Volume 93, Issue 5

Friday, June 11, 1999


Canadians inspired By Divine Right

I Love You Perfect, need not change for anyone

Hopkins goes bananas in latest movie

Sparklehorse shines through trauma

Kerouac biography unearths subterranean beat writer

A magical Midsummer Night brought to life at Stratford

Kerouac biography unearths subterranean beat writer

Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac
By Ellis Amburn St. Martin's Press
$37.99/387 pgs

Subterranean Kerouac is Ellis Amburn's biography of Jack Kerouac, the beat-novelist best known for authouring a rambling, rollicking tour-de-force called On the Road. Amburn became the authour's last editor in the mid-'60s, at a time when both Kerouac and his literary career were on their last legs.

Though their personal contact was limited strictly to their professional relationship, Amburn claims he gained an understanding of the hidden Kerouac which this biography attempts to unearth.

In the preface, Amburn states "I saw his life as a Greek tragedy in which a great and talented human being is destroyed by his fatal flaws." The writer goes on to offer a psychological character study which attempts to explain the inner workings of the subject's seemingly tormented psyche.

Amburn begins with the premise that Kerouac was a fundamentally unhappy man, then contends this unhappiness was the result of an unreconciled, dishonest sexuality, coupled with incorrigible alcoholism. It is not a revolutionary or grandly revelatory thesis – but it is convincing, thanks to the wealth of carefully researched evidence Amburn marshals in its support.

Kerouac's engagement in homosexual activity has never been a secret. However, Amburn pushes this point and reveals the author's homoerotic inclinations led him into many more affairs with men than he would probably have admitted.

Ironically, despite his occasional willingness to be sexually intimate with men, Kerouac was a notorious homophobe. In Amburn's portrait, Kerouac is a man repulsed by his own sexual proclivities and a hypocrite who could never reconcile his macho, chauvinistic persona with his natural sexual identity.

Kerouac was also a notorious drunk, regularly imbibing a quart of brandy per day just so he could function. The man was all but doomed to suffer from alcoholism, Amburn points out, since both of his parents struggled hopelessly with the affliction their whole lives. With the tenderness and compassion of a friend, Amburn relates how alcohol addiction plagued and tormented Kerouac for all his days, until it finally destroyed him in 1969 at 47 years of age.

Amburn makes some exaggerated claims about Kerouac's effect on 20th century American culture – at times, he seems to suggest Kerouac was the father of everything from rock 'n roll to underground cinema. Nonetheless, Subterranean Kerouac succeeds. It is cogently argued and well researched.

It's greatest strength, though, lies in its compelling and often contradictory subject – a profound novelist who was also a football star; an intellectual who spent more time in jails and whorehouses than lecture halls; a man who lived anything but an ordinary life. Amburn's prose never dazzles but it does bring Kerouac's story to life and with a subject as compelling as the original "beat," this is all it had to do.

–Mike Murphy

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Copyright The Gazette 1999