Subterranean Kerouac

The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac

Ellis Amburn

St. Martin's Griffin

Subterranean Kerouac
Jack Kerouac's childhood and adolescence were lived at a pitch of romantic intensity and fulfillment rarely equaled in his adulthood, when he became tormented, and often paralyzed, by conflicting sexual passions. After becoming a writer, he addressed the sublimity and lewdness of what he called "the littleboy loves of puberty" and "the kick of sex and adolescent lacerated love" with perhaps unprecedented depth and insight, both in the four "Lowell novels" about his youth--The Town and the City, Dr. Sax, Maggie Cassidy, and Visions of Gerard--and in a newly published 1950 letter to his friend Neal Cassady.
The letter marked Kerouac's first attempt to write in a totally honest, spontaneous, confessional way, a style that became the foundational rock for On the Road and all the books that followed. Jack sensed that he and Cassady were to be the architects of a dawning American literary renaissance, but first he had to empty his heart to Cassady. The "agonized cock of the matter," he wrote Neal, led straight to his childhood, and his choice of words clearly shows that Kerouac saw his life as a sexual drama, as indeed it would prove to be, as he moved restlessly from homoerotic to bisexual and heterosexual liaisons.
Until high school, he expressed his sexuality, as do many boys, almost entirely in homoerotic terms. These early emotions were recounted with lyricism and obsessiveness in Kerouac's correspondence with Cassady and later in Dr. Sax, Maggie Cassidy, and Visions of Gerard. In Kerouac's world, children not only fall passionately in love, but "love each other like lovers," as he wrote in Maggie Cassidy. His account of his nine-year-old brother Gerard's passion for Lajoie, a grade-school friend, was confined, inVisions of Gerard, to voyeurism and genital fondling, but Kerouac went much further as a child, he confessed in a 1951 letter to Cassady. At five, he enjoyed masturbatory "pissadventures" with two other five-year-olds, Ovila "Banana" Marchand and Ovila's twin brother, Robert. Though the exciting episode with the twins stimulated Kerouac's curiosity about girls, it also led to his "dream-fear of homosexuality," he admitted to Cassady. In his teen years, though other biographies fail to mention it, there occurred an extraordinary, protracted French kiss between Jack and one of his adolescent buddies, in front of his parents and a number of friends, which is unflinchingly described in Maggie Cassidy, as is a full-fledged "juvenile homosexual ball" in Dr. Sax. The incredibly varied emotional reality of his childhood and youth provided the groundwork for the magnificently complex web of relationships that sparked Kerouac's novels, even while they turned his personal life into a battleground.
The publication of his Selected Letters in 1995 went a long way toward confirming the autobiographical nature of Kerouac's novels, but during his lifetime he told many people, including myself, that "every word I write is true." In the preface to Big Sur, he wrote, "My work comprises one vast book like Proust's ... seen through the eyes of poor Ti Jean (me), otherwise known as Jack Duluoz." The commonly held assumption of all Kerouac scholars and aficionados is that his works are thinly veiled accounts of real people and actual events. In this book as in other biographies, stories are recounted with real people's names as accurate accounts of real events. Throughout, I have relied on the well-researched character key put together by pioneering Kerouac scholar Ann Charters and expanded by Barry Gifford, Lawrence Lee, and Dave Moore, and by others such as Gore Vidal, who in their memoirs have acknowledged their part in Kerouac's life. Because of these character keys, I, like other Kerouac biographers, have been able to rely on fictional works as primary nonfiction sources. The presumption of every Kerouac scholar, for example, is that the character "Japhy Ryder" in The Dharma Bums is Gary Snyder, that "Cody Pomeray" in Visions of Cody is Neal Cassady, and that "Mary Lou" in On the Road is LuAnne Henderson. Such attribution has not been signaled in the text in every instance but has been indicated in the notes section. As Kerouac's biographer, I have attempted to cross-check everything in his novels, using not only his letters, but also interviews and numerous other primary and secondary sources. The greatest help, of course, was having been his editor at Coward-McCann, Inc. for some of his most important work. Even prior to contract negotiations for Vanity of Duluoz, Kerouac assured me that his fiction was entirely factual, and that he hoped future biographers, if there were any, would regard his oeuvre as his truthful autobiography.1
During the time I knew him, Kerouac attempted to trace his "agonized cock" even further back than childhood, digging deeply into his family's roots. I vividly remember the day in the 1960s when he rang my office at 200 Madison Avenue. A former English major, just turning thirty and in myfirst publishing job, I still got cold chills every time my secretary, Ann Sheldon, came to my door or buzzed me on the intercom and said Jack Kerouac was calling. Though his books weren't selling well any more, everyone remembered him as the wild rebel who'd shaken up the world a few years previously with the groundbreaking, best-selling On the Road. On the phone, in a voice that was still bright and boyish, he told me he was going to France to discover his roots. Convinced he was the scion of Louis Alexandre Lebris de Kerouac, a noble Breton, he was off to do genealogical research in the Paris libraries and then to locate his ancestor's hometown in Brittany. When he returned a few weeks later, he told me that he'd given up his search in Brest. I didn't take his pretensions to aristocratic birth seriously, believing, along with James Joyce's biographer Richard Ellmann, that "the best dreams of noble ancestors occur on straw beds."
Kerouac, who began life as a poor mill-town boy in Lowell, Massachusetts, unfortunately never lived long enough to see his aristocratic claims borne out. In 1990, twenty-one years after Kerouac's death in 1969, a distant Canadian relative, Colette Bachand Wood, discovered the family's ancestral home not far from Brest. The elegant gray stone Chateau de Kerouartz (one of the many spellings of the clan's name) sits on a hill in Brittany, France, near the town of Lannilis. Throughout Kerouac's novels and in other biographies, the family's coat of arms is reported to bear the inscription, "Aimer, Travailler, et Souffrir" ("Love, Work, and Suffer"), but when Ms. Wood came upon the coat of arms at Chateau de Kerouartz, she discovered a silver sable, three iron crosses, and the motto, "Tout en l'honneur de Dieu" ("All in the name of God").2
Taken together, the two inscriptions sum up Kerouac's brief but fascinating life, which was passionate, productive, painful, and pious. But neither begins to suggest the transformative effect that Kerouac had on modern society. Only in the 1990s, nearly forty years after the publication of On the Road, would he come to be recognized as one of the major novelists of the twentieth century. The critical revaluation that greeted the long-anticipated release of his Selected Letters in 1995 reflected a popularity that had been growing for some time. Unfortunately, when I knew him in his last years, he was unread and forgotten.
