A lin­ger­ing reminder of Jack Ker­ouac

Ni­cosia helps keep beat poet’s voice alive

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - A+E - rko­[email protected] tri­bune.com

The young man, 20some­thing I fig­ured, sat on the “L,” star­ing not out the win­dow or at a phone but at the pages of the book in his hands and held in front of his face. It was easy to read the ti­tle as the train slowed for the Bel­mont stop, eas­ier still to rec­og­nize the face on his T-shirt.

I knew them both: The book was “The Dharma Bums,” the story of two men en­gaged in an en­thu­si­as­tic search for Dharma, which is the Bud­dhist word for “univer­sal truth.” The face was that of the novel’s author, Jack Ker­ouac, who pub­lished the book in 1958 and who has been dead for 50 years.

So, I asked, “Ker­ouac, eh?” which re­ally wasn’t much of a ques­tion, but it did prompt an an­swer, which re­ally wasn’t much of an an­swer: “Yep, you know this book?”

I told him that I did, and he said, “Cool.” He also said his name was Tom Koch and that he was 22 years old and worked as a waiter. He then said, “‘On the Road’ changed my life.”

He got off at Fuller­ton, I got off at Grand and a few min­utes later was on the phone with Ger­ald Ni­cosia.

He now lives in the San Francisco area but was born and raised here and knows as much about Ker­ouac as any­one in the world. Ni­cosia has spent nearly a half-cen­tury study­ing Ker­ouac, whose most fa­mous and in­flu­en­tial book is the afore­men­tioned “On the Road,” first pub­lished in 1957.

It was the lightly fic­tion­al­ized story of Ker­ouac (Sal Par­adise in the book) and some pals, prin­ci­pally Dean Mo­ri­arty, who was in real life Neal Cas­sady, who would also be a promi­nent player in Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction 1968 clas­sic “The Elec­tric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” Sal and Dean drive across the United States on a rau­cous and con­ver­sa­tion-filled jour­ney punc­tu­ated by drugs, booze, jazz, po­etry, wild char­ac­ters and sex.

It was a sen­sa­tion, a hit with crit­ics and a best­seller. Be­yond that, it helped de­fine the Beat Gen­er­a­tion and in­spire the coun­ter­cul­ture ac­tiv­i­ties of gen­er­a­tions that fol­lowed. It ranked 55th on the Mod­ern Li­brary’s list of the 100 best English-lan­guage nov­els of the 20th cen­tury and still sells some 60,000 copies a year.

Ni­cosia in­ter­viewed more than 300 peo­ple who knew the writer. He read more than 2,000 of the author’s let­ters. In 1983, he pub­lished what many con­sider the de­fin­i­tive Ker­ouac bi­og­ra­phy, “Mem­ory Babe” (Grove Press). It was widely praised by crit­ics and by some of Ker­ouac’s con­tem­po­raries and clos­est friends.

Poet Allen Gins­berg called it “a mon­u­ment of Ker­ouac, smells and tastes like Ker­ouac, has a pow­er­ful im­pact and a moun­tain of life de­tail I’d for­got­ten, great book.”

Writer Wil­liam S. Bur­roughs said, “It is by far the best of the many books pub­lished about Jack Ker­ouac’s life and work, ac­cu­rately and clearly writ­ten, with a sure feel­ing for Jack’s own prose.”

Ker­ouac wrote many other books, though none was as suc­cess­ful as “On the Road.” He died in 1969 in Florida, where he was liv­ing with his third wife, Stella Sam­pas Ker­ouac, and his mother Gabrielle. The cause of death was an ab­dom­i­nal hem­or­rhage, the re­sult of a life­time of heavy drink­ing.

Ni­cosia has had a fruit­ful ca­reer as pro­fes­sor, critic and author. His lat­est book is “Ker­ouac: The Last Quar­ter Cen­tury” (Nood­el­brain Press) is a sear­ing, pas­sion­ate and de­tailed in­dict­ment of, he says, “How Ker­ouac’s legacy has been trav­es­tied and sul­lied by some very bad peo­ple.”

He of­fers many vil­lains, specif­i­cally mem­bers of the fam­ily of Stella Sam­pas, who ef­fec­tively have con­trolled the Ker­ouac “fran­chise” for decades.

In a story of Kafkaesque twists and turns, Ni­cosia de­tails machi­na­tions that in­clude a phony will for his mother, slick agents and at­tor­neys, greed, jeal­ousies and all man­ner of what he calls “bam­boo­zle­ment.” It reads with the pace of a first-rate novel.

“They have been in the busi­ness of mon­e­tiz­ing this man,” he says. “It has been par­tic­u­larly dam­ag­ing to schol­ars, for they have been sell­ing off his papers piece by piece, sell­ing off his ar­chive to col­lec­tors and deal­ers all over the world.”

Ker­ouac fa­mously wrote his books on huge rolls of tele­type pa­per which,

Ni­cosia says, “are mostly gone. Of nine rolls, the only buyer we know of is (In­di­anapo­lis Colts foot­ball team owner) Jim Ir­say, who pur­chased the roll for ‘On the Road’ for $2.43 mil­lion in 2001. The oth­ers? Who knows where they are?

“And the fam­ily sells his im­age ev­ery­where.”

Now, Ker­ouac is not the first author to suf­fer in­dig­ni­ties due to com­mer­cial­iza­tion. Ernest Hem­ing­way, for in­stance, is the sub­ject of such non­sense as the Hem­ing­way Look-Alike Con­test, a high­light of Key West’s an­nual Hem­ing­way Days cel­e­bra­tion.

Other ex­am­ples abound. I can re­call, with­out fond­ness, Ker­ouac Jack’s Restau­rant & Lounge on the North Side. It was a wellmean­ing (per­haps) but lame at­tempt to recre­ate the feel­ing of the late ’50s and early ’60s Beat Gen­er­a­tion with vin­tage fur­nish­ings, po­etry read­ings and large bon­gos hang­ing above the door.

Ni­cosia tells of Ker­ouac’s im­age on key chains, back­packs, T-shirts and other items.

“The Sam­pas fam­ily al­lows for the mar­ket­ing of Ker­ouac bob­ble­heads and Ker­ouac ba­con cheese­burg­ers with Jack Daniel’s sauce, a par­tic­u­larly sav­age thing since Jack Daniel’s was one of the drinks that helped kill him,” Ni­cosia says.

The prin­ci­pal vic­tim in all this com­mer­cial­iza­tion, Ni­cosia feels and makes a strong case for, was Ker­ouac’s daugh­ter and only child, Jan, and a nephew, Paul Blake, the son of Ker­ouac’s sis­ter Caro­line. Ni­cosia tried un­suc­cess­fully in the 1990s to help Jan con­test her fa­ther’s will, which was in­deed a forgery.

She died in 1996 at 44, after a life spent do­ing some writ­ing but mostly work­ing as a waitress and in can­ner­ies. She had no chil­dren and re­main­ing mem­bers of the Blake fam­ily, most liv­ing a trailer park ex­is­tence, lack the means to pur­sue fur­ther le­gal ac­tion.

Ni­cosia is un­der­stand­ably quick to out­rage, but he is a sen­si­ble man, as one might ex­pect of a per­son raised, as he writes, a “poor, eth­nic, Catholic fam­ily in a work­ing class town near a big city — Lyons, Illinois, out­side of Chicago — and I too had dreams of mov­ing up in the world through my in­tel­lect and writ­ing tal­ent.”

He also feels that there is a “tra­di­tion of de­cency in Chicago writ­ing, go­ing to back to (Carl) Sand­burg, James T. Far­rell, Studs Terkel and many oth­ers. Nel­son Al­gren ar­tic­u­lated it very clearly when he said, ‘The writer needs to be a voice for the ac­cused per­son in the docket, who has no one else to speak for him.’ That’s an ap­prox­i­mate quote, but it’s what I’ve tried to do all my life: to speak up for, among oth­ers, Ker­ouac’s real blood fam­ily that got robbed and driven to early deaths by the in­jus­tices they ex­pe­ri­enced.”

Ni­cosia stays in touch with the Blake fam­ily and has ded­i­cated this lat­est book to them.

He has heard noth­ing from the Sam­pas clan.

“No, there has not been any ‘of­fi­cial’ re­ac­tion to the book,” he says. “And noth­ing since the death of (Stella’s brother) John Sam­pas, in 2017, though I can re­mem­ber very clearly him call­ing me ‘a piece of trash’ and a ‘nasty per­son.’ ”

All of Jack Ker­ouac’s books re­main in print.


Author Jack Ker­ouac in Sheri­dan Square in New York’s Greenwich Vil­lage in 1958 after a pub­lisher’s party for his book “The Dharma Bums.”


Orig­i­nally from sub­ur­ban Lyons, author Ger­ald Ni­cosia has spent much of his ca­reer ex­plor­ing the life and times of Jack Ker­ouac. His book reads like a novel.

Side­walks Rick Ko­gan

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