Subterranean Kerouac

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Thirty years after his untimely death from alcoholism at age forty-seven, Jack Kerouac remains among the most popular embodiments of the Beat Generation’s rebellion against the conformist, narrow-minded cultural values of the 1950’s. His famous ON THE ROAD (1957) has sold three million copies, and for many readers the book best exemplifies a liberation from the constraints of a generally repressive era in American life.

The first biographer to gain virtually unlimited access to most of Kerouac’s letters and diaries, Ellis Amburn has assembled a well-researched biography which focuses attention on Kerouac’s bisexuality, and sexual relationships with men. According to the extensive documentation Amburn presents, Kerouac’s alcoholism was largely caused by the fear and guilt he felt because of his homosexual relationships. Outwardly, he professed disdain of homosexuals, while secretly enjoying sexual liaisons with men as well as women. His frequent boasting of his sexual conquests of numerous women is seen as a form of personal denial, which Kerouac never resolved. Contributing to Kerouac’s despair, according to Amburn, are his anti-Semitism and racist attitudes.

No newcomer to Kerouac studies, Amburn was the editor of Kerouac’s last two novels, DESOLATION ANGELS (1965) and VANITY OF DULUOZ (1968), and he had a personal relationship with Kerouac, conducting many interviews with him toward the end of his life. Accordingly, this biography really comes alive with the many insights of a biographer who knows his subject intimately, and Amburn’s skill as an author of celebrity biographies (he has written bios of Janis Joplin and Buddy Holly) makes the narrative highly readable and quite entertaining, a rare feat considering the substantial research and abundant detail which are incorporated into this sure-to-be controversial study.