Jan Kerouac, “Baby Driver” (1981)


‘Well, Dean,’ said my aunt, ‘I hope you’ll be able to take care of your new baby that’s coming and stay married this time.’
‘Yes, yass, yes.’
‘You can’t go over the country having babies like that. Those poor little things’ll grow up helpless. You’ve got to offer them a chance to live.’ He looked at his feet and nodded.”

from On the Road (Kerouac, I/227-228)

Kerouac wrote, “With one illegitimate child in the West somewhere, Dean then had four little ones and not a cent,” (I/223) but not once, in any of his books, did he mention his own daughter. But he had one. Her name was Jan, and she wrote two novels.

Jack’s early death from alcoholism left his life somehow incomplete, unfinished, as if his writing had just broken off in mid-sentence. His daughter’s life finalizes his own. Without her, it is not possible to properly understand him.

This is an unusual phenomenon: uniquely in the history of literature, the obscure daughter, who never would have gotten a book contract if not for her last name, was nonetheless a much better (if less prolific) writer than her famous father. Their styles and topics are similar and thus easy to compare. In every possible way, Jan had a depth of perception that was far beyond poor Jack’s limits. This becomes very clear from the first chapter of Baby Driver (page numbers from the 1998 reprint by Thunder’s Mouth Press).

Next the moths did their nocturnal death waltz around the lamps, and howling dog choruses echoed in the river valley. I made sure there were no scorpions in the bed, then climbed under mosquito netting, which was really more of a scorpion net. Their sting could be fatal to a pregnant woman. We’d found fifteen in all since we’d lived there. The machete gleamed by the bed, awaiting the sixteenth… Once we saw a whole swarm of tiny scorpions running across the floor. They must have just hatched — all perfectly formed, but small as ants.”

(Baby Driver, 5-6)

The book begins in Mexico, where fifteen-year-old, very pregnant Jan has gone with one John Lash, then not yet her first husband. Mexico is central to the Beat legend, ever since Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty drove there in Part Four of On the Road. According to Jack, Mexico City was “the great and final wild uninhibited Fellahin-childlike city that we knew we would find at the end of the road,” (Kerouac, I/272) and he lived there for a few months in 1952. But never, in any of his writing, was he able to make it into anything more than a cardboard backdrop for parties (On the Road) or romantic failures (Tristessa). He patronized Mexicans in condescending passages such as, “These people were unmistakably Indians and were not at all like the Pedros and Panchos of silly civilized American lore — they had high cheekbones, and slanted eyes, and soft ways; they were not fools, they were not clowns; they were great, grave Indians and they were the source of mankind and the fathers of it,” (I/252) and perhaps sincerely believed that he was sympathizing with them, but they always remained faceless extras. Their world was never fully real to him; its purpose was to generate novel but untaxing sensations, e.g., “Soft infinitesimal showers of microscopic bugs fanned down on my face as I slept, and they were extremely pleasant and soothing.” (I/265)

They looked alike.

But in Baby Driver, from the beginning, Mexico is experienced physically. It undeniably exists, and the incontrovertible evidence of its reality is that one has to watch every step, guarding against scorpions. Jan does not claim spiritual affinity with the locals, but she at least is present in their world, which Jack might have glimpsed had he ventured outside the bars more. This first chapter, alone, already contains more concrete, detailed imagery than all of On the Road, exactly the kind of specifics that begin to seem surreal after one’s memory has separated them from long-forgotten routine:

After a spell, one of our favorite creatures came out to entertain us. The Fred Astaire spider, we called him. He was brilliant orange with a large pad on the end of each foot — they looked like actual shoes. Right into the pool of lamplight on the floor he would leap, take a sort of bow, putting four of his legs together on one side, and lean over. Then the spider would do the most frenzied, intricate footwork, twisting, hopping, kicking with just one leg, then another. There should have been tiny taps made to order just for him! Then he would do another bow and skip away into the darkness, leaving us doubled over with mirth. Who knows? If we had applauded maybe he would have come back for an encore.”

(Baby Driver, 5)

At the end of the chapter, Jan gives birth, but the baby is dead. “At twilight, a long procession of little boys filed solemnly up to our hut. The first carried a tiny empty coffin on his head. I was lighting the lamps as they stared at me in awe and whispered to each other. The sepulchral hush was shattered as John reluctantly drove down the nails. Then they carried her away.” (8) A few months later, Jan returns to the United States together with John, and never sees this remote Mexican village again. And, though she did not know it, the “Beat Generation,” and, by extension, every other glossy youth “movement,” had also died there, with her daughter.

