue Grind. When, inevitably, some couple got too hot and heavy, they were simply carted away and retranquilized (p. 130).
I'm not going to try competing with the many reviews of Baby Driver that already exist. Suffice to say that this is an excellent book, based on an amazing life. You'll enjoy it regardless of your feelings about Jan's famous father, and you'll be sorry it comes to an end.

The good news is that Jan followed up Baby Driver with another book, Trainsong. I'll have something to say about that in the near future.


Kerouac, J. (1981). Baby driver. New York: St. Martin's Press.

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