The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac by Joyce Johnson; On the Road by Walter Salles (Director) - review by Leo Robson

Leo Robson

Typecasting

The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac

By

Viking 512pp £20.58

On the Road

By

 

Joyce Johnson, the author of Minor Characters, an elegant memoir of New York life in the 1950s, presents her new biography of Jack Kerouac as a distinctive contribution to our – that is, Kerouac biography readers’; Kerouac readers are too myth-drunk to care – understanding of the writer. Well, she would, wouldn’t she? Apart from anything else, she is offering her book to a saturated market and an exhausted readership, less than a decade after the publication of Paul Maher’s Kerouac: The Definitive Biography. Johnson doesn’t acknowledge Maher, but it wouldn’t be too presumptuous to recognise a note of scepticism, or evidence of needling, in the sentence: ‘For many years, I waited for a definitive biography of Kerouac to appear.’ Rather than entering the race, Johnson argues that there’s no race to run: ‘I have come to wonder, especially in the process of writing this book, whether there can be such a thing as a definitive biography.’

The product of that process is a self-consciously partial biography, with distinctive areas of emphasis and omission. The opening paragraph argues that the label ‘King of the Beats’ only ‘half fitted’ Kerouac; that the beat label ‘obscures another important side of him that has so far been poorly understood –

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