This entire episode has a Biblical inevitability. “And this is the writing that was written, mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.” Jack’s life and writing are weighed in the balances and found wanting. The ultimate end of his safari of self-discovery through Mexico is a jungle shack, teeming with scorpions, and a stillborn child, the last of his family line, whose grave “under the banana palms” (Baby Driver, 8) is soon flooded by torrential rain. He outlived his granddaughter by about two years, and never knew it. Next time you read The Dharma Bums and Ray Smith is rhapsodizing, “Raindrops are ecstasy, raindrops are not different from ecstasy, neither is ecstasy different from raindrops, yea, ecstasy is raindrops, rain on, O cloud,” (Kerouac, I/382) remember that this muddy grave is where it always led; from the start, it never led anywhere else.

Jan’s mother, Joan Haverty, has a brief appearance at the end of On the Road, as “Laura”:

But a pretty girl stuck her head out the window and said, ‘Yes? Who is it?’
‘Sal Paradise,’ I said, and heard my name resound in the sad and empty street.
‘Come on up,’ she called. ‘I’m making hot chocolate.’ So I went up and there she was, the girl with the pure and innocent clear eyes that I had always searched for and for so long. We agreed to love each other madly.”

(Kerouac, I/274)

But only eight months later, they had separated; that part didn’t make it into the novel. Haverty was pregnant at the time, and Jan was born in February 1952. Jack denied being the father (which fits perfectly with Sal’s ever-chivalrous conduct in On the Road), and Haverty had to force him, by means of a court order, to take a paternity test in order to get child support out of him. This happened in 1961, and was the first time Jan ever saw him. “I remember a certain gullible part of my young mind thinking that nine and a half must be the age when one was grown-up enough to meet one’s father for the first time. It meant I was maturing — a big girl now.” (Baby Driver, 63) After the blood test, “he wanted to know where the nearest liquor store was, so I took him by the hand to the one on Tenth Street, proudly walking him past kids I knew as if to say, ‘See — I have one too.’” (64) Jan’s one memento from this meeting was the cork from the bottle that Jack had bought there.

The foreword, written by one Gerald Nicosia, a self-styled “writer, poet, biographer and historian” who wrote about the Beats and helped Jan get her book published, mildly criticizes Baby Driver on the grounds that it is insufficiently emotional: “to read her chronicle, you’d never know she was an unhappy person, never glimpse her true misery, never see where she had been wounded and scarred.” (xvii) I disagree, and personally I am very grateful to Jan Kerouac for not having made an ostentatious display of her “true misery” in her first published work. There was no need: the events speak for themselves, and the calm tone of the narrative takes on an otherworldly, all-knowing irony, the sorrow of Heaven looking down on our lives. Baby Driver becomes God’s own reproach to Jack’s foolish life.

janwallIf this was a conscious imitation
of Jack’s glamour photos, it succeeded.

This happens not only in the first chapter, but throughout. After leaving Mexico, Jan marries John Lash and lives with him in the Pacific Northwest for three years, perhaps the most peaceful time of her life. The idyll inevitably ended, but she stayed in touch with him until she died, and even named him as her general executor in her will. In Baby Driver, Lash is a minor character, but Jan’s brief descriptions are quite sufficient for a comprehensive portrait. Although their marriage likely would have broken down in any case, the immediate cause of their separation was Lash’s utterly pointless infidelity. John has no real interest in “Jenny, a pretty blonde whose horoscope he’d been doing,” (10) and completely forgets her immediately afterward, yet makes the effort to come up with the following justification and present it to his wife:

He fixed me with his green gaze, at once sympathetic and scathing.
‘You see what’s happening to us, don’t you?’ he said. ‘We’ve got to share our spirits with others — can’t always keep them locked up in ourselves…’
‘Sure — our spirits…but our bodies too?’
‘Well, love, our spirits and our bodies are inexorably connected.’ This he stated with the resounding peal of an absolute truth. As one who read Carl Jung and Goethe for hours on end, he was in his element. There was always a certain point beyond which I found it impossible to argue with John…and we had reached that point. My being nineteen and his being twenty-six didn’t help.
‘Somehow…I know you’re right,’ I sniffed, drying my eyes, ‘but my emotions won’t listen to my mind.’