At some point in their illustrious history, Kerouac's ancestors emigrated from France to Canada. Then, in 1890, tired of scratching potatoes from the frozen soil of Quebec, they drifted to New England and found work in the mill towns along the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, where the Industrial Revolution had begun earlier in the nineteenth century. Jack's grandfather, Jean-Baptiste, built a home at 16 Pierce Street, in Nashua, New Hampshire, forty miles north of Boston.
The French Canadians were called Canucks, and spoke a crude patois, joual, which led to their being scorned as outsiders. They lived in ghettoscalled "Little Canadas," intermarried, and regarded everyone outside their tight little community with a suspicion bordering on paranoia. Unfortunately, their narrow-mindedness and racism found their way into Kerouac's novels, but their unity and bravery are also woven into his life and work. For the despised Canucks, survival became a mystique. They called it "la survivance."
Drinking was one method of survival, and alcoholism ran in the Kerouac family. Jean-Baptiste loved vodka, and made it from potato peels. His son, Leo, Jack Kerouac's father, born in 1889, was also a drunk. Leo was blue-eyed, black-haired, and handsome--five-foot-seven and two hundred pounds of solid muscle, including a neck worthy of Atlas, and thick eyebrows that darted straight across his nose. True to his fiery astrological namesake, Leo was both a moody, philosophical man and a notorious good-time Charley who bounced between pessimistic resignation and a raging ambition for money and prestige. On the basketball court at the local Y, he was a fierce competitor, and his powerful legs seemed inexhaustible. In Leo's late teens, he maneuvered himself out of the sawmills and into a job at the Nashua Telegraph as an apprentice printer. Later, he worked as a reporter and typesetter at the French newspaper L'Impartial. Then, around 1912, the owner sent him fourteen miles down the Merrimack River to Lowell, Massachusetts, a rough textile and tenement town, to work on another of his newspapers, L'Étoile.
Leo's relatives in Lowell noticed that he liked his whiskey but couldn't hold it. On dates, he often ended up "breaking the furniture, in uncontrollable fury," his relative Cecile Plaud recalled in 1981. She also remembered Leo's "beautiful black hair and deep-set eyes," assets that no doubt attracted pretty Gabrielle Ange L'Evesque, his future wife.3 Alcohol flowed freely in Gabrielle's family, too. Her father had been a bartender and tavern owner in Nashua. Both parents died early, leaving her an orphan at sixteen. She worked as a housemaid for aunts and uncles, and then went into the New England shoe factories, where her work as a skiving machine operator left her fingers permanently stained by black dye. At twenty, Gabrielle was a short, stocky, rosy-cheeked young woman with large blue eyes, coal-black hair, and a sunny disposition. She met Leo in Nashua and married him shortly thereafter, on October 15, 1915, not because she found him sexually appealing but because she thought he would save her from a life of servitude. A man's man, a heavy smoker, a reckless gambler, and a hard drinker, Leo provided Jack Kerouac's ideal of masculinity. It was ironic that Jack admired Leo's "virility," because according to novelist Gore Vidal, later one of Jack's sex partners, Leo was a "pansy." In Visions of Cody, Jack wrote that his father often appeared as a woman in his dreams, as "one-legged," and as "Louise," the name of a handicapped aunt--all suggesting that Jack not only sensed his father's homoeroticism, but, true to the mores of his time, considered it a crippling drawback rather than a natural form of sexual expression.
Though Gabrielle appeared to be strong, she was as emotionally vulnerable and prone to alcoholism as Leo was. Devout, volatile, insecure, suspicious,and almost pathologically stubborn, she refused to learn English, and continued speaking bastardized French, or joual, throughout her life. Jack Kerouac understood no English until he was six and spoke halting English until he was eighteen. His feeling that his life was tragic began with his difficult birth as a blue baby, and was exacerbated by a traumatic experience involving his older brother, Gerard, which he later described in his autobiographical letters to Cassady.4
Jack, or "Ti Jean" ("Little John"), as he was known, was born on March 12, 1922, at 9 Lupine Road, in the upstairs apartment of a shabby duplex building in a Lowell slum called Centralville. He was delivered at home by Dr. Victor Rochette, whom Kerouac later described as a lonely, desolate man, unwanted and unloved. According to a neighbor, Reginald Ouellette, Dr. Rochette's wife had died in childbirth and he'd never remarried, which struck Jack, who grew up in a close-knit family that spoiled him, as tragic. In a December 28, 1950, letter to Cassady, Kerouac disclosed that his birth occurred at 5 P.M. and that Gabrielle later gave him a blow-by-blow account of his delivery. As Jack was born, his mother could hear Pawtucket Falls a mile away, crashing into the Merrimack River, heavy with spring-thaw snow and ice. Her lurid description of the way he was forcibly dragged from her body, and then yelled at and spanked into life, led to his belief that birth was the beginning of the tragedy of consciousness, the dance of life that ends in death. The processes of nature, which most writers extol as symbols of renewal and eternal life, were always seen darkly by Kerouac.
According to Jack Kerouac's certificate of baptism, Rev. D. W. Boisvert baptized him as Jean Louis Kirouac on March 19, 1922, at the Parish of Saint Louis-de-France, in Centralville. This odd-looking subterranean church was originally the basement of what had been planned as a grand cathedral, but the poor Franco-Americans of Centralville had never been able to complete it. As a result, one walks down to the auditorium, rather than up, as if entering hell rather than heaven. The infant's godfather was an uncle from Nashua named Jean-Baptiste Kirouac Jr., whose wife, Rosanna Dumais Kirouac, was also present as a sponsor. Ti Jean was the youngest of Leo and Gabrielle's three children. Francois Gerard had been born August 23, 1916, and Caroline ("Nin") on October 25, 1918.
