Book Review: “The Haunted Life” — Learning About What it Took to Become Jack Kerouac

“The Haunted Life” is little more than an example of the staggering amount of work it takes for a writer to find his voice, a testament to the years of toil Kerouac put in before forging a style all his own.

The Haunted Life and Other Writings by Jack Kerouac. Edited by Todd F. Tietchen. Da Capo Press, $24.99, 224 pages.

By Troy Pozirekides

Jack Kerouac

This past weekend, I was in Lowell, MA to participate in a panel discussion of Jack Kerouac’s continuing influence on young readers. Entitled “The Millennial Generation Meets The Beat Generation,” the panel brought together several Boston University students as part of the celebrations for the late writer’s 92nd birthday. Jay Atkinson, a BU lecturer and author of Paradise Road: Jack Kerouac’s Lost Highway and My Search for America, moderated the discussion, while prolific composer David Amram, a friend and collaborator of Kerouac’s, shared personal insights and anecdotes. The guiding question of the discussion, put simply: how is it that this writer, who was 18 years old in 1940, continues to resonate with similarly aged people today?

The responses were varied and deeply personal. Some cited Kerouac’s restlessness — his emphasis on movement — as the driving force behind their appreciation. For others, it was his depiction of illicit subject matter — drugs, altered states of consciousness, and non-heteronormative sexuality — that drew them in. Whatever their individual points of interest, most on the panel agreed that the single most appealing quality of Kerouac’s writing was his voice, the special confiding quality of his prose that generates in readers a sense of intimacy and even friendship. As Atkinson put it, Kerouac was “not an answer man but a human maelstrom of pointed questions,” and his inquisitive books therefore make attractive companions to young and similarly restless readers. But how did his voice come to be? What forces conspired in the young Kerouac to make the man into the maelstrom? Perhaps a newly released work from the author’s juvenilia can shed light on the issue.

The Haunted Life is a novel that was lost shortly after it was written in 1944. The manuscript appeared in a Sotheby’s auction nearly 70 years later, after it was discovered in a Columbia University dorm room. The fourth posthumously released book that predates Kerouac’s 1950 debut novel The Town and the City, The Haunted Life is part of a trend of unearthed “lost” works of the author that began in 2002 with the release of Orpheus Emerged. Todd F. Tietchen, an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, edited the book, which he calls “a satisfying, if open-ended, narrative.” That seems generous. In fact, even calling The Haunted Life a “novel” is generous. The main portion of the text spans five chapters over only 70 pages and is barely more than a series of character sketches and novelistic experimentations.

These chapters are centered on Peter Martin, a Kerouac alter ego who would later become the protagonist of The Town and the City. In this work, Peter is back in his hometown of Galloway, Massachusetts (a fictional stand-in for Lowell) after his first year at Boston College. He is a star athlete, but unsatisfied with the traditional labels of success placed upon him by his father, Joe Martin, and his Aunt Marie. He yearns to be a great writer, and escape the provincial concerns of life in Galloway for heartier intellectual stimulation:

Peter detected signs of youthful revolt, something quite dissociated from reason. He readjusted his conceptions and emerged with what seemed the truth of the matter: some people wanted to “go places,” wanted what he had just fatuously termed “outward success”; simply, he wanted not to “go places” but to find some way of life that could answer his every exertion, that could react to this kind of activity…

Peter shares his ennui with Garabed Tourian and Dick Sheffield, characters based on Sebastian Sampas and Billy Chandler, boyhood friends of Kerouac’s who had died fighting in World War II just before he wrote the Haunted Life manuscript. Peter roams the midnight streets of Galloway with these young men, lighting cigarette after cigarette. They muse on their adventurous ambitions, dreaming that someday, perhaps, they will join the Merchant Marine or the Army and see the world. But for now they are hopelessly stuck in Galloway, leading a sleepy and decidedly uneventful existence.