(Baby Driver, 12-13)

John’s “victory” in this argument does not prevent Jan from leaving and beginning a long period of dissipation in the Southwest, supporting herself through prostitution. Two years later, she accidentally runs into John again in New Mexico. He briefly assumes the role of slighted husband and demands a divorce, but as soon as this is done, everything is fine again and Jan is welcome to stay at his house indefinitely. He has done well for himself in the meantime: “It was late night when we returned to John’s house… We prowled around the house and saw that he was holding one of his astrology classes — as usual it was almost all female. Women loved to hang around him and be taught and flattered.” (98) Later on, Jan recalls their first conversation, back when she was in ninth grade:

‘Where’re you from?’ I began as casually as possible over the frenetic blare of Jimmy Smith’s organry.
‘Maine — Friendship, Maine…on the coast.’ He shook his head ever so slightly — in all directions — up, down, sideways. I wondered what it meant.
‘I’ve just come back from India, you know…’ With this, he fixed me with another sudden green beacon.
‘Oh, really? What was it like?’ I was truly intrigued, and turned toward him, folding my legs under me like a little girl whose father is about to tell her a bedtime story.
‘Ahh–‘ John laughed for the first time and rolled his eyes up in hopelessness and rapture. ‘I can’t say, I can’t say.’
‘I’ll tell you about India some other time, my dear.’ And with that, John got up and very simply went out the door.

(Baby Driver, 173)

Haven’t we seen this before? It’s Japhy Ryder!..but an improved, modernized Japhy, who has refined the process to maximum efficiency, arriving at the absolute minimal dose of mystical spirituality required on the way to the bedroom. As Ryder said, “we’ve dedicated ourselves to prayer for all sentient beings… Who knows, the world might wake up and burst out into a beautiful flower of Dharma everywhere.” (Kerouac, I/435) But Lash’s dedication was far more productive and profitable — he wrote a number of books with titles like The Seeker’s Handbook: The Complete Guide to Spiritual Pathfinding. America, I am sorry, but you did this to yourself.

Jan understands Lash enough to poke fun at him; by the time of their divorce, she no longer believes his act, if she ever did. Unlike her father, she never made a serious effort to study or practice any Eastern religion. Nonetheless, Lash’s lectures affected her more deeply than she may have realized — she never learned any other language with which to define any form of spiritual life. Many times in Baby Driver, she reflects on herself and others using the vocabulary of astrology, most notably in the following self-accusatory passage, occurring after a particularly dramatic entanglement (emphasis in the original): “I should never have let him think that he was my reason for coming to South America. If I had just been brave enough to admit that it was only the trip I wanted to experience. What a shameful opportunist I’d been. That was the demon inside me. I thought I understood then what Venus in Capricorn meant, or could mean at its worst…the planet of love in the sign of use, the mark of the prostitute.” (Baby Driver, 166) These references are made in passing, however, and there is no indication (at least in the book) that Jan consciously viewed astrology as a highly valuable or important part of her life. It is more that these are the only terms she knows for expressing such feelings as guilt or regret.

But again, a higher irony is at work in Baby Driver. Still in Peru, Jan is brought to “a mansion, like so many I saw lining the avenues of Lima,” and introduced to “a tall, aristocratic lady…striking in countenance, with thinning silver hair piled in coils on her head and large, intelligent, gray-blue eyes.” (186) Jan herself realizes how strange this encounter must look among her “sordid escapades with crazed derelicts,” (187) in her own words. Just before this, she had been in the jungle; the effect on the reader is as if the mansion had just appeared there (one thinks of Fitzcarraldo), though, of course, the setting has changed to Lima. The scene naturally calls to mind (both Jan’s and the reader’s) images of medieval Spain. The lady’s name, Marcia Theresa de Zarragoza, evokes a long-gone nobility; it turns out that she is blind, but this only serves to emphasize her grace and manners. Even the Spanish language is called “Castilian” here. She only appears in a single chapter, but makes a striking impression, unmatched by any of Jack Kerouac’s writing.

fitzcarraldoImagine Jan in this role (she was there around the same time).

The Señora is a devout Roman Catholic, and has turned her mansion into an orphanage; her wards think of one another as brothers and sisters. She tries to bring Jan into the fold:

She asked me what my religion was and I said Catholic (having been baptized at infancy during my mother’s Catholic binge and also feeling strong ties with my French-Canadian ancestors, even though I’d rarely been to church, except when I was a child — to rob the poor box). She went on to ask me if I prayed, what I thought of God, etc. Usually, under other circumstances, this topic would have annoyed me, but this woman had a spell over me. I found myself complying with all these pablum form precepts, nodding in sheeplike gullibility. Perhaps it all seemed more plausible in Spanish.”

