Customer Reviews: Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac
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on October 14, 2003
Chronologically, from birth to death, author Nicosia tells Kerouac's life story with unflinching honesty and utmost respect. Blessed with a sharp memory, very early on Jack's childhood friends nicknamed him "Memory Babe" and that is where the book got its name. Packed with fascinating details and exquisitely written, this book needs to be discovered by a younger generation of readers.

Many of us alive today have heard of Jack Kerouac but I doubt few know the details of his tragic life. That he remains the voice of a generation and a literary icon goes without saying. Kerouac was a physically beautiful but emotionally flawed man with a tormented spirit. He spent his life as man and writer trying to prove that "the past is the root of the future, and that a man cannot live without the continuity of both." Jack remembered everything he heard, as if words were sacred and his mind was a sponge. Despite his many flaws, he always paid "exquisite attention to the sound of language."

Even as he mapped new territory as a writer, Kerouac was adrift as a man. As the first spokesman for the "beat" generation, he perfected that voice with guilt, self-doubt, and self-punishment. This biography clearly states Jack's definition of "beat": "beat down, beat up, all-tired-out." Still, his words were always carefully chosen. Word by word, Kerouac carefully created phrases to express time, place, emotion, and man's senses, communicating deep meaning. His writing was full of symbolism and visions, allegory and veiled reality, profanity and parody, as he groped his way with prose towards his own death. For his time, Kerouac's verbal ingenuity was unsurpassed.

Personally, his charismatic male persona disguised a quicksilver child, mischievous and unpredictable. As he aged, Jack became a brooding, paranoid, hard drinking drug user, insecure in his sexuality and prone to alcoholic blackouts. As addiction wrecked his health, his light slowly drowned out and he became a lonely and despairing figure. But for decades in between youth and death, this trusting, shy, socially awkward man became a literary legend.

Jack Kerouac rubbed shoulders with Jackson Pollock, Allen Ginsberg, and every jazz great of his day. He was published by several of the major New York publishing houses. His prose and poetry were unprecedented and have not been successfully imitated since. He died young, never fully realizing the effect of his mind and his work on subsequent generations.

