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The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac – Review and Giveaway
Sep 9th, 2013 by Liza Wiemer

17707464Celebrating the Paperback Release of

THE VOICE IS ALL: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac

By Joyce Johnson

Review and Giveaway (See Rafflecopter below)

From the publisher: 

Joyce Johnson offers a groundbreaking portrait of Jack Kerouac as a young artist, focusing on Kerouac’s slow, often painful development as a writer over the first thirty years of his life, from his early struggles to master English through the grueling years of searching for a way to write On the Road, and ending with the astonishing breakthroughs in late 1951 that resulted in the opening sections of Visions of Cody. In a starred review, Kirkus called it, “An exemplary biography of the Beat icon and his development as a writer . . . There’s plenty of life in these pages to fascinate casual readers, and Johnson is a sensitive but admirably objective biographer . . . A triumph of scholarship.”

Johnson’s experience as a writer of both fiction and memoir and her own vivid personal memories of Kerouac, with whom she had a romance when she was twenty-one years old in 1957, greatly inform her take on Kerouac’s creative process in THE VOICE IS ALL, resulting in a book that greatly deepens our understanding of his life and his achievement. A terrific fall read, THE VOICE IS ALL takes a deeper look into Kerouac’s upbringing and the deeply traditional Franco-American immigrant culture that Kerouac was born into.

My review: 

Revealing, highly researched (but never boring) biography of one of America’s most fascinating, iconic novelists.

When Penguin offered me the opportunity to review this biography, I was reluctant. I don’t read many biographies, but as a writer, I couldn’t resist learning more about Jack Kerouac. And does Joyce Johnson deliver. There are times I was deeply sympathetic toward Jack – the loss of his younger brother Gerard had a huge impact on his life. The death left his mother overprotective toward her remaining son. The apron strings were tied tightly and Jack never seemed to be able to cut them. Jack also grew up in extreme poverty with a father who barely provided for his family. His dad was often drunk and at the very least demanding. Jack’s mother was the nurturer, often stepping in to protect Jack’s love for writing when his father pushed for Jack to become a football star.

Jack was given many opportunities in life to succeed. With the promise of a football scholarship to Columbia University, Jack was to finish high school in New York City at the prestigious Horace Mann High School. There, he played football, met some highly influential and supportive people, and had lots of opportunities to excel in his writing. After Horace Mann, he did indeed attend Columbia University on a full football scholarship. But he and the coach didn’t seem to get along, especially after an injury Jack sustained, and Jack bailed, throwing his scholarship away. There were times he regretted this choice and at other times he seemed to be deeply relieved to be rid of the burden of classes he hated and a football game he wasn’t the star of.

There were times when I despised Jack. The binge drinking and drug use destroyed his life. He was arrogant and insecure. He was a womanizer and he abandoned his wife and child with barely a blink of the eye. He had no qualms about sleeping with his friends’ girlfriends. Actually, it was encouraged.
His writing was everything and his friends and acquaintances filled his pages. He hung around with the hottest writers of his generation and the movers and shakers in the publishing world. Sometimes with great respect and love and sometimes with distain. Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and John Clellon Holmes were the friends who influenced him the most. They fueled his experimentation with drugs, sex, alcohol, and deep philosophical discussions. They traveled the road together, listened to the hottest jazz in Harlem together, partied together. All of this led to the creation of novels, poems, short stories, and letters, especially for Jack. ON THE ROAD was penned during and after many trips from New York to Denver, San Francisco, and his home town of Lowell, to name just a few.

There were several sections I loved. The descriptions of Jack’s life at sea were amazing. I found the jazz scenes particularly fascinating as well as his life in Lowell, MA, at the Horace Mann school in NYC, and at Columbia. I found myself completely drawn in and transported to that time and space.

Pulling from the extensive research done from the Kerouac Archives, Johnson maps out Jack’s life in a comprehensive manner. While reading, I experienced the highs and lows of Jack’s life, the successes and the failures. Even when I felt disgusted by him, I still felt drawn to his story and the need to know what made him tick.

I’m not sure anyone could ever say that they knew Jack Kerouac, but this biography gives us a solid look into his world and philosophy of life. As a writer, I definitely know about the ups and the downs. His seemed to be quite manic fueled by alcohol, drugs, and sex.

A side note:
One observation that struck me while reading this biography was that not much in society has changed in the last 70 plus years. There is still war, debauchery, drug and alcohol abuse, mayhem, promiscuity, anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia. I am beginning to wonder if we “human beings” will ever learn. We like to believe that we’ve made progress. Perhaps on a few things we have. But overall, not much. But one thing is for certain: We can’t stop doing whatever we can to make a difference, to leave a positive mark,, and do our best to not only learn from the past, but to utilize it to make life now and in the future better.

I definitely recommend this biography to anyone interested in Jack Kerouac, literature, writing, or history relating to the 1940s and 50s. I enjoyed this so much that I will be reading Joyce Johnson’s memoirs.

Writing tips I extracted from the novel:

A. Jack was influenced by William Saroyan who didn’t have a college education. From that information, he realized that an education doesn’t make a writer. From page 83-84 extracted from Saroyan “demystified the act of writing and made it seem natural as breathing:

1. “Do not pay attention to the rules other people make.”

2. “Forget everybody who ever wrote anything.”

3. “Learn to typewrite so you can turn out stories as fast as Zane Grey.”

4. “Try to be alive. You’ll be dead soon enough . . . ”

B. “The humility of writing-life.” – Keeping a “diary-log.” pg. 288  – Jack often wrote in a diary, keeping track of his writing process and his moods. I think this could be very helpful in the writing process to figure out patterns, progress over time, and perspective.

C. Read – Jack’s writing was deeply influenced by the works he read. “Wolfe, Saroyan, Halper, Whitman, and Joyce.”  page 109. He was constantly reading. Additional authors he read were Proust, Kazin, and Dostoevsky, to name a few.

D. Jack “imagined the mind as an antenna . . . picking up the signals streaming in from the ‘waking consciousness,’ some so faint they could be only be sensed rather than registered. While most writers make no use of them, Jack believed that within these overlooked sensory perceptions one could discover the ‘natural story’ that was of far more importance than any plotting tale.” What I gathered from this was listening to the inner voice and paying attention to the smallest of details that we wouldn’t normally hear or see is what’s critical to making a story special. “For a writer, it would require “an enormous trancelike discipline.” page 392

E. “Jack made a list of events and people he wanted to include in the book and kept it by his typewriter.” page 396.

F. There was a scene in the book where Jack was stuck. He was advised to go out and “sketch” a scene like an artist would draw. He was to use words to describe everything in a place, including the little things he saw like broken glass, garbage. He used sounds, smells etc to describe the scene – paint it on paper. (I will find the exact page number and description and add it later.)

G. Jack also did a lot of spontaneous writing. On page 396 it says: “Allen Ginsberg would call Jack’s method of writing “spontaneous bop prosody,” a term that caught on and would prove misleading.” He did NOT spew his words onto paper. “With unfortunate consequences to his literary reputation, the idea of spontaneous writing suggested the process was easy, leaving out the immense discipline that went into it . . . ” What I extracted from this and from other passages throughout the book is that Jack allowed himself to write freely and go with the flow of inspiration without constantly self-editing.
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