(Baby Driver, 188)

Where Japhy Ryder’s hostility toward Christianity was a conscious choice, for Jan it is so ingrained as to be an unthinking reflex — it never occurs to her to ask herself if “Venus in Capricorn” might also be a “pablum form precept,” whatever that means (perhaps it is one of John Lash’s catch-phrases). But, as she spends more time with Señora de Zarragoza, she becomes more receptive, and even agrees to try to pray:

As she spoke, alternating between English and Castellano, the words entranced me. I mentioned my mother and how long it had been since I’d seen her. She said, ‘Pray for your mother, dear, and you will see her soon.’ My usual association patterns must have been asleep or drugged, for praying no longer seemed ridiculous, like it always had before. It was a fascinating esoteric ritual, which I attempted, and the words that slipped from my mouth didn’t sound like my own. But every time I tried it, at the dark reddish gold altar in the foyer, a wave of extreme exhilaration passed through me.”

(Baby Driver, 190-191)

Jack Kerouac and his gullible followers were drawn to Buddhism because, to them, it was exotic and unfamiliar. The novelty of the “fascinating esoteric ritual” enticed Kerouac away from the comfort of his childhood Catholicism. Yet, he always took it for granted that Christianity would still be there for him to fall back on. In Vanity of Duluoz, written just one year before his death, one finds such unexpected thoughts as, “Blaise Pascal says not to look to ourselves for the cure to misfortunes, but to God whose Providence is a foreordained thing in Eternity; that the foreordainment was that our lives be but sacrifices leading to purity in the after-existence in Heaven as souls disinvested of that rapish, rotten, carnal body[.]” Kerouac then argues with Pascal a bit, though his objection easily transforms into an admission of spiritual weakness: “I dont get it because I look into myself for the answers. And my body is so thick and carnal! I cant penetrate into the souls of others equally [entrapped] in trembling weak flesh, let alone penetrate into an understanding of how I can turn to God with effect.” But here Kerouac (quite uncharacteristically) enters into a dialogue with Pascal, which can only happen if he shares Pascal’s frame of reference to some degree, even if he does not fully accept it. Pascal’s world is familiar to him. He leaves it whenever he wants, but also feels free to return to it.

But his daughter lives in a world where occultism, not Christianity, has become the universal religious standard. It is now Catholicism that comes across as a “fascinating esoteric ritual,” so alien that she has to go all the way to Peru to come in contact with it. And this is not even a special feast or service, it is just a simple prayer at home! But Jan is thrown completely out of her depth — as she says, “frozen on the bench, suspended in a transparent green jelly of awe” — and feels compelled to talk herself out of her shock and alarm with occultist platitudes about how the nuns were “following me through the ages into another lifetime” (Baby Driver, 191) and had “come close to recapturing my spirit and soul[.]” (192) The basis for this notion is an earlier occasion when “John took us all to a fortune teller he knew… She told us that in a previous life Coral and Maggie and I had been nuns in Madrid in the 1700s.” (95) Unfortunately, Jan is not doing much better here than the stereotypical “ignorant peasants” in anti-religious propaganda — you know, the ones that are superstitious and terrified of new ideas that go against the “dogma” (few words having more negative connotations than “dogma” to the contemporary man) proclaimed by the “clergy.” But the peasants at least had the excuse that the clergy were obviously much more educated than they, and thus could reasonably be expected to know better. Jan’s clergy is, literally, “a fortune teller.” Truly, occultism is the opiate of the masses. And, again, Jan isn’t some sort of new age ideologue — much like the peasants, it is the casual nature of her belief that makes it unthinking. The peasant sees the same village church every Sunday and cannot imagine that the world might contain anything else; faith is then reduced to a backdrop for everyday routine. By Jan’s time, this had become the backdrop for American culture. There is still Christianity somewhere in her America (just like there are still “straights” somewhere in the world of A Scanner Darkly), but it has become so denatured and primitive that it is unable to offer any serious challenge to occultism. There is an episode in Baby Driver where Joan Haverty marries again and tries to live with her second husband for a time; the household is ruled by this man’s mother, who “was in the habit of preaching Hellfire and Brimstone to us” and informs the children that “we were to live down in the basement… Down there we subsisted on turnips and were surrounded by omnipresent dampness except for Sundays when we were allowed up in the family dining room.” (19) Unfortunately, for all its rigidity, this approach to discipline is totally ineffectual — this husband is also a deadbeat alcoholic, little better than Jack Kerouac.