Gerald Nicosia has penned THE definitive biography of Kerouac. From letters, journals, tapes, interviews, and Jack Kerouac's books themselves - all faithfully recorded in a detailed bibliography - the author has skillfully dissected the life of the "beat" generation's strongest voice. The result is both scholarly and deeply personal, touching and disturbing. It should be required reading in every college and university, and a must have book for any reader curious about Kerouac and his time.
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on March 8, 2000
I have read and own virtually everything that Jack Kerouac has written, and most of his biographies, and believe that this is the best one, by far. This is the most bang for your buck, I would say this book in hardcover should be worth about $50 to the true Kerouac fan. If anyone truly "understands" Jack (as much as anyone, especially someone this brilliant and complex can be completely understood), it's Gerald Nicosia, a great writer in his own right. I hope to meet him someday to thank him for this wonderful book. The Diamond Sutra = Compassion.
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on September 17, 2001
Of the two best-known Kerouac biographies -- the other being Ann Charters' -- Memory Babe is by far the more scholarly. Challenging and difficult, Gerald Nicosia's Memory Babe still entertains. Memory Babe is a treasure-trove, but not for the light reader.
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on December 25, 1998
Memory Babe is in a rare category. This book accomplishes two things simultaneously that individually are rarely possible. First, it is an authoritative, definitive biography about one of the most influential people of the 1900s -- Jack Kerouac. Second, it is written in the kind of masterful style usually reserved only for great novelists. It is a biography that is also a work of art, just as a famous novel is a story that is also a work of art. In both cases, the reader's life is influenced -- spiritually and morally -- while the reading itself becomes an enlightening experience. The reader cannot help but forget they are reading a biography, so detailed, interesting and superbly crafted is the writing. When the reader remembers they are reading a biography, they are in awe at the years of painstakingly complete research that obviously preceded the final product. Enjoy reading about the life a profound man. Enjoy reading about him as told by a talented author -- Gerald Nicosia.
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on December 27, 2011
This is an absolutely fantastic biography. It just amazes me how Nicosia was able to uncover so much information on Jack Kerouac. I guess the huge amount of correspondence he left behind would have been his first treasure trove he would have ploughed through, plus the large number of his friends and acquaintances that the author was able to interview.
I have heard some reviewers on amazon and elsewhere complain that this biographer is too 'blinded' by his adulation of Kerouac. Although the author's respect for Kerouac is indeed evident throughout the book, I disagree. Nicosia exposes all the drug and sex debauchery, scandals and many low points in this man's very, very troubled life while at the same time giving us an intelligent analysis of the value of his art immortalized in his books. I was particularly impressed with his deep analysis of Mexico City Blues, Town and the City and Visions of Cody - three of my favourites. Through this book, I also came to discover lots of other 'minor' works by Kerouac such as Old Angel Midnight (originally called Lucien Midnight) and various articles he wrote for magazines like Esquire.
To my mind, this is 98% a perfect biography - that is, provided that all of the information in the book is accurate and true. It's well written without being verbose or pretentiously academic, it is nicely paced, it contains plenty of information for diehard Kerouackians and is well referenced for people like me who want to check out his sources even further.
I was only disappointed by one thing - the last chapter of the book. While I am grateful to Nicosia for having spared us some of the more unpleasant details of Kerouac's final months and years, I was left wanting to know a little more about what exactly happened to him between 1965 and 1969. I always wanted to know why he died so young. Also, I was really moved by Jack's final novelette, Pic, and wanted to know more than the half a page or so that Nicosia wrote on this largely overlooked piece. For anyone who has not read it, do yourself a favour and pick it up. It is a small book and reads fast but it is intensely visual. It was a like a movie playing in my head when I read it.
There are other mysteries I still want to solve such as why Ginsberg never introduced him to Bob Dylan. Especially, after reading how Kerouac composed a spontaneous talking blues song which he recorded on a friend's tape recorder sometime during the 60s and also how Bob mentions Kerouac as one of his early influences. I'm sure they would have dug each other.
My second and only other 'gripe' with this book is that it needs to be updated yet again (especially the bibliography section). LOADS more publications by Kerouac have seen the light of day in recent years - including the original scroll of On the Road, the release of his journals (Windblown World), Atop an Underwood (which showcases his fascinating early writings 'brimming with promise'), Orpheus Emerged (one of his early but rather poor attempts at writing a novel but which historically shows just how much his writing grew thereafter), the Doctor Sax screenplay (brilliantly narrated by Robert Creeley and others and released by the Sampas family as 'Doctor Sax and the Great World Snake') and most importantly, The Sea is My Brother (his very first novel) which was just released publicly in its entirety (Atop contained excerpts) for the first time last month.
After learning from Nicosia's book that several audio recordings of Jack exists (including one kept at Northport Public Library), I was left both wanting more and amazed at the amount of material out there on this man. Rest assured more material will be released in future by the Kerouac estate.
All in all, Nicosia has written a brilliant book and really done this artist justice. I think Kerouac would have been mighty proud and impressed by how he captured the full scope and panaroma of his 47 years on this mortal coil. As I have not read any other biographies on Mr. K., I can't say how good/bad this is compared to the others but I have heard many people say that the biography by Ann Charters and the one by Paul Maher are both really good.
If you want to dive in and REALLY learn how this guy lived, almost down to a day-by-day description, then this book is for you. Many of the 'hangups' that harrowed and chased Jack all his life reminded me of a lot of the same troubles I went through about 5-10 years ago and so I felt strong sympathy for the man, despite his outrageous and increasingly more offensive behaviour.
Many people branded him as 'childish' and although he would pout and throw child-like tantrums, I dislike how adults in the modern world dismissively look down on any behaviour by grown-ups which could be called child-like. Kerouac believed that the children would inherit the Kingdom so I think his 'childishness' (although I dislike the term) was actually something he embraced consciously, rather than unconsciously because the disciplined dedication to his art also shows how mature and grown-up he was at the same time.
A lot of people took his behaviour at face value but we have to remember that he was best friends with Cassady - a man whose very life was his art (according to Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead). Kerouac behaved in certain ways to get a rise out of people - either to make them bring out their true emotions or make them expose their hypocrisy and bigotry, of which Kerouac himself was no exception. Although this behaviour might be annoying and frustrating to those on the receiving end, it is truly unique when you think about it and rather devious and clever.
The main thing I got out of this book was that Kerouac was a man of strong values, first Catholic-based, later Buddhist, even later on he sort of fused the two together. He believed in compassion, kindness, piety and being honest and frank both to friends/others but more importantly to oneself and one's dreams and visions. He was uncompromising in this respect, frustratingly so according to the accounts told by many of his friends in this book. Keroauc's blatant honesty is so refreshing and something which seems so evidently absent in the 21st century. This is perhaps the trait about him which I admire most.
I also realized that he was an extremely sensitive man which both allowed him to record what he witnessed during his short life in this world in excruciatingly beautiful detail but it came at a cost. By publishing his work, he was exposed to attack from all sides. The frequent caustic comments from the press and sometimes even from friends really pierced him deeply and so he continually turned to the bottle for solace. I came away feeling that Kerouac must have felt really misunderstood during his lifetime and may have even realized that he was truly ahead of his time. And all those people who said his writing was just 'typing' (Truman Capote etc.) just 'didn't get it'. There are certain people in this world who fly in the face of convention and think outside the box to create something ingenuous and new and sadly, very sadly, it is often these people who are misunderstood and in the case of Kerouac even ridiculed. But people are starting to get it I feel. Every year seems to bring out a new Kerouac publication.
Experiencing the death of his brother Gerard while he was just a kid probably also had an irrepairable effect on him. Kerouac was a genius, although I know some of you may disagree. Check out the video 'What happened to Kerouac?' for a nice overview of the man's life. Fellow beat poet and friend, Gregory Corso, I think summed it up well: 'you have three levels: talent, genius and divine'. When the interviewer asked Corso whether he thought Kerouac was a genius or not, Corso did not even hesitate: 'oh yeah, yeah. Easy. But not divine'.
Maybe he wasn't divine, but yet again who is? He was human and he loved humanity and tried to capture all the triumph, sadness and dross on paper in a style which is at times Wolfean, at times Joycean but overwhelmingly - in his own voice. He was crushed by what he saw around him - Man destroying fellow Man but that did not stop him from trying to live life to the full. He also loved animals as his brother Gerard told him not long before he died to promise not to harm any living thing.
I wish Kerouac had lived a little longer to finish one of his final works which he told an Italian journalist in 1966 he was working on called 'La Familia Humana' (The Human Family).
40 years after his death and people are still talking about him. We are all part of the human family. Sometimes I think Jack was sent to remind us of this simple fact. Thank you Jack. In this Faustian age of insincerity and immorality spiralling out of control, you are sorely missed. Where are all the Jack Kerouacs of today? We need a new Beat Generation.
I would like to thank THRIFT BOOKS for providing me with a copy of this bio. It arrived quickly and in great condition.
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on June 27, 2000
I've read pretty much everything on Kerouac and the Beats ever written for several years. This is by far the best bio. His whole life is covered in the utmost detail..Good work Gerald Nicosia!
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on August 16, 2002
I have read alot of biographies on Kerouac, but this one doesnt even compare to the rest. This book is full of details. I mean, minute details, with input and interviews from obscure people (as well as the prominent) in Jack's life. Buy it, read it, be moved!
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on May 22, 2015
Hey man, hands down, best book out there on Kerouac. WSB said so. That's right Old Bull Lee himself, so try topping that!? Its sad all the stuff put out by the so-called Kerouac estate, I'm talking Ann Charters etc, bunch of sell outs. Those Greeks forged the will and stole the estate that rightfully should have gone to Kerouac's blood kin, like his nephew Paul and his daughter Jan. WTF??! And they are still getting away with it. Talking to you John Sampas. The whole Sampas clan, bad news man. But hey let's praise Gerry Nicosia for having the guts, endurance, courage and skill to write this tome. Do yourself a favor and buy it before the Sampas clan buys out the publisher and destroys it. Three cheers to the 1st Amendment, mates! If Kerouac came back from the dead, and saw what was going on in his name by the Sampas clan, he would never be able to stop throwing up.