The family constantly moved around town, in and out of apartments and tenements, as Leo squandered his salary on gambling and booze and ran from landlords and other debtors, according to their neighbors in Lowell. Altogether, they made twenty moves in twenty years. But Ti Jean quickly blossomed into a chubby, healthy baby. His description of Gabrielle Kerouac in a letter to Cassady makes her sound like the mother of every child's dreams, a woman born to nurture and comfort. Even in the Great Depression, when some neighbors were subsisting on lard sandwiches, she set a table groaning with delectables: crêpes with maple syrup, sausage, and chocolate milk; pork meatball stew with onions, carrots, and potatoes; and home-cooked hot cherry pie with whipped cream. Ti Jean felt secure in her arms,resting his cheek against her smooth brown Art Deco bathrobe as she rocked him and sang French songs. He never denied the sexual nature of his love for his mother, and proudly told Cassady in a 1951 letter that, as a small child, he'd permitted her to fondle his anus. She'd taken him along to a sewing bee at the home of one of Leo's business associates, and as the women sat around the table, she took Jack's clothes off, placed him across her lap, and started pulling tapeworms, or some form of parasite, from his "ass-hole," he wrote. Though he insisted that all French-Canadian mothers enjoyed picking at their offspring, there could be little doubt that something had gone seriously awry in this household.5
Uncritically portrayed in other biographies, Ti Jean's brother, Gerard Kerouac, could at times be a rather nasty brat who slapped Ti Jean around without mercy, but he was also capable of great kindness and generosity. Gabrielle made no secret that Gerard was her favorite, and no doubt one of the reasons she indulged him was that he suffered from rheumatic fever, a disease that was carrying away children by the thousands in the 1920s, before the advent of penicillin and heart-valve transplants. His condition was exacerbated by the toxic, sometimes violent atmosphere at home. Both parents were combative drunks, forever fighting over Leo's gambling, chronic impecuniousness, and whoring. In Visions of Gerard, a tenement wife shouts at her husband, "They always told me not to marry you, you were a drunkard at sixteen," and her husband retorts, "Aw shut ya big ga dam mouth. I gave you your money, I'm goin to work, I'll be gone all night, you oughta be satisfied, ya cow." In such a household, cringing, innocent children catch the disease of alcoholism years before they take their first drink.
The frail, neurotic Gerard attended Saint Louis-de-France Elementary School, where he impressed the priests and nuns with his precocious spirituality, but he was also an earthy, lusty boy, obsessed with the "little ding-dong" ("sa tite gidigne") of Lajoie, a classmate who stood next to him at the urinals during recess. When Gerard and Lajoie finished peeing, they went into a corner and became engrossed with each other's genitals. It would have remained a typical childhood incident of no particular significance had it not been for a later episode that left Ti Jean frightened and traumatized. Kerouac wrote Cassady that he dreaded Gerard and privately suspected that Gerard despised him. Gabrielle was convinced that Gerard was a saint, and was so successful in polluting Ti Jean's head with this fanatical notion that Kerouac was still talking about it in the mid-1960s, when he told his Florida friend, Ron Lowe, "I swear to God, small birds would even light on Gerard's outstretched hands as he stood at the window."
The pressure of being the "brother of Jesus" carried too high a price, and Ti Jean came to view Gerard with a mixture of love and loathing. Gerard absolutely doted on Ti Jean, turning him into a helpless emotional hostage. Ti Jean was so comfortable cuddling in bed with Gerard in the morning that he never wanted to get up. Gerard was convinced that the Virgin Mary herselfhad appointed him Ti Jean's protector. He deliberately frightened Ti Jean with ghost stories so that he could rush to the terrified child's rescue. Even at three years old, Ti Jean had erotic feelings for Gerard, and that was the "agonized cock of the matter," Jack wrote in a 1950 letter to Cassady. And Kerouac's 1956 novel, Visions of Gerard, swarms with erotic references such as "kissable Gerard," whose breath was "like crushed flowers." To kiss Gerard, Kerouac recalled, was like "kissing a lamb in the belly or an angel in her wing."
At the urinals in school, Gerard finally became so enamored of Lajoie that he confessed everything to a priest, who made him say fifteen Hail Marys. Around the same time, Ti Jean received a weird midnight visitation from Gerard as he lay in his crib. He awoke to see Gerard hovering over him, looking "implacable" (defined in American Heritage Dictionary as "grim, inexorable, merciless, remorseless, unrelenting, unyielding, intransigent, unbending"). Kerouac later confirmed to Cassady that Gerard seemed to be "intent on me with hate" that night. After the incident, Ti Jean became so shy that he refused to let anyone see him naked. At Salisbury Beach, someone offered him five dollars if he'd put on his bathing trunks, but he absolutely refused. "Nobody was going to see me part naked in those days," he recalled. The emotional difficulties Jack experienced in adulthood seem to have stemmed in part from the trauma with Gerard, which he defined in his letter to Neal as the root of all his "mysteries."
Gerard's own emotional deformities sprang largely from the unnatural role thrust upon him as the oldest son in a troubled, alcoholic home. Sometimes Leo staggered in at 10 A.M., his poker games having lasted all night or even through an entire weekend. He also played the horses and spent eight hours a day in a bookie joint. "You no good basted," yells a beleaguered mill-town wife in Kerouac's The Town and the City, possibly echoing Gabrielle. "I haven't got enough money to buy a dress, I have to wait here while you go drinkin' and whorin' all over the country." Witnessing the scene, young Joe Martin feels a deep sense of shame, which is typical of children of alcoholic parents. In Leo's absence, nine-year-old Gerard, even in his weakened condition, took on the role of surrogate husband to Gabrielle and father to Ti Jean and Nin, doing his best to hold the shattered household together. One night, Gabrielle lay "flopped in despair" on the couch, racked by a splitting headache, while Leo was away at a poker game. Even though it was freezing outside, Gerard offered to go to the pharmacy for a bottle of aspirin, and Gabrielle permitted him to do so, calling him "my golden."6
Despite his dissolute lifestyle, Leo prospered as a businessman during Ti Jean's first years. He moved up from L'Étoile to become an insurance salesman, and then went into business for himself, establishing Spotlite Print at 463 Market Street, near a canal in downtown Lowell. He published weekly programs for local movie and burlesque houses, as well as the Lowell Spotlite, a theatrical newspaper featuring humorous reviews of vaudeville and movieattractions. Driven to succeed, Leo also worked as L'Étoile's advertising manager at 26 Prince Street, and even tried his hand at political commentary, contributing a controversial column to another small paper, the Focus. He took intemperate potshots at officials in City Hall and began to make enemies in high places. But Kerouac would remember him, in a letter to Neal, as a dynamic, jovial young hustler. With Leo's rare combination of editorial acumen and business know-how, he might have become a publishing giant had he not permitted his drinking and gambling to hold him back. "I see now his true soul, which is like mine--life means nothing to him," Jack once observed. In the Kerouacs' divided household, Jack sided with his mother against his father, accepting her judgment that Leo was "a drunkard and didn't ... give a shit." Cecile Plaud once commented on the striking physical resemblance between Jack and his father, citing their black hair, pensive expressions, and "beautifully cut" features. Realizing that Jack was a "star-crossed victim of heredity" filled her with a feeling of "tragic déjà vu." She feared that a hard life was ahead for Jack as the son of an alcoholic.
Gabrielle was also a heavy drinker, and the Kerouac home was often the scene of boisterous celebrations, especially after the move from Lupine Road to Maiden Lane. On New Year's Eve in 1924, at the stroke of midnight, Ti Jean awoke from a deep sleep as his room filled with drunks wearing party hats. Laughing and yelling, the revelers swarmed all over the children, kissing and slobbering.