By the way, the fortune-telling episode mentions “Maggie,” one of Jan’s closest friends during that time, “an austere-looking blond girl who had coincidentally grown up…where I had lived with John. We struck up a conversation over this…comparing familiar ho-dunk place names and tidbits of local gossip. And I realized that here was another female with an original soul with whom I might eventually feel as strong a bond as with Coral.” (92) The bond doesn’t prevent her from dropping out of the narrative, but that happens to nearly everyone whom Jan meets; Jack’s novels are similar in that regard. In any case, Jan clearly remembers Maggie very warmly. But who was she? Well, “Maggie Bell” was really named Peggy Bull, and as explained by Gerald Nicosia in a footnote, she “would later die in the Heaven’s Gate cult’s mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, California, in March 1997.” (211) The dedication of Baby Driver reads, “Dearest Peggy Bull, wherever you are please come back and bring our dreams to life again.” (v) Jan herself died in 1996, so she had to have written it before the suicide, but like everything else in Baby Driver, this understated plea later took on a grave new meaning.

Jack Kerouac claimed to believe in karma, but neither On the Road nor The Dharma Bums reveals any hint of understanding that events may be connected, or that they may have repercussions. Everything that happens is totally innocuous and unrelated to everything else: Bull Lee is a quirky intellectual who merely “spent all his time talking and teaching others” and “settling to his life’s work, which was the study of things themselves in the streets of life and the night,” (Kerouac, I/130) a veritable absent-minded professor supported by his devoted wife; Sal Paradise is last seen romantically calling up to Laura in her window as the curtain falls. Eventually the other shoe dropped, in Big Sur, but the hapless author was totally incapable of self-analysis, and could only wonder helplessly where the old feeling had gone. But in Jan’s life and writing, everything that happens always reaches its inevitable conclusion, with merciless logic. Jan herself is such a conclusion for the Beat legend. Peggy Bull’s fate turned into an afterword to her novel.

peggybullOther than Jan’s book, this is all that remains.

Here is another example. Baby Driver has a nonlinear structure (suggested by Jan’s editors, much to the book’s benefit, not unlike what happened with On the Road), alternating between chapters set in the “present,” starting around the time of Jan’s marriage to John Lash, and retrospective chapters describing her childhood and adolescence. In one of these latter, having just started seventh grade, Jan meets one Paul Orlov, “a tall slim fellow wearing an English cap and brown hexagonal shades, disguising large, fascinating hazel eyes,” who becomes something like her first love: “I was instantly taken by him. This was my cosmic brother, all wrapped up in crazy obsessions that I understood implicitly. He was just young enough at heart, and I was just mature enough for us to meet halfway; however, in years I was twelve and he was twenty-two and when my mother heard about this she balked.” (105) Again the Lolita theme; Nabokov must have really hit upon some hidden, but central nerve of American culture. Paul plies Jan with drugs, giving her LSD at age 12, again analogous to Humbert Humbert’s ploy to sedate Dolores Haze (who was the same age) with sleeping pills. In this chapter, Jan gives long descriptions of “watching induced visions from our black-lacquered lenses. I actually could see the trees breathing, etiolating in verdant blooms.” (108) A little of this goes a long way; evidently, she believed these hallucinations to have been more interesting than they were, one case where her generally strong literary instinct failed her. Just as she can process guilt only through the jargon of occultism, she can interpret “our enchanted world,” (110) the world of first love, only as a drug-induced high.

What Paul’s motivation for doing all this was, one can only guess (or not, if one has read Lolita). But what happens to him afterward? The conclusion arrives with the absolute, ironclad inevitability of judgment — similar to one well-known scene in A Scanner Darkly, and written with equal power:

There was a week that summer, toward the end of August, when Paul took acid every day. I had never done more than a dose at a time and was a little worried about him. He wasn’t sleeping or eating, just flitting about in one big hallucination. He had become Identity Man, a character out of one of his own cartoon strips.
It was time for an appointment with his psychiatrist, and instead of avoiding or forgetting it, like I expected he would, he was eager to go there — he had all sorts of wonderful truths to tell his doctor. I went up with him to Metropolitan Hospital, and tried discouraging him several times without success.
I was allowed in with him when he was called…the doctor left the room and returned with a nurse who handed Paul a small white paper cup. The cup had a pill in it which they told him to take. ‘Thanks!’ he said gleefully, and put it in his pocket.
‘No, we want you to swallow it,’ they insisted, at which point Identity Man defiantly flipped it into the air and when it landed, crushed it into the carpet with his heel, chanting, ‘Now you see it, now you don’t!’
Next thing I knew, Paul was being taken on a tour of the building, and I waited for him in the office. A half hour had elapsed when I was told I could see him. The doctor took me up in the elevator to the thirteenth floor, and there was Paul in a striped bathrobe, looking very confused behind a glass barrier. He’d become part of his own vanishing act: Now you see him, now you don’t.”