Furthermore, this book is a refreshing oasis of clarity and honestly in the vast wasteland of beat generation hagiography, which fronts not only academe but the stalls of north beach. Gerry calls them like he sees them and I got no quarrels with his scholarship. And yeah, I have read everything out there, so don't even bother with your snarky comments. It's actually even more impressive what Gerry was able to accomplish without the help of the Sampas clan. Kerouac would be proud of this book. What more could you ask of a biographer?
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on September 29, 2008
When was the last time you read an almmost-800 page book and wanted it to keep going at the end? That was my experience with Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. If you love Kerouac - which I do, as evidenced by my writing The Beat Handbook: 100 Days of Kerouactions, a book answering the question, 'What would Kerouac do?' - this is a must-read. Nicosia skillfully balances attention to detail with an interesting story to provide the reader with a comprehensive yet critical look into the life of one of America's greatest writers. This is a challenging and scholarly work, one that shouldn't be undertaken lightly. You won't be sorry if you take up the challenge.
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on May 24, 1998
Memory Babe is probably the most complete Jack Kerouac biography published. Filled to the brim with information about Kerouac and his writing, it also gives the sense that the author had an affinity for Kerouac. This book also differs in that it does not consist of blind hero worship of Kerouac, but reports Kerouac's faults, failures, and in sad fashion, his alcoholism. Even more satisfying is the fact that Nicosia concedes that even Kerouac wrote bad novels once in a while. The only faults in this book are a lack of photos, and occasional continuity screwups, while not severe are annoying. Overall, I repeat my asertion that Memory Babe is the best Jack Kerouac biography published, even better than Ann Charter's biography, Kerouac.
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