on June 2, 2004
I'm amazed at the review by Publishers's Weekly listed above. If this is a
"gushing fan letter" from Maher to Kerouac, I'd hate to see what Maher would write
about someone he really didn't like!
The greatest strength of this biography, for me, was the detail Maher provides
about Kerouac's daily life. So many biographies give you a series of highlights
and "events" but don't give you any sense of what the subject's life was like on
a day-by-day basis. This biography actually answers the questions "What did
Kerouac do when he got up in the morning? What did he do on an average day?" It
in fact destroys any heroic, romantic image you might have of Kerouac and replaces
it with a detailed image of who Kerouac really was---how he spoke; the way he approached writing;
how he conducted his relationships; his intense, desperate, peripatetic wanderings. I found it to
be a very unusual and interesting glimpse into a very, very troubled life.
on May 15, 2005
Paul Maher's "Kerouac: The Definitive Biography" is by far the most comprehensive and detailed account of Kerouac's life ever written. Unlike previous biographers, Maher has chosen wherever possible to rely for his work on Kerouac's own journals and letters. As such, this biography takes a necessarily different slant to other accounts. Whatever the perils of this approach (Kerouac, like all of us, had a propensity to mythologise his life in his private writings as much as in his novels), this book uncovers a wealth of new information that was previously unavailable.
Maher makes no claims to being a literary critic, so this biography is not the place to look for in-depth analysis of Kerouac's novels. (For that, Tim Hunt's "Kerouac's Crooked Road" is unmatched on "On the Road" and "Visions of Cody", and Gerald Nicosia's "Memory Babe" is great for a `big picture' analysis of the relationships between the life and the work). However, if you are looking to understand the forces that shaped Kerouac, his French-Canadian origins, small town upbringing and Catholicism, there is simply no better place to start.
Because of the unprecedented access Maher has had to the Kerouac archives, this biography uncovers a personal Kerouac that we have not seen before, and much detail on the final years of his life that previous biographers have not revealed. I read "Kerouac: The Definitive Biography" in conjunction with "Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-1954" and found it entirely consistent. Indeed, I wished that Douglas Brinkley had chosen to include more in the edited journals. As long as Kerouac's life continues to attract as much attention as his work, biographies will continue to be written. But it will be a long time before one as comprehensive as this is published.
P.S. The small matter of the editing inconsistencies in the footnotes is to be addressed in the next printing. This is a minor distraction to an otherwise excellent work, and the only reason I didn't give it five stars. Thoroughly recommended
on December 30, 2004
This is the sixth biography on Jack Kerouac that I've read and the one I like the most. Though not as comprehensive as "Memory Babe" by Gerald Nicosia (the longest biography on Kerouac thus far) or as analytical as "Subterranean Kerouac", this one was written with greater access to Kerouac's unpublished archives and new interviews by the author of people who knew Kerouac. The author did a respectful job on the subject, but doesn't gloss over the flaws of Kerouac, especially in the later chapters when Kerouac becomes an alcoholic nuisance to everyone who knew and loved him. Its a sad arc of a brilliant life ruined by his own success.
Ann Charters might get the credit for being the first biography of Kerouac, while Tom Clark has the easiest to read biography of Kerouac, but anyone who is a fan of the Beat Generation and the lead writer, should read this one, along with "Memory Babe." If you can stand revisiting Kerouac's life again and again from different perspectives, then try "Subterranean Kerouac" and Tom Clark's biography.
I also love the cover photo of this book and the way chapters are laid out, with various yet relevant quotes to start each chapter, and well thought out chapter titles. He does Kerouac justice, featuring well annotated end notes and other interesting items in an appendix. If you only read one Kerouac biography, this is the one you must read for a good understanding of Kerouac and his difficult life. There is only one major flaw in this book, and its a typo that I'm surprised no one caught before publication. Apparently, the publisher added a sentence or two that Paul Maher wrote to his editor or agent that should not have been included into the narrative. It was confusing at first, but when I figured out what probably happened, I just had to laugh. Even publishing companies aren't perfect about catching mistakes like that before publication.
on November 29, 2005
This is a new biography about 500 pages long covering virtually all of the life of Jack Kerouac. It is written by a long time Kerouac "fan and student", a local Lowell, Mass. High-school teacher Paul Maher. Basically it is a sold and well written book. I do have a couple of very minor problems about the biography concerning the level of detail. I think for many it is almost too much detail about the non-creative side of his life, and it might have been better to have a bit less detail about his marriages and more details on his books and how they evolved and fit in with his life - but that is just my personal preference and many will like what the author has done. That is why I am giving it 4 stars not 5.
The book starts of with the Keouac family in New Hampshire around 1720 and a good part of the book explores his family and childhood, especially his Lowell years. The author has included a nice collection of black and white photographs taken of Kerouac during the different stages of his life including some family photos. Pictures of his family in Lowell with his older brother and younger sister make Jack appear almost normal. Later we see him in a bar scene and other scenes wearing for example a rustic plaid shirt and pictures with his wives.
The book appears to very complete and covers his parents and their problems, his creative and free spirit growing up, his scholarship to Columbia, navy career, three marriages and his famous friends or associates including Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, the latter being his traveling companion in his famous novel On the Road. This was the famous "beat" movement - as most people are well aware. There are quite a few Ginsberg and Cassady references sprinkled through the book, and there are a lot of details on his marriages.
Jack led an intensive life, often clashing with authorities, traveled widely, and moved a lot then died young at the age of 47 from a failing liver caused by too much drink. He left his mark in the literary world as a remarkable writer with a unique style. The book covers a lot of ground, both good and bad mainly on his personal life and especially his Lowell Massachusetts connection. The book is divided into many short chapters, each covering a short segment of his life, such as trips to Mexico, Denver, etc. and how he was changed by success - he did not like it. Having read some other biographies where I could compare at least two different authors of two different books, it is clear that any biography is dependent upon the author and his bias. Not being a Kerouac expert it is beyond my ability to and most readers to make those distinctions in the present case, but it seems accurate and relatively neutral in tone. It gives the good and some bad, and is not just a fawning positive fan book.
Solid job, lots of detail for Kerouac lovers, 4 stars, possibly 5.
on December 20, 2004
I too am troubled by the Publishers Weekly review- which seems to have an agenda of its own!
This biography is very well sourced- and although perhaps not completely objective- why shouldn't one be a fan of what one is writings about? Many great popular historians are. David McCollough certainly appears to fall in love with every subject matter he writes about- and that provides in and of itself a unique spin, present here.
I frankly believe that there is room for scholarship by someone who actually has a clear knowledge and appreciation for Kerouac's roots...and Maher is very effective in dealing in particular with Jack's french canadien heritage; catholicism, and, yes, i would venture to guess, unlike his critics at PW- he can find Lowell on a map !
Maher has written an excellent "biography"- not an editorial opinion piece which provided this reader with a great starting point for delving further into the subject matter...
This book- in conjunction with the Brinkley book- will serve its purpose- not to airbrush history- but rather get beyond the stereotypes attributed to the Kerouac "name"- but far removed from the "individual" himself...
on October 19, 2005
I loved this book, couldn't put it down. Jack Kerouac's life was fascinating. Paul Maher came through with an extremely readable book, even though he had to insightfully digest a mountain of documentation to write it.
on September 13, 2007
***First of all, please note that I strongly disagree with the Publishers Weekly review posted above. I think it's way off-base.***
I bought this book because I wanted to know who the REAL Jack Kerouac was. Once I got through "On the Road," that challenging, maddening, yet beautiful 1957 autobiographical novel, I wanted to get a close-up on the soul and the life events of the book's author. "Kerouac: The Definitive Biography" fit the bill.
This is a very good, level-headed, thoughtful, careful, judicious, lowlights-and-highlights, warts-and-all study. Indeed, it is not a perfect book. I wish it had been twice as long, and twice as rich in details, testimonies, and anecdotes. (That would have been a 1,000-page book, which certainly would have been nixed by any publisher.) But this biography is certainly fair-minded and thorough.
The real problem--although it's not the fault of the biographer--is that Kerouac's life was so achingly heart-breaking. It is automatic, but entirely reasonable, to quake at the fact that Jack Kerouac inspired thousands and thousands of young Americans to want to be just like him, when in fact he was an angry, lonely, alcoholic loser.
Paul Maher's book is a lucid, fair-minded, well-worded monument to all that shined and all that fizzled in Jack Kerouac's far-too-short life. I recommend this book highly as "one-stop shopping" about Kerouac's life. This biography is an effective, admiring-but-not-fawning portrait of a great American artist who lived short and suffered long.
on August 5, 2013
Kerouac: His Life and Work is a most accurate and fascinating account that will further place Jack Kerouac foremost in literary history of the last half of the twentieth century. Paul Maher Jr. writes in his own captivating style to carry the reader along on the back-stories of Ti Jean. This factual and myth-dispelling resource was produced by Maher's extensive research of newly available archives and personal interviews. Also, as in one of Kerouac's books, His Life and Work can be opened at any spot to get a glimpse into Jack's world. The details are here, illustrious along with the grim. The literary record is here including influences, the rejections, the re-worked, and the undiscovered, stacked up in an incredible body of work. Kerouac would be honored by Mr. Maher's book. I felt as though I was living beside Jack as I read all of His Life and Work. Anyone who is a fan or curious to discover Kerouac will have an extraordinary experience.
on March 8, 2011
The thing which surprised me about this biography is its sheer length. It's over 500 pages, which is pretty good going even in the wordy genre of literary biography. However, thanks to Paul Maher's passion for his subject and his journalistic skill it makes for fascinating reading and I hardly skipped a paragraph.
Maher claims his main motivation for writing this life is that he shares Kerouac's home town of Lowell, Massachusetts. It's all the more surprising then that the tome doesn't really hit its stride until he starts describing the author's decision to leave for NY and start writing his epic adventure, "On the Road". Maher is particularly skilled at describing the creative process, perhaps one of the hardest aspect of a writer's life to capture.
Kerouac emerges as a complex and contradictory character, who craved solititude but was famed for his beat lifestyle and drinking binges and as someone who sought refuge in living with his mother but refused to recognise his own daughter. There is a wonderful, poignant contrast between Kerouac's early days trying to get published and his subsequent descent into alcoholism as he tries to avoid tabloid notoriety.
This book makes other biographies of Kerouac look rather puny. Maher has cemented his own place in US literature with this work and I look forward to his future projects.
on August 25, 2009
Excellent and well-written account of Kerouac's life in down to the day/hour details in some instances. No aspect of Kerouac's life and psychology is left unexamined. I've read more than a few biogs on Jack, and this one is a must-read. It brings the dead man alive. As Carolyn Cassidy might say, 'Nice job, Jr.'