(Baby Driver, 111)

Jack Kerouac’s cultural impact was destructive, but he himself was not a destructive person. He knew not what he did; he loved the world of his childhood and just assumed that it would last forever on its own. But his daughter was born into a world that was already in ruins. Even before Paul first appears, the utter wretchedness of Jan’s slum youth is brought out in bizarrely vivid, horrifically absurd individual images. One of the many men that pass through Joan Haverty’s apartment “threw open the hall door proudly, revealing dank morning corridors strewn with heaps of soggy ashes… He had done the building the favor of setting fire to the dumbwaiter, an ancient shaft whose box had long since plummeted to the bottom and had been packed from basement to rooftop with solid garbage dating from the turn of the century.” (86) Later, in a desperate attempt to get her daughter away from Paul, Haverty has Jan committed to a psychiatric hospital, but soon finds that it is quite difficult to get her out; Jan, in the meantime, “figured all was lost, and I might as well become a bona fide loony if I were to fit in somewhere,” (131) and starts cutting her wrists out of sheer boredom, showing considerable inventiveness in finding sharp implements at such an institution. When she is finally released, she “drifted into a cough syrup drinking scene,” (147) with a darkly comic note in the fact that there is an entire “scene” for this. These developments land her in juvenile prison, where she survives thanks to her artistic talent, of all things:

I had so little to do that I wound up drawing most of the time. And the girls who saw my drawings were impressed.
‘Man, dis bitch can draw her aaaasss off! C’meah, looka dis!’
I was surprised at how taken they were by my work, and felt lucky to have found something that inspired admiration in their calloused hearts. They liked popular slogans like BURN, BABY, BURN surrounded by stylized flames, and simple tattoo designs like daggers that seemed to cut through a flap of flesh, dripping with blood. Before I knew it, I was besieged by requests for ballpoint tattoos, which looked real but washed off after a few showers… I did it freehand, but never made a mistake. The pressure I was under forced my hand to be steady. They’d all stand around waiting as I ‘tattooed’ one of their friends, commenting now and then, ‘Oooooh honey, honey, that looks baaaad,’ and ‘Ain’t that boss? Hey, I want one o dem here on my leg.’
I got in trouble briefly for doing it, which only gave me more esteem. The matrons were in cahoots with the inmates anyway, and some were even their lovers. Whatever they wanted short of being set free, they could have. Even when there were fights or, more often, beatings, the matrons would watch for a while as if it were a sport, rooting for the aggressor, and then after some time had elapsed they’d ring the alarm as a formality.

(Baby Driver, 153)


One understands why John Lash might have seemed like a lifeline out of this wasteland when he agreed to take Jan, pregnant with the child of a local drug dealer, to Mexico. The baby’s father pays Jan to leave the city, so that he may thereby avoid the charge of statutory rape. But before heading south, Jan first visits her father — the second and last time she ever saw him. Kerouac is back in Lowell, MA, under the watchful eye of Stella Sampas, his third wife. In less than three pages, Jan gives a definitive portrait of this man, picking up many small but telling details:

We arrived at the house where Jack lived. The door of the comfortable suburban house opened, and there was Stella, his wife, and his mother, Gabrielle, in a wheelchair.
My father sat in a rocking chair about one foot from the TV, upending a fifth of whiskey and wearing a blue plaid shirt. He was watching ‘The Beverly Hillbillies.’
Jack’s reaction to me was shrugs and uncertain smiles. He said ‘Hi’ but…went back to his rocking again, calling to his brethren [Some relatives introduced Jan to him. -FL] across the room, ‘Hey, why doesn’t somebody turn this thing down, I can’t hear myself think!’ This seemed odd, for he was closer to the TV than anyone else in the room. But someone did turn it down for him, and he continued to guzzle his giant baby bottle, rocking himself as if in a cradle.
His wife Stella stood by, hospitable and courteous, but not much else. She was like a guard, making sure everything went smoothly, a Greek matron responsible for these two ailing Canucks she’d taken under her wing. Now that his mother could no longer take care of him, Jack had married another mother to take care of them both.
My father had found something he could talk to me about — some paintings on the wall.
‘See this? Sa painting of the Pope. I painted it.’ He nodded proudly and added, ‘before he was the Pope.’ Then there was a painting of underwear hanging on a line that his friend Stan Twardowicz had done. Last in line was a portrait of his little brother Gerard, who had died at age nine. When he told me about this one, I thought I heard his voice break, and he quickly went back to his whiskey.
I sat down on the couch next to him and stretched out my palms, asking cautiously, ‘My mother said we have the same hands…can I see your hands? I’ve always wondered.’
He raised his eyebrows and shrugged, giving me a hand to examine. ‘Oh, she does? Hmmm, dunno.’
They were the same, alright, only his were bigger.
John told him that we were on our way to Mexico, and I added that we wanted to see him before we left, because we might be gone for a while. To which he replied, surprisingly, ‘Yeah, you go to Mexico an’ write a book. You can use my name.’
Just about then, Gabrielle began to stir, calling in a high, disturbed voice, ‘Is Caroline there?’ and ‘Foreigners! They’re all foreigners!’
She might have thought I was Jack’s sister, Caroline, whom I had never met. Stella told us we had to leave, since our presence was upsetting Gabrielle and she could have another stroke. So we left, and I felt cheated out of time. I had an idea that my father would have loosened up if I continued to talk to him. But then, I’d come visit when I returned from Mexico someday…