The unfulfilled wanderlust of the young people in The Haunted Life contrasts with the grim and bigoted outlook of the older generation, typified by Peter’s father, Joe Martin. Constantly complaining to Peter about the decline of American values, the elder Martin is a proponent of the racist, anti-New Deal views of Father Charles Coughlin. The more liberally inclined Peter alternates between passive acquiescence and mild resistance — demonstrated by turning up the volume of his Benny Goodman record — but his and his father’s conflicting worldviews remain unresolved by the novel’s end. In fact, not much of anything actually happens in this story at all. That may well be the point, but I think it is more of a sign of the essential incompleteness of the narrative (before it was lost, The Haunted Life was to be expanded into three parts) than the result of the young author’s intention.

So why trod out The Haunted Life now, especially when similar characters and themes were explored at-length in The Town and the City, Kerouac’s underrated (if not entirely original) debut work? The easy answer is that Kerouac is experiencing a tremendous surge in popularity of late, evidenced by the slew of film adaptations of his works that have recently hit theaters. In this landscape, a “lost” Kerouac novel is an easy and enticing sell. But the book’s editor, Todd F. Tietchen, understandably offers a different rationale: “The Haunted Life nevertheless offers a telling glimpse into the creative life and imaginative capacities of Kerouac at a critical moment in his artistic development.”

Writer Jack Kerouac --

Writer Jack Kerouac — he argued that “no Joyce, no Auden, no Kafka has anything to say to a true American.”

The portions of the book that best exemplify those imaginative capacities are actually not elements of the original Haunted Life manuscript at all, but the ancillary writings Tietchen has appended to it that allude to Kerouac’s intentions for the remainder of the novel. These “Sketches and Reflections” include a few brief glimpses into the growth of a great American writer, but little in the way of sustained, inventive exploration. That would come later, when Kerouac honed his “Spontaneous Prose” style in the lead-up to the publication of On the Road in 1957, experimenting with dreamlike novels such as Doctor Sax and The Subterraneans. Still, there are nascent little nods to Kerouac’s future interests within these early pages — gems like “Who wants to bother with Lowell, Mass,” and “I find that jazz is a great subject to explore.”

But in perusing these pages, I found nothing close to the arresting voice of Kerouac’s mature works that has drawn myself and countless other readers in for so many years. The Haunted Life, then, is little more than an example of the staggering amount of work it takes for a writer to find his voice, a testament to the years of toil Kerouac put in before forging a style all his own. And though the young author, defending the uniquely “American feeling” he believed was vested within this work, argued that “no Joyce, no Auden, no Kafka has anything to say to a true American,” W.H. Auden’s words might actually offer some perspective on the deceptive allure of flawed works of juvenilia like The Haunted Life:

Shameless envious Age!, when the Public will shell out more cash for
Note-books and sketches that were never intended for them
than for perfected works. Observing erasures and blunders,
every amateur thinks: I could have done it as well.

(from Collected Poems, “Shorts II”)

I could have done it as well — a tempting thought that came up time and again in my reading of The Haunted Life, at every instance of tinny dialogue, unnecessary variants of the word “said,” and clichéd descriptions. I was beginning to second-guess my appreciation of Kerouac, until blissfully, thankfully, I turned to the second-to-last section of the book, a piece of writing from October 11, 1954 – well within the period of the author’s mature oeuvre – called An Example of Non*Spontaneous Deliberated Prose. Deceptively titled, the passage rings true with all the hallmarks of Kerouac’s best “Spontaneous Prose.” When I lighted upon the opening sentence (which runs to 316 words — classic Kerouac), beginning “One pure afternoon in that prime of time which is Indian Summer in the sad northern earth…” I felt the energy of the human maelstrom, and was reminded of my own heavenly connection to this starry dynamo of American prosody.

Troy Pozirekides is a freelance writer and critic. He divides his time between Boston and Los Angeles, and his writerly pursuits between literary fiction and screenplays. He is also a musician, playing trumpet and guitar. Follow him on Twitter at @tpozirekides.

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