Years later, research into the lives of children of alcoholic parents revealed that such children hate themselves, their parents, and life in general. As Kerouac grew up, he came to blame himself for his parents' drinking, his mother's unhappiness, his father's joblessness, and even his brother's death. In a letter to Cassady, Kerouac revealed that William S. Burroughs had once subjected him to lay analysis and had concluded that Kerouac wanted Gerard to die. At the same time, Ti Jean was fiercely possessive of his brother. "Jack was jealous and didn't like the idea of anyone else being there with Gerard," recalled Roger Ouellette, Reginald's brother and a childhood neighbor of the Kerouacs. "I was asked to leave without staying there too long," he added.
Ouellette's sister, Pauline, saw Gerard in the spring of 1926, sitting in the backyard on Beaulieu Street swathed in blankets, though the day was warm and sunny. She described him as looking "sickly, very pale, and light-haired. His mother hovered over him. There was nothing exceptional about him. He was like any other kid, [but] if you've ever lost a child, you would understand." Gabrielle eventually crumbled under the strain, suffering a nervous breakdown at the age of twenty-nine. Kerouac was four years old in 1926 when his family went "crazy," he later wrote in the "88th Chorus" of Mexico City Blues. That was the year that Gerard died, at nine years of age, and the strange experiences of his last days, conveyed to Kerouac over the years by his mother, had an enormous impact on Kerouac's work and marked the beginning of what he called his "immortal idealism."7
Just before the end, Gerard said he'd seen a vision while sitting in catechism class at Saint Louis-de-France. The Virgin Mary appeared to him, her robes billowing behind her, held aloft by thousands of bluebirds. Then he saw himself ascending to heaven in a white wagon pulled by snowy lambs. Coming out of his trance, he told a startled nun that she should never again be afraid of anything, because everyone was already in heaven, though no one knew it. "All is well," he added. "Practice kindness. Heaven is nigh."
His death was gruesome. The specific cause, as diagnosed by Dr. Nathan Pulsifer, was "purpura hemorragica," bleeding of such furious and uncontrollable intensity that his skin turned purple and he choked to death on his own blood, screaming, suffocating, and writhing in agony. Convinced he was a saint, nuns from school hovered about his bed and recorded his dying words, which concerned "the unreality of death (and life too) ... the calm hand of God everywhere slowly benedicting." Gerard's "visions," as filtered through Gabrielle's superstitious Canuck mind, became the bedrock of Kerouac's adult philosophy, bolstered by his discovery of Buddhism and his continuing faith in what he called "my sweet Christ."
From these ethical systems and from his own wrenching experience, Jack forged his belief that the ultimate answer is to be found in the shimmering golden emptiness of the here and now, a concept in which eternity and the present moment are one and the same. In the 1960s, as Kerouac evolved into the spiritual leader of the Beat Generation (along with Allen Ginsberg), he returned again and again to Gerard, his childhood inspiration. "I marvel at my love for him," he wrote thirty years after his brother's death. According to Gerard's death certificate, he expired at 11:45 P.M. on June 2, 1926. It was a significant date in American letters, for Gerard would haunt the life and work of Jack Kerouac, sending him on a passionate search for male companions to replace his lost brother--a search that culminated with Neal Cassady and On the Road--and also inspiring the luminous Visions of Gerard, a novel of magical grace and the author's personal favorite.
Gerard was buried in Nashua, New Hampshire, in the St. Louis de Gonzague Cemetery, named after the patron saint of Catholic youth.8 Kerouac's often-quoted statement that he had a "beautiful" childhood, originally written on a Viking Press publicity questionnaire, misled many of his biographers. Though his later boyhood in Pawtucketville was indeed gleeful, his earliest years in Centralville, following Gerard's death, were spent in abject terror. Only his imagination saved him. His first artistic creations were but visualized fears that he once described as "fantastic flights of beauty into a world populated by saints and incredible monsters." He somehow convinced himself that a movie was being made of his life and that cameramen were following him everywhere. He even made up a title for the film: The Complete Life of a Parochial School Boy. In Mexico City Blues, he touchingly wrote that he was the "first crazy person" he'd ever known. His parents became concerned about his loneliness and isolation after Gerard's death and introduced him to two new playmates, never suspecting they would becomehis first sex partners. They were five-year-old, orphaned twin boys, Ovila ("Banana") and Robert, who lived in a ramshackle Victorian house on Hildreth Ridge, where they were being raised by an aunt. Ti Jean climbed under the porch with them, and they urinated together and then left their penises exposed, only pretending to pee. To Ti Jean, it was a highly satisfying erotic "game," he later wrote Cassady, describing his "masturbatory world." The thrilling "kick" of unlimited voyeurism and sex with Banana and Robert, Kerouac confessed, brought about his lifelong fear of being gay. In his 1950-1952 letters to Cassady, written when Jack was in his late twenties and hopelessly smitten with Neal, he composed both a thumbnail autobiography and a plea for love. The duality of Kerouac's nature was such that, even as he sought homoerotic fulfillment through Cassady, he implored Cassady to make him an acceptable, stereotypical male--a "wrangler" out of the Old West--and save him from the horrors of Lowell, the scene of his crippling childhood trauma. His January 10, 1951, letter ended in a cri de coeur, as Kerouac begged Cassady to recognize how "strangely connected" they were. He was seeking the closeness he'd known with Gerard, and as Neal would discover, being Kerouac's brother was a tall order indeed.9
In 1928, Ti Jean, now six years old, enrolled in the "baby grade" at Saint Louis-de-France parochial school. The sonorous language of the Catholic liturgy--the Apostles' Creed, the Hail Mary, the rosary--gave him his first taste of great writing. On May 17, 1928, dressed in a white suit and holding a rosary and a golden crucifix, Ti Jean went to confession prior to taking his first communion. "You played with your little gidigne?" the priest asked. "Yes, mon pere," he replied, and he had to say the entire rosary, ten Our Fathers, and ten Hail Marys. As he prayed, he imagined that he could hear God telling him that he had a good soul, but would suffer and die in pain and terror; ultimately, however, he would be saved. Four months later, he enrolled in the first grade at Saint Louis-de-France, "a harrowing experience," according to his later friend, poet Philip Whalen, who reflected, "American Catholicism ... takes this tough line about how the body is evil ... . So he had this trip about 'dirty me.' ... This helped complicate his life."
Just over a year later, in October 1929, the Great Depression hit, and although Leo managed to hold onto his print shop, the family went into a downward spiral that landed them in less desirable neighborhoods with each successive move. For little children, frequent moves constitute "a real and unnameable tragedy ... a catastrophe of their hearts," Kerouac wrote. Though he would grow up to become a homeless wanderer for much of his life, he never overcame the fear and sense of doom that characterized his rootless childhood.
