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Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac Paperback – February 23, 1994
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From Library Journal
"To call this book the definitive Kerouac biography is an understatement," said LJ's reviewer at its 1983 debut (LJ 4/15/83). Many other critics felt the same, as did several of Kerouac's friends. This edition has been updated with a new foreword and many new photographs. Though Kerouac was snubbed by the critics of his day, time has shown that his seemingly mad musings could have been the offspring of a one-night stand between those of Gertrude Stein and James Joyce. Essential for all literary biography collections.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.
"A splendid work, illuminating the pathos of a beautiful young novelist who, like Elvis Presley, became an object of derision when he dared to age. . . . Whether or not a reader agrees with Nicosia's evaluation of Kerouac as a 'great' writer, he persuades the reader to return to Kerouac's work." -- John Rechy, Los Angeles Times
"Memory Babe [is] the most relentless and thoroughly researched of the Kerouac biographies. . . . There is a day-by-day tracing of Kerouac's thoughts and movements astonishing in its exactitude. . . . For those who believe Kerouac was a great writer, there is no more useful guide to the Duluoz Legend, as Kerouac called his pantheon of novels." -- Barry Gifford, USA Today
"[Memory Babe] meshes well with Kerouac's own books, paraphrasing them, putting their story in chronological order and fleshing out the autobiographical legend." -- Morris Dickstein, New York Times Book Review
"[Nicosia] offers us an unsparing, complex, and finally compelling portrait of a writer who remains in the end, far though he fell, as large-souled as his admirers have always claimed him to be." -- Adam Gussow, American Book Review
Top customer reviews
I like Nicosia's take on Kerouac, it's different than other Bios I've read. He walks through each book like an experience. He sits in the room when Kerouac is writing, crying, meditating, having a vision, walking in the rain, starving in skid row flop so as not to bother anyone. My only kind of whine, is that the author could have used some very discreet editing. I have found myself on some passages sliding my finger down the page so as not to be distracted by superfluous side stories.
I love this book. It's sad that so many iPhone addicts have no concept of being alone with one's thoughts for days, weeks, sometimes months, and think of Kerouac as a drunken bum and a worthless writer who had the gall to follow his dreams, inspiring generations to hit the road and break some rules in the meantime. (Yes, I've heard these exact words). Ti Jean lives in my heart, 45 yrs after this young cross-country hitch hiker (I was 21) was handed "Desolation Angels" by a friend..."You'll like this guy, he reminds me of you..."
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.
After reading a dozen or so books I decided to read his bio.
This was the most recommended.
It is slow moving, accurate, but the heart of the subject is missing. The key element.
Kinda like that boring university teacher chronicling a life.
More to the point I would suggest reading Kerouac's letters.
Well documented and insightful.
Since I was not sure what to expect and I had such a positive experience, I would not hesitate to order another in the future.