cover image Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters: Volume 2

Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters: Volume 2

Jack Kerouac. Viking Books, $34.95 (544pp) ISBN 978-0-670-86190-3

The peripatetic urgency, Buddhist catchphrases and casual prose of On the Road (1957) and Dharma Bums (1958) made Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) the star of the Beat generation. Kerouac's ""craft of spontaneous prose"" (in Charters's words) let him use his letters as rough drafts for some of his autobiographical fiction. Devotees of those novels can troll for their favorite episodes among Kerouac's complaints, requests, loans, repayments, reports, retorts, rebukes and resolutions. ""[W]hen I write a book it's just a chapter in the whole story,"" a 1960 missive to Neal Cassady explains, ""but there wd be no literature in the world safe to say i would rather read than my own remembrance of things."" Editor Charters (also Kerouac's biographer) uses her annotations and commentary to make the sometimes hasty, expressive missives cohere as an account of the novelist's life. A first volume of letters appeared in 1995; this second starts with the publication of On the Road and continues almost to the day Kerouac died. The years 1957-1960, the height of Kerouac's career, occupy more than half the volume. Later letters record his struggle to care for his ailing mother, his efforts to finish his later books and his troubles with money and health: ""I drink more than ever, my hands tremble, I can't type."" Frequent addressees and subjects include Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg (""I still think he's a false prophet, sheep's clothing and ravening wolf""). By turns witty, slovenly and empathetic, the letters provide a look into Kerouac's psyche and into the exhilarating, frustrating, ramshackle milieu he helped create. (Nov.)