In 1930, the impulsive Leo destroyed the only chance he would ever have to become a man of importance. Impressed with Leo's exposes of graftat City Hall, a group of powerful citizens offered to back him if he'd run for mayor. "Sure," he blurted, "I'll run for mayor, but if I win I'll have to throw every crook out of Lowell, and there'll be nobody left in town." The offer was never repeated. At forty-one, Leo was washed up in Lowell. In his perceptive article, "Ti Jean and Papa Leo: Jack Kerouac's Relationship with His French-Canadian Father," Richard S. Morrell wrote that Leo viewed the world as a "pigsty" and was "forever complaining about those in Lowell who had done him wrong." Kerouac acknowledged, in Visions of Cody, that his father was indeed "an angry, a hating man," but he always gave Leo credit for being brave and determined. "Whenever somebody gave him some gaff, he let em have it," Jack wrote.10 Despite ruinous setbacks, Leo continued to try his luck in various fields, and at one point he became a fight promoter, managing a gym in Centralville.
Ti Jean, who was about nine, became infatuated with one of Leo's wrestlers, Armand Gauthier, and when Leo invited Armand home for supper, Ti Jean "beseeched him to show us his muscles. Nin [who was ten years old] would hang from one biceps and I hung from the other, whee ... what a build! Like Mister America." Ti Jean also cruised the urinals at school, as Gerard had done before him, and stared at other boys' penises. He told a priest about it, and the priest became excited, asking for full details including size. Later, while prowling around the grotto, a religious shrine that Gerard had introduced him to, Ti Jean happened upon some boys from parochial school playing with their penises, and joined in. When he confessed this to a priest, he was told to recite the entire rosary.
Sometimes he spent the night with a tough, likable neighborhood friend, and this inevitably led to pubescent sex play. Kerouac estimated their ages at the time to be eight or nine years old. His friend lived in a large old Victorian house, and Jack's parents often went there to drink moonshine with a group known as the "Jolly Fourteen." Ti Jean's friend, a daring and fearless forerunner of Neal Cassady, became the first of Kerouac's "littleboy loves of puberty." He was the opposite of Ti Jean, who still believed in ghosts and imagined goblins lurking in every shadow. Nothing scared his friend, despite the turrets, attics, and spooky dark nooks in his house. In bed with his friend, Ti Jean "could feel the goose pimples of his cold legs or the leather of his tar black heel, as we lay in dank barns and attics of his various homes," Kerouac wrote in Dr. Sax. By day, they hiked along the banks of the Merrimack and explored deserted houses. Stopping to take a leak, they stood next to each other and looked at "drawings of great cocks of the length of snakes, with dumb venom spittles." As always, "pissing was a thrill." On summer nights, with the Jolly Fourteen rioting downstairs, Ti Jean and his friend fondled each other "in pissy mattresses ... playing with our ding dongs ... old buddies of the lifetime of boyhood." Soon, they graduated to more definitive sex. After watching a man and woman make love in the riverside litter by the Boott Mills, "dimpled lady legs and hairy manlegs" all atangle,the boys went to bed together, and were "darker, wilder, sexualler, with flashlights, dirty magazines, jiggling hands, sucks." At ten, they ran away together, but their frantic families found them the following day under a bridge in Tyngsboro, New Hampshire, taking a break prior to heading north. It was probably his childhood eroticism that grounded Ti Jean in reality and kept him sane, despite a pathological home environment. When Gabrielle permitted him to sleep with her, he wound his legs around her and dreamed that she rubbed her pink thigh in his groin.
The most intense relationship of his childhood was with a bright schoolboy from a socially prominent family, whom he met at St. Joseph's Parochial when he was still ten. Ti Jean by now had glossy dark hair and serious blue eyes, and was a favorite of the Marist Brothers, who were grooming him to be an altar boy at the prestigious St. Jean Baptiste Cathedral. They urged him to prepare for the priesthood, but Ti Jean was swept away by his obsession with the schoolboy, doting on him during class and in the playground during recess. Years later, Kerouac described the boy as being "more beautiful than any of the girls in school, had redder cheeks, whiter teeth, and angelic eyes." In both Dr. Sax and Maggie Cassidy, Kerouac portrayed him as the love of his young life. He came from an upper-class section of town and was driven to school each day by his father, who was powerful in local politics. Though the boys lived on opposite sides of the tracks, Ti Jean was often a guest in his friend's home, where he first discovered the world of books in the family's extensive library. Afterward, Ti Jean would be driven back to Pawtucketville in the family's expensive sedan. At home, standing in front of a portrait of Gerard, Ti Jean prayed for his friend to fall in love with him. He wanted to hold hands with him, and he asked Gerard to make his friend declare his love and to arrange for them to run away to Africa together. The following year, his obsession only increased, and in Dr. Sax, he described it as "a real love affair at eleven." It ended when Jack was graduated early from St. Joseph's, and his friend remained at the school. Jack later speculated that zoning laws may have been responsible for his premature removal from the school, but this seems unlikely, since Jack lived within walking distance of St. Joseph's, while his friend lived several miles away. Leo blamed the boy's family, pointing out that Jack and his friend were archrivals as the school's top honor students, and Jack was deemed to be too "challenging." Jack later dismissed his friend with the remark, "He became a sour Yankee with dreams of small editorships in Vermont."11
At Christmas 1932, Gabrielle scurried about the kitchen on Phebe Avenue, peering into the oven while Leo relaxed by the radio, smoking his cigar and reading the funnies. The fact that Nin shoveled snow while Ti Jean went hiking reveals how spoiled he was by a family that adored and pampered him. When he returned from his hike, he looked through the window before going inside. "My heart breaks," he later wrote, "to see they're moving so slowly, with such dear innocence within, they don't realize time and death will catch them." As an altar boy, Ti Jean served Mass at the mainaltar at St. Jean Baptiste, and on June 8, 1933, Francis Spellman, the future cardinal and archbishop of New York, who became one of the world's most powerful religious leaders, officiated at Ti Jean's confirmation. Lowell was in the Archdiocese of Boston, and at the time Spellman was auxiliary bishop to Lowell-born William Cardinal O'Connell. As Ti Jean stood before him, Spellman anointed his head with chrism, a consecrated mixture of oil and balsam, and lightly slapped his cheek, a ritual reminding the confirmant that he must show courage as a "soldier in the army of Christ," a defender of the Catholic faith. During the same month, Ti Jean graduated from St. Joseph's, marking the end of his French-oriented education.
