Review of “Jan Kerouac: A Life In Memory”

edited by Gerald Nicosia, Noodlebrain Press

Marc Olmsted

There’s a staggering yet thoroughly feminine facial similarity that Jan Kerouac shared with her father, Jack.  Anyone I knew (including myself) who admired her father and liked girls couldn’t help but be immediately smitten by her photo.

It’s obvious this is true, because virtually every account of her in this new collection of memoirs mentions that fact.  It must have been a terrible burden to bear.

I also confess I couldn’t finish her first novel, Baby Driver, and recently reinvestigated it.  It was still a no-go.  Jan wasn’t a bad writer.  In fact, she was a decent one.  I also couldn’t finish her father’s first novel, Town & the City.

But she did not seem to actualize the degree of twisted talent that another literary spawn exhibited – William Burroughs Jr., a.k.a. Billy (Speed, Kentucky Ham).  Now both are deceased at an early age, victims of failing bodies due to abuse. 

Jan earned her space in Ann Charters’ anthology Beat Reader.  But it is the fact of Jan herself, her struggle for recognition from her father while alive, and his estate after his death, that makes this an important read about her place (for better and worse) in Beat and post-Beat literary history.  That Kerouac’s dead-ringer daughter is also now dead with the same drug and alcohol abuse history, and even outdid him by 3 years (the premature age of 44), makes this book morbidly compelling and even cautionary.  Jan’s cause of death was failing kidneys due to blood disease.  Whether this would have finished her with a clean lifestyle (one that came too late in Jan’s case, and never at all for Jack) can’t be investigated now.

The main figure of evil that emerges from these tales is not Kerouac himself, though Jack showed nothing admirable in his refusal to acknowledge the reality of his daughter until the end (and even then, begrudgingly).  It is the heir to Jack’s estate, brother of his final wife, John Sampas, who’s the villain of the piece.  In a final letter to his own nephew, Paul Blake Jr., Jack said he was going to change his will and leave everything to Paul because he saw the future and it was money – for the relatives of his wife, that is.  John Sampas has since controlled the estate with an iron fist, for Jack never made that change in the will.  He was dead before he could. 

Allen Ginsberg chose to remain neutral, as he later remarked, to keep the communication open between all parties (as was his bodhisattvic way), but Jan and her friend Gerald Nicosia took Sampas head on.  There was talk that the signature of Kerouac’s mother was forged from her bed of stroke.  Certainly, instead of museums or libraries, Sampas was selling off Kerouac’s letters and clothing to wealthy individuals — $50,000 worth to Johnny Depp alone, and over $2 million for the original On the Road manuscript typed on a single roll.  Fortunately, the owner of the latter has made it available for public view regularly.  I’m sure that Jan’s holding a banner at the NYU Kerouac Conference that read “Save Jack’s Papers!” helped publicize and cool Sampas out.  Most papers and artifacts reside in the Berg Library in Manhattan now.  Anyone who saw last year’s exhibit was stunned at its comprehensive treasures.  Thanks to an encounter with another seedling of lit, John Steinbeck IV (whom she met at Naropa University), Jan also discovered late in life that she was entitled to half of Jack’s royalties, which she managed to collect.

But both Jan and Nicosia obviously pissed off Sampas mightily, and Nicosia’s own tales of being edged out of Beat history with his superior Kerouac bio Memory Babe out of print and other projects blockaded have a ring of truth to them.  However, it is unlikely that Jan or Nicosia will ever be considered heroes of “skillful means” to use the Buddhist phrase Ginsberg admired.  In other words, choosing efficient and empathic action to accomplish one’s goals did not seem to have occurred to either of them.  Jean Renoir said in his own film Rules of the Game, “What gets me is that everyone has their reasons.”  Not recognizing this from square one leads to situations like the Israeli/Palestinian conflict with no end in sight. 

Jan and Nicosia fought Sampas with hardly an arrow in their quivers other than insult and questionable conspiracy theories.  Jan was crushed before death and Nicosia, still kicking and screaming, seems to have insulted nearly everyone who could help him when they wouldn’t follow his agenda.  The thread of accusations runs through the entire book, with Ginsberg himself singled out more than once for behaving “monstrously” in not immediately supporting the claims.  Since Allen was not on any payroll and had no reason to kiss Sampas’ ass, it all starts sounding hysterical and nasty.  Nicosia is quick to quote Ginsberg calling his own Memory Babe bio “great” and even quicker here and elsewhere to Ginsey-bash for reasons elusive at best.  Even Beat scholar Ann Charters gets a drubbing — Jan wants Nicosia in charge of editing a new volume of her father’s letters!  As Aram Saroyan quotes Ginsberg in his account: “I smell Nicosia somewhere behind this.”  Saroyan also quotes Allen as saying, “I spent several days researching Nicosia’s charges, did you do that?”  Allen found them unsubstantiated.

That Jan Kerouac should have been allowed to interrupt a NYU conference about her father to insist from the podium her grandmother’s will was forged doesn’t seem unreasonable to Jan and Nicosia.  It did to everyone in charge.  This story shifts in more than one account here to being solely about Jack’s papers being sold piecemeal.  I knew Allen Ginsberg for 23 years and corresponded with him regularly.  Anyone who knew him well will attest that preserving Kerouac’s legacy was central to Allen’s agenda.  At the very least, Jan and Nicosia needed to understand that Sampas legally owned the papers and artifacts until proven otherwise.  Therefore, shame or no shame, he could sell them or burn them if he wanted to, and a lawsuit could drag on long after everything was gone.  Attacking Sampas viciously in the press or from the podium may have prevented him from continuing to sell to private collectors.  Getting sympathy for Jan’s or Nicosia’s wishes was a far less likely outcome.

But this account is worth reading because the little-known figure of Jan Kerouac is fascinating, to say the least.  Unfortunately, the memories are almost entirely recent, which made me go to her second novel, Trainsong, for some of the early biography repeatedly mentioned but always skimmed over.  The book is now remaindered for one penny. (Her posthumous third, Parrot Fever, has yet to see the light of publisher’s day.)

Trainsong is certainly better than Baby Driver, but I doubt it would have been published without “Kerouac” at the end of Jan’s name.  In contrast, current Postbeat writer Michelle Tea is easily 10 times better, in spite of Jan saying “I’m a genius like my father.”  This expanded addition that I read include yet more editorial notes on the forged will theory and further Ginsey-bashing, in spite of Allen letting Jan stay with him at Naropa University or photos together with Jan until the end of his life.  Now Ginsberg can’t answer for himself and Nicosia’s accusations just keep coming.  Even Thunder’s Mouth Press put a disclaimer at the beginning of Trainsong, clearly unnerved by some of the charges made against Sampas therein.

But the real jewel of the Jan Kerouac account is Nicosia’s interview with Jan herself .  Here we get much of the information we’ve wanted (it’s the final piece in the book) — as well as an insight into what Jan might have become as a writer.  Her oral accounts are lively and very reminiscent of her father’s energy and sweetness as we know it from his work, interviews, recordings and the slight film that exists on him.

Had she survived, she could have been a contender.