(Baby Driver, 183-185)

These pages may be more calculated than one might think at first. Jan makes sure to hit all the right notes in establishing herself as Jack’s daughter, insisting that his relatives “all evidently recognized me as a Kerouac from my face, and gave it no further thought,” (183) and including Jack’s explicit sanction to write books using his name. In fact, years later, she undertook a long and unsuccessful legal challenge (with Gerald Nicosia’s help) to Stella Sampas’ ownership of Jack’s estate. Objectively, Jan was a grifter herself — Nicosia writes that she had taken part in a “check-kiting scam” in the seventies and “fled Washington before her trial, living for several years technically [Yes, a mere technicality. -FL] as a fugitive.” (210) Some articles on the legal feud mention that, “according to Sampas, Jan Kerouac sold furniture for years by lying to people and claiming it was used by her father to write his novels.” But literary talent can’t be forged, and whether Jack said those exact lines or not, Jan’s brief description captures the essence of who he was: not a cool, experienced, independent explorer of life and spirituality, but a helpless, infantile alcoholic, unable even to operate his own television set, rocking in a stupor with a bottle of whiskey in his arms. All that supposed knowledge of the world couldn’t even reach as far as the volume control.

janandallenJan with Allen Ginsberg.
(She sought out many of Kerouac’s old associates.)

In 1989, Jan read a half-improvised “poem” (more like a literary monologue) on a radio show. The setup made a mockery of the content; the producer thought that it would be very clever to have her talk over one of Jack’s old recordings, running in the background together with some bland jazz. The text, however, stands on its own:

Hey, Jack! Hey, Jack! Is that you? This is Jan Michele, your daughter.
Remember? This is your daughter, remember? I believe we met twice down in the Stew Pot. Yeah, it’s me. I’d like to talk to the cat that begat me, you dig? I heard your voice come over the line from out there in black telephone universe land and I felt like the RCA Victor dog. Yeah.
Oh, to be a gleeful Mad Boy back to the mists of innocence / A Beat still incubating in the unsullied womb of Beathood where the only specters of doom were ‘two bald-headed cats who, like, could push a button and blow us all outta here, man!’ And now, those imagined antics of Khrushchev and Ike have long since dissolved in the serum of history. Immortalized by Mad Magazine which I used to steal from the corner candy store / H bombs drawn in so many cartoons it’s become a cartoon, or at most the smallest measurement of nuclear firepower on earth.
If one of those sweet Beatitudinous Babes of yore had stood up and prophesied that in three decades an Iranian fanatic would hold the entire publishing world hostage / If he had said that there’d be Haitian drug gangs called posses in Kansas City or condoms advertised on TV / computer viruses / hypos handed out on street corners / If he had dared to suggest that in the late 80s Soviets would be more peace-minded than the Americans and that there would be a huge hole in the ozone from spray cans they would have put him in a straitjacket and carted him away to an asylum. And there, in the nuthouse, he might have written a monstrous work of fantasy science fiction to make George Orwell’s 1984 look like The Wizard of Oz by comparison.
Ah, my poor father / He was such a Big Baby Noodlebrain / Too noodlebrained to exist in this world of geometric fear / Too animal saintly-headed / Too animal saintly-hooded / He was too saintly to crawl through those concrete rat mazes of tortured thought. I know. I’m the same kind of Baby Noodlebrain. ‘Cause I can feel him in my bones / I’m getting to know him. I’m getting to know Little Boy Blue from the inside out.
Ah, we humans must be a pretty hardy lot to swarm all over this poor old globe, time after time strong as dynasties of cockroaches in those tenements I used to live in. Remember, Jack? You came to visit me in a tenement.
I bet you didn’t see any cockroaches / No, you were too drunk. Well, never mind. Anyway, so you say, all your fathers wore straw hats like W.C. Fields [A reference to one of Kerouac’s essays, “The origin of the Beat Generation,” which appeared in 1959. -FL] / Well, I wish I could say that but, you see, my father was the Invisible Man / But I won’t hold that against you.”

Jan Kerouac, “Hey, Jack!”

As poetry, it is not much, but…well, even then, it is better than the entirety of Mexico City Blues. As prose, however, it is much richer than suggested by Jan’s attempts at poetic phrasing, like “the unsullied womb of Beathood.” Baby Driver has these too; they reflect the author’s unrefined, self-taught understanding of literature. But the central thought is clear: the Beats lived in a silly fantasy world, rendered irrelevant by reality, as obsolete as the old world that they gleefully helped tear down. Jan gently chides her father, but also half-defends him, with the familiar calm irony of Baby Driver. Her kinship with him is expressed most strongly by her powerlessness before the frightening future — this is what makes us all equal.

There was another respect in which father and daughter were identical:

That afternoon we were having a leisurely outdoor-terrace lunch, probably with wine, and I remember…talking about how I believed I would become a great writer. Then I asked [Jan] what she thought her destiny was. Her eyes got wide, and she looked as if I’d punched her in the stomach. ‘My destiny?’ she gasped, angry and incredulous at the same time. ‘My destiny is to be pulverized!’

from Nicosia’s foreword (Baby Driver, xv)

dead1970Larry Clark’s Tulsa (1971), another document of American self-annihilation.
The caption reads, “dead 1970.”
The opposite page reads, “death is more perfect than life.”

Indeed, the longing for oblivion that lingers in the background of On the Road only intensifies in Baby Driver. After learning that her baby is dead, Jan “only shrugged and smiled weakly. All I felt was strange relief.” (7) As a prostitute, she has more money than she knows what to do with, and spends it on heroin literally because she cannot think of any other use for it: “I’d sit evenings as Phoenix cooled down to eighty-five degrees, and count my stacks of loot, rearranging them from wads to stacks to fans to rolls to lines to regiments and circles and back to a huge stack again.” (79) There is a savage irony here — it is not drug addiction that drives her to prostitution; it is prostitution that leaves her with so much money and free time that she then has to dispose of them with drug addiction. Cutting her wrists in juvenile prison is “simply an inane act of boredom and despair.” (131) For her trip through the South American jungle, she manages to find the company of a psychotic drifter who “was fairly hopping with demons; he even looked like one himself. These demons, he went on, talked to him about other people — me, Giovanna, for example,” (145) and you can probably guess what they told him to do with her. Jan escapes from him (a genuinely thrilling moment in the book) and tells herself afterward that “it was only the trip I wanted to experience,” but this sounds like an attempt at rationalization — if that were the case, surely anyone else would have been a better choice. Nicosia quickly noticed “how eager she was for self-obliteration,” (xv) and anyone who reads Baby Driver will surely have the same impression.

Well, because she could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for her. Jan died at 44 (compare to Jack’s 47). Her name, again, got her a New York Times obituary, which stated that, “She had suffered kidney failure five years [prior] and had been on dialysis[.]” One final irony: she was buried with the Kerouac family, including Gerard, whose memory was precious to Jack; but Jack’s own resting place is the Sampas plot.

Jan did have time to write a second novel (Trainsong, 1988), which chronicles additional aimless years, but really everything had been said in her first. Literature and reality not only align in Baby Driver, but somehow become mutually complementary, in a way that reflects the author’s talent but also expands beyond it. Jack Kerouac once claimed, “I tell true life stories simply about what happened to people I knew,” but after all, his writing is all labored invention, willfully oblivious to “true life.” His daughter inverted every part of that false world, from Mexico to Lowell, and “true life” resurfaced in the resulting mirror image. At the same time, reality also took on a literary quality. Jack’s only opportunity to be himself came when he turned into a character in his daughter’s book — we will never have a more truthful portrait of this man. Jan’s own accidental existence, dismal youth and senseless life all acquire a certain logic within Baby Driver, as reflections of her father’s wasted life and, on another level, of the historical trajectory of American culture itself. The American craving for constant intense sensation, even in unpleasant forms, has Jan’s half-conscious drive to be “pulverized” at its source. “Barbara and I would set off for Albuquerque in the jeep, our eyes pinned and vacant,” (Baby Driver, 71) in search of an abyss to throw themselves into. American culture dashed itself against the stones, but even that wasn’t fully satisfying — the high would be even greater if the stones themselves were shattered to bits in the process. Better to burn out than fade away, but better yet if human history, thought, and biology all go up in the same conflagration. Here we are, wondering how many days we have left.

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