The following September, at the age of eleven, he entered the seventh grade at Bartlett Junior High, walking a mile and a half from Pawtucketville. For the first time, he entered a world that was not exclusively French. The school was located in a predominantly Greek and Irish section called The Acre, and to his tough new friends, Kerouac was no longer Ti Jean or Jean Louis, the names he would continue to be called at home--he was now Jackie Kerouac. Walking home one day with Billy Chandler, who later appeared as "Dicky Hampshire" in Dr. Sax, Billy flattered him by scrawling "Jack is a big punk" on an alley fence off Salem Street. Billy Chandler, destined to die in combat on Bataan in World War II, was at Kerouac's side when he made his earliest foray into narrative as well as graphic art. On long afternoons in their Pawtucketville bedrooms, they drew cartoons together and eventually created an elaborate tale of jungle adventures in Guatemala, where Billy's brother was going.
When alone in his room, Jackie acted out many other fantasies, inching his way into a life of authorship. One of his most elaborate fantasies was inspired by the popular pulp magazine of the 1930s, The Shadow, which featured a ghostly detective who could render himself invisible at will. Jackie bought the pulps at a store run by a dirty old man who sometimes lured neighborhood kids into the back room, using candy or pennies as bait, and played with their "dingdangs." Emboldened by his readings in The Shadow, Ti Jean dressed up in Leo's slouch hat and Nin's cape, and swooped around Pawtucketville, stealing small items from neighbors and leaving cryptic notes, wadded in cans, warning, "The Silver Tin Can Will Visit You Tomorrow." These exercises in imagination and incipient juvenile delinquency soon gave way to an overweening interest in sports, which began when Leo took Jackie to Red Sox baseball games in Boston, and to the horse races at Rockingham, Suffolk Downs, and Narragansett. From that point on, athletics and esthetics were inextricably linked in Kerouac's life and shaped the kind of artist he would become.
In a profound sense, it was sports, more than anything else, that galvanized Kerouac as a writer. At home, in his grandest imaginative flight to date, he invented his own intricate athletic games. Using a rock, he would draw a baseball diamond in the mud of the backyard and play out whole seasons, using a nail as a baseball bat and a ball bearing as the baseball. Up in hisroom, on rainy days, he amused himself by inventing a horse race, using marbles for horses. First he would dry-mop the flowery linoleum floor, creating a smooth, clean track. Then, after placing bets, he would release the marbles from under a ruler barrier, and let them slide down a folded Parcheesi board, propped at an incline on a stack of books. As the marbles raced across the floor, he made bugle sounds through his fist and imagined a roaring crowd in the grandstand. In time, he created a whole world of horse racing, and even handprinted a newspaper to write up the races.
These games, though still unconsciously, had the effect of honing his skills in the fictional saga form. Each of his imaginary horses had its own name, personality, and history--Don Pablo, Flying Doodad, Rownomore, a-Remonade Girl, and Old Mate. Don Pablo was the most chipped because he'd long been a heroic turf champion. Jackie invented trainer Ben Smith, the owners, the president of the racing association, and even the bettors in the stands, giving them all distinctive personalities, especially jockey Jack Lewis, who bore the American version of Kerouac's given name, Jean Louis. Kerouac made up the Turf, the Graw Futurity, and the Mohican Futurity, and sometimes even rigged races so that two of the fans, based on Leo and Jackie, an impoverished father and son from the South, could win. Jackie assumed various roles, from track handicapper to racing forum publisher, but usually he was Jack Lewis, who owned and rode mighty Repulsion, a solid steel ball bearing that usually came out ahead of the other marbles. This imagined world included upsets--Mate became the Turfs first winner, and then despite incredible complications, Don Pablo, though chipped and battered, proved to be the toughest horse of all, and won the Turf in an 18-1 upset. The excitement in all this competition gave Kerouac his first sense of dramatic form, and his epic accounts of the races in his homemade newspaper foreshadowed his multiple-volume life work, "The Duluoz Legend."
He went on to invent a baseball playing-card game that was amazing in its complexity, comparable to the later game in Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association. Kerouac continued to play his game of baseball solitaire throughout his life. He created statistics, box scores, and fleshed-out baseball players who reappeared from game to game, and season to season, like the characters in a Faulkner Yoknapatawpha County novel. Among his mythic athletes were Francis X. Cudley, a Boston Irishman who stood at the plate as erect as a Jesuit priest; Pictorial Review Jackson, known as "Pic," the best pitcher in the league, who acquired his name from his love of reading the Sunday newspaper supplements; and Roddy Delaney, who began as a rookie and ended up as a veteran pitcher. In the end, Kerouac created a whole cosmology, unwittingly practicing some of the most exacting tasks of the novelist. There was a more immediate reason for creating an alternative world. He was still struggling to break free from the "ghosts of the Pawtucketville night," the legacy of a childhood marred by fear, superstition, and death.12
Again, Gabrielle worried that he was spending too much time alone andurged him to go outside and play. This led to his involvement in real sports, particularly football, which came to dominate his life for the next decade. He connected with a robust gang of Pawtucketville boys, and developed formidable athletic skills during long summer afternoons of sandlot football and "scrub," an abbreviated form of baseball. From ages eleven through sixteen, Jackie and his new friends converged on the "wrinkly tar" corners of Pawtucketville for bull sessions, and then spread out to the various playgrounds around Lowell: the cowfield near St. Rita's church, Bartlett Junior High, Dracut, and Textile field. Organizing themselves as the Dracut Tigers, they became the nucleus of what would later be the Lowell High School varsity football team. Jackie was about twelve years old when he developed a serious case of hero worship on a superb sandlot athlete who spat with exquisite disdain as he wound up on the mound.
While baseball was fun, Jackie soon discovered his true metier was football. One teammate called Kerouac "a great athlete. When I tackled him, or tried to ... I saw stars. He plowed right through me." His friends nicknamed him "Zagg" after a neighborhood drunk who zigzagged when he stumbled down the street, but one buddy attributed the nickname to Jackie's awesome maneuvers in the backfield. Admired by all, he soon became the leader of the pack. "Jack had everything," a member of the gang recalled, and it was true: as an adolescent, he was handsome, intelligent, funny, strong, quick, and agile, everything most boys dream of being. As he grew up, his facial features took on the dark, chiseled majesty of Gabrielle's half-Indian grandmother, and he'd also inherited Leo's muscular physique. He felt like a god, and everybody treated him like one.
Sensing his potential, Jack's status-conscious parents urged him to seek a better class of friends than his Pawtucketville running mates. They pointed out that one of the boys was poor and had no father, and another was a Greek, which automatically made him a sex fiend in their estimation. They perhaps suspected the strong homoerotic element in Jackie, who marveled at one buddy's giant penis; the boy would lay it out on a table and challenge "anyman to have a bigger one," Kerouac wrote in Maggie Cassidy. As the organ became erect, the boy would "shove seven or eight or nine or ten quarters off a table with his piece."
