Monday, May 13, 2019

Review of Kerouac: The Last Quarter Century by Gerald Nicosia

Front and back covers of Gerald Nicosia's new book

On Thursday, May 9, I received a copy of Gerald Nicosia's new book, Kerouac: The Last Quarter Century. I read it over the course of that day and the next and spent the weekend thinking about what to say in a review. Before I get into that review, I have a caveat to make.

In the spirit of transparency, let me state that Mr. Nicosia (Gerry) is a friend of mine. Regular readers of The Daily Beat know this, and they also know I liberally quote from his seminal Kerouac biography, Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. Additionally, I am referenced in this book, once explicitly and once implicitly (in a way that requires some back story). Explicitly, I am the author of a blurb praising Memory Babe on p. 184. Implicitly, on p. 162 there is a picture of Gerry at Kerouac's grave and you can see a plastic bag on the grave at his feet. Inside that bag is a copy of my book, The Beat Handbook: 100 Days of Kerouactions, which I had left there -- as is my practice -- in hopes that someone would "steal" it. Gerry did so and that was the catalyst for our eventual friendship. But that is another story . . . .

As a result of our friendship, suffice to say, this review may be seen as biased. Now that you are informed about that you can make your own judgment about the review's merits. Note: I paid for the book -- it is not a review copy.

To begin with, let me say that Gerald Nicosia knows as much about Jack Kerouac as any other living person. I say that as someone who has immersed himself in Kerouac for the last 15 years. Nicosia has lived and breathed Kerouac since reading The Dharma Bums and Lonesome Traveler in the fall of 1972 when he was in graduate school. Memory Babe remains, in my opinion, one of the best of the Kerouac biographies written to date, and it was first published in 1983. It's got that kind of staying power. There is some good news on that front -- a new, revised and updated edition will be published by Cool Grove Press in 2020.

That said, anyone with an interest in Kerouac will have an interest in what Nicosia has to say about the last quarter century. Granted, as Nicosia explains in the prologue, "there may be some objections that this book represents my very personal view of what has happened in the Kerouac world in the last 25 years." He goes on to argue why that is okay, to which I would add: of course it's a personal view! Nicosia has been in the middle of the goings-on in the Kerouac world for decades and he has stories to tell about it that can only come from him.

And come they do.

In this book you will read in-depth about how Memory Babe has almost been expunged from existence (stymied from being reprinted and excised as a reference in bibliographies) by people inside or beholden to the Kerouac estate. If you are tired of reading about the "estate controversy," you should know that the topic is a theme that runs through this book. As it should. I find it fascinating. Granted, in a book -- unlike in on-line forums or live discussions -- there is no opportunity for counterpoints to claims that are made. So be it -- that is the nature of a book.

I am not going to undertake to repeat or refute the many stories Nicosia tells -- that is why the book exists: to put on the record information and perspectives that only he is able and willing to share. Anyone who has read Memory Babe knows of Nicosia's narrative ability, and Kerouac: The Last Quarter Century reveals that Nicosia has not lost a step over the years. The story is compelling and engaging.

In addition to Memory Babe censorship, other discreet topics covered include: Nicosia's involvement with Kerouac's daughter, Jan, and the legal battle to secure her rightful inheritance as well as that of the Blake family (descendants of Jack's sister, Caroline); the piecemeal selling off of Kerouac's work and possessions as opposed to keeping it all in one collection accessible to scholars; controversies at the NYU Beat and Kerouac conferences in 1994 and 1995; difficulties Nicosia had in Jack's hometown associated with the annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac celebration as well as the closing of the Memory Babe archive; the court decision that Gabrielle Kerouac's will was forged; the state of posthumous Kerouac publications (with critiques of several); the controversial auction of the roll manuscript of On The Road; and more. Nicosia supports his many claims with specific names, dates, and other verifiable data.

Of particular note is a chapter on Kerouac genealogy that outlines the history and work of the Kerouac Family Association based in Canada. Also worth specific mention is the chapter on the famous Joan Anderson letter, a quite detailed account which includes Nicosia's valuable analysis of its import. By my count, the book includes over 80 black-and-white photographs, many of which were taken by the author and so are likely to have not been seen by most readers (see scans of originals below). One small quibble I have with the photos in the book is that they are not correlated with specific page numbers in the text. Also included is a useful timeline of significant events between 1969 (the year of Jacks' death) and 2018 (the year Paul Blake, Jr. died). In defense of his Kerouac work, Nicosia includes 10 pages of blurbs by various figures praising Memory Babe. There are 50 endnotes supporting claims made in the text.

Members of the “Biographers’ Forum,” John Tytell, Ann Charters, Regina Weinreich, Gerald Nicosia, just after the dedication of the Kerouac Commemorative, Lowell, June 25, 1988.  Photographer unknown.

Paul Blake, Jr., and Ken Kesey, backstage at the Cowell Theater, Fort Mason, San Francisco, April 1, 1995, during benefit performance for Jan Kerouac staged by Gerald Nicosia.  Photo by Gerald Nicosia.

Jan Kerouac visits the house where her father had his fatal esophageal hemorrhage, 5169 10th Ave. N., St. Petersburg, March, 1994. Photo courtesy of Jan Kerouac.

Where I think Nicosia excels is with analysis, evidenced by his in-depth critiques in Memory Babe of most of Jack's significant works. He concludes this book with an analysis of where Kerouac scholarship needs to go next. That chapter is titled, "Mork and Jack: The Crooked Canuck Bean Bag Salesman." The chapter's title alone should intrigue readers enough to grab a copy of Kerouac: The Last Quarter Century.

Speaking of which, to secure a copy you can either e-mail the author at, or else send a check or money order for $30 ($25 for book and $5 for postage and mailer) to Gerald Nicosia, PO Box 130, Corte Madera, CA 94976-0130. You can tell him how you would like the book inscribed, if you wish.

Kerouac: The Last Quarter Century is a story that could only be told by Gerald Nicosia, and it needed to be told. Zealous Nicosia critics will likely rail against the book (and this review), but I would point to his admonition on p. 139:
. . . does anyone think that blacklisting, censorship, and dirtying an honest person's reputation are things that Jack Kerouac himself would have approved of? Some people, including some of those who have been honored to edit the great man's work, may need to go back and reread Kerouac, this time paying attention.

I am the first to admit that there are two sides to every story, or more, but please don't be gullible enough to believe those who would say that Nicosia is paranoid and is making up the vitriol and attempted silencing he and his work have had to endure for his involvement in the Kerouac estate controversy. I've seen it firsthand. And lest you think this book is all one-sided estate-bashing, Nicosia acknowledges that John Sampas' making a lot more of Kerouac's works available during his rein over the estate was "an unquestionable benefit to everyone."

I hope you'll read this book with an open mind, then decide for yourself where the Kerouac legacy stands today and where it should go in the future.


KerouacJack said...

Now this...sounds interesting. Nice review.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed reading your review, Rick. Thanks for the detailed overview.

15698 said...

Thank you for the great review. Here is a link to a good interview with the author about the book.

Now off to get my copy