One day Jackie tried to tell a special friend in the gang that he loved him, and only him, but he choked on the words. His friend's unusual combination of sensitivity and brawn also characterized Jackie, but these attributes did not seem to be at war in his friend the way they were in Kerouac. Before he met Neal Cassady the following decade, he idealized this youth as a sort of superman, who was both intellectual and manly.
As Kerouac entered his teens, these aspects of his own nature remained unreconciled. He had to conceal the homoerotic side of his personality in order to retain his status among his straight Pawtucketville buddies. Repressing this fact of his identity, he would become increasingly frantic as he grew older. Sensing his true self slipping away from him, he was left with nothingbut the ghost of an unlived life. He idolized his friends for their honesty, naturalness, and spontaneity, but he could never permit himself the same openness, trapped as he was in a judgmental heterosexual world that was often at odds with his complex nature. The horseplay of the Pawtucketville gang was loaded with sexual overtones, such as grabbing and squeezing each other's testicles. In Dr. Sax, Kerouac wrote that he held one boy's "balls, hanging helplessly in my grip" until the boy took a bite out of his backside. While Kerouac's friends regarded him as "a hard-nosed backfield man ... a real speeder," he doted on the matinee-idol allure of one youth who resembled Tyrone Power. In Maggie Cassidy Kerouac referred to this boy's "conscious perfect good looks ... thin as a razor, sharply handsome, cut with a fingernail file," and his wiry body that "swiveled on inexistent [sic] hips." A favorite pastime was "basking nekkid in the sun" at Beaver Brook, known as "Bareass Beach" in Kerouac's Lowell novels.
Though the boys didn't consider their behavior to be homoerotic, many experts would call it homosexual, as did Kerouac himself, who depicted one of their sex orgies in Dr. Sax as "a juvenile homosexual ball." The boys had cultivated a handsome but retarded nineteen-year-old Franco-American named Zaza, who masturbated for them on demand, "spermatazoing in all directions." He would do it as many times as they asked him to--"thirteen times last Monday--he came each time exactly, no lie--Zaza has an endless supply of come." Zaza was also adept at "jacking off dogs and worst of all sucking off dogs." Later, even as young men of seventeen, they continued to fool around with Zaza, who was still "always masturbating in front of the others." Eventually, the gang forswore these "childlike pursuits haunted by darkness and goofs," and thereafter they "hung themselves" on "lacerated" relationships with girls, beginning with a two-hundred-pound prostitute, who would sit in a rocking chair and occasionally flash her vagina. Leo was one of her regular customers.13
By 1935, it was obvious to everyone that Jackie was the best athlete in the gang and destined for some kind of stardom. Leo had once been built like a fireplug, squat and muscular, and the description also fit Jackie. "He was good at everything," commented a Lowell admirer years later in Sports Illustrated. Still others recalled that Kerouac was "strong as a goddam bull ... Right here, right in his thighs, that's where he had it ... . What a build." Determined to become a great runner, Jackie devised his own stopwatch using an old phonograph turntable. Soon he impressed onlookers at Textile Institute's cinder track, charging across the finish line ahead of everyone else. He played his first serious sandlot football game in October 1935 at a cow pasture in Dracut. Though Kerouac was the youngest player, he scored nine touchdowns, and his team, the Dracut Tigers, clobbered Rosemont 60-0. "Nine touchdowns," recalled Sam Samaras in Sports Illustrated. "You had to hit him early, because once he got out of the backfield he was gone. Couldn't catch him. He was dangerous." Overnight, Kerouac became a "local sandlot sensation."
His teachers at Bartlett Junior High thought him as gifted intellectually as he was physically. According to a teacher always referred to simply as Miss Dineen, he liked Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!" and the New England poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who was born just twenty miles northeast of Lowell in 1807 and who for many generations was one of the most popular poets taught in U.S. schools. Whittier's "Evangeline" and "Snowbound" focused Kerouac's attention on the "tragedies of family life," recalled Miss Dineen, and Whittier also helped him appreciate "God's Infinite Beauty reflected in all creation." Another teacher, Miss Mansfield, encouraged all her students to read the Iliad. One day, she asked a student named Mickey O'Brien, "Who was Agamemnon?" Mickey said, "He was a Greek." Miss Mansfield said, "Elucidate." Mickey said, "He was a Greek, too."
In 1934, under the influence of dedicated teachers like Miss Dineen and Miss Mansfield, Jackie launched himself into his lifelong occupation and started chronicling his "history of myself." After reading Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, he handprinted in a nickel notebook a novel entitled Mike Explores the Merrimack, which established the basic plotline that his mature fiction would follow: going forth into the world for adventure and then returning home. After reading Jack London, he wrote a story about an engineer tramping the Rocky Mountains, and it was fully stocked with all the Jack London trappings-jodhpurs, boots, a jacket with many pockets, a brave German shepherd, a Turkish wood pipe, and a barful of imported Scotch. Miss Mansfield pronounced it excellent.
The most intellectually stimulating person Jackie met at Bartlett was Sebastian "Sammy" Sampas, who was the same age as Jackie but one grade below him. The importance of Sammy Sampas in the life of Jack Kerouac, from both an artistic and personal standpoint, cannot be overstated, for as Kerouac wrote in the introduction to Lonesome Traveler, he "decided to become a writer at age 17 under influence of Sebastian Sampas." As a pivotal character in some of Kerouac's most important works, Sammy appears as "Alexander Panos" in The Town and the City, "Sebastian" in Visions of Cody, "Savas" in Visions of Gerard, and "Sabbas 'Sabby' Savakis" in Vanity of Duluoz. Their relationship began one day in junior high when Jackie defended Sammy against a gang of bullies. According to Kerouac, Sammy idolized him from then on. The curly-haired Sammy's romantic Victor Mature-like visage appealed to Jackie, but his friends considered Sammy to be a "sissy more than anything else," G. J. Apostolos recalled. The word sissy was, and remains, the most common American euphemism for homosexual, and it also denotes a coward. Sammy was certainly no coward. In a 1995 interview, Billy Koumantzelis, the younger brother of Lowell High varsity track star Johnny Koumantzelis, said that Sammy "was surrounded by some tough guys, but I think Sammy could have held his own with any one of them. He had guts. The Sampas family has guts." Charles Jarvis, who attended Greek Parochial School with Sammy, described him as a crybaby with a pretty face who became the butt of childish pranks. But even Jarvis wouldn't call him a sissy. He once saw Sammy attack a bully who was tormentinga smaller boy. Sammy bravely exchanged punches with the bully until a teacher broke them up.
Fifteen years later, in Visions of Cody, Kerouac defined the nature of his relationship with Sammy, comparing it with the gay love affair of the nineteenth-century French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Marie Verlaine. Like Rimbaud, Kerouac required a gay muse, and Sammy became his Verlaine. In the same passage, he wrote that Neal Cassady had also required a homoerotic muse, and Allen Ginsberg had fulfilled that role. Even Kerouac's friend, Lucien Carr, who killed his gay suitor, David Kammerer, had needed Kammerer the same way a flower needs the sun to unfold. In each case, the love of another man was required for validation as a human being and artist. In his pioneering study, Jack Kerouac, Warren French remarked on the "homoerotic element in [Kerouac's] relationship with Sebastian ... suggest [ing] a stronger feeling than customary male bonding." Kerouac's account of their relationship was couched in romantic terms in his novels, which included anguished lovers' partings in train stations and a skinny-dipping scene in which the Sammy character reads aloud from "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Keats's classic of ambivalent love ("Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss, though winning near the goal"). Kerouac's parents disapproved of Sammy, and Leo called him "Garbo." But Kerouac always saw Sammy in heroic terms and referred to him, in one of his letters, as "a tawny lusty youth." Like Rimbaud, Neal, and Lucien, Jack had to be in touch with the honest truth about himself, even if it was at odds with society's notion of masculinity, before his power could be released. Love, supplied by Sebastian, was the key.
The Pawtucketville gang was appalled by Sammy's histrionics--he wore a laurel wreath in his hair on the streets of Lowell--but Sammy made Kerouac believe in himself as a writer, and their friendship "opened up into a springtime of wonder and knowledge," Kerouac wrote. Sammy managed to get Jackie accepted into an elite group of student writers at Bartlett called the Scribbler's Club, and Jackie's short story, "The Cop on the Beat," was praised by Miss Mansfield for its descriptive power. Sammy was the moving spirit behind "The Young Prometheans," an intellectual discussion round table, and interested Jackie in joining the group. The Young Prometheans frequently convened at the Sampas house at 2 Stevens Street to debate literary, social, and political issues.
Sammy's sister, petite, five-foot-one-inch Stella, was attracted to Jackie, and Jackie was drawn to her, especially when he heard that Stella, though only a teenager, had helped raise and support the younger children in the large Sampas family. A brunette with flashing brown eyes, Stella was modest, quiet, and soft-spoken. Somewhat older than Kerouac, having been born on Armistice Day 1918, she had worked as a stitcher since 1932, when she was a fourteen-year-old in the eighth grade. Self-sacrifice was expected of the eldest daughter in a traditional Greek family, and Stella carried out her burden in her characteristically kind and easygoing fashion. "Sebastian was a poet," Stella said years later. "He had the potential to become a truly greatman." When Kerouac began to visit the Sampas home, she was secretly ecstatic. "Stella was in love with Jack from the beginning," Betty Watley, a later friend of Stella's, recalled. "She was willing to wait forever for him, if necessary." Stella was aware, through Sammy, of Jackie's popularity and athletic prowess. "Stella had a crush on Jack Kerouac since they were kids, though Jack was not aware of it," said her brother John. "She always treated him like a kid brother, just like Sebastian." The lives of the three friends--Jack, Sammy, and Stella--would be intertwined forever, and even today, they lie next to each other in a quiet, leafy cemetery in Lowell.14
In the spring of 1936, a terrible disaster hit the Lowell valley, affecting the lives of most of the city's inhabitants, including the Kerouac and Sampas families. The flood of 1936, later described by Kerouac as "a great colossus dominating our lives," destroyed Leo's print shop, inundating it in six feet of water and wrecking his career as an independent businessman. Afterward, he became an itinerant Linotype operator, and also ran the bowling-alley concession at the Pawtucketville Social Club. Hilly Pawtucketville was spared the ravages of the flood, and the Kerouacs' Sarah Street residence was safe, but by 1938 they were unable to meet the rent, and moved into a grim tenement over a greasy spoon called Textile Lunch at 736 Moody Street. The Sampases were even harder hit by the flood: Their house in Rosemont was under water, and Sammy's mother Maria had to be evacuated by boat. Miss Mansfield was also wiped out; Jackie and G. J. Apostolos stood watching helplessly as the Merrimack River roared over twenty-foot-high sandbags and poured through her windows. Years later, when Kerouac described the flood in Dr. Sax as "the huge mountain of ugly sinister waters lunging around Lowell like a beast dragon," Miss Mansfield said his description was "extremely accurate." After her home was destroyed, the Scribbler's Club was disbanded. The Sampas family moved across the river from Jackie to a section called Highlands, and for a while he and Sammy saw less of each other. As Kerouac later wrote in Dr. Sax, the flood had been "an unforgettable flow of evil and of wrath and of Satan barging thru my hometown."
Sports absorbed Jackie almost exclusively for the next few years. In 1936, he and Scotcho Beaulieu formed the Pawtucketville baseball team and fought successfully to get it accepted in the new W.P.A. league. Jackie amassed the highest batting average, led in home runs, and on one occasion struck the ball so hard that it bounced off a mill wall eighty-five yards away. Pawtucketville, the only team in the league without a playing field, almost won the city championship. These were Kerouac's happiest days as an athlete, before he entered the world of institutionalized sports. All that mattered on the sandlot were the skill and bravery of the individual player. There were no politics, just the joy of sport. All that would change when he entered high school in the fall.
He'd been Ti Jean in grade school, Jackie in junior high, and now atfourteen, upon entering Lowell High, he became Jack Kerouac. One of his first discoveries when he went out for sports was that ability mattered less than that he was poor, French-Canadian, and came from Pawtucketville instead of Belvidere or Highlands. The students were largely made up of Irish and Canuck offspring of mill workers, and as soon as word got around that Jack wanted to be a writer, they started calling him a sissy. His understanding of the word came from his father. "A sissy ... likes boys better than girls," says George Martin, the character based on Leo in The Town and the City, "two big boys playing with each other like those morons who hang around men's rooms in the subway." In Visions of Gerard, when Ti Jean tells his father, "I wanta write--I'm an artist," his father snaps, "Artist shmartist, ya can't be supported all ya life." In desperation, Jack went to his church, St. Jean Baptiste, and sought out a priest. Years later, in "A Catholic's View of Kerouac," Rev. Armand "Spike" Morissette recalled that Kerouac appeared to be agitated and deeply disturbed, "shy and delicate but a ticking bomb."
"What's the matter with you?" Spike asked. "You look so upset."
"Everybody's laughing at me," Jack replied. "I want to be a writer and a poet and they all make fun of me. They say I'm a sissy."
"I'm not laughing," Spike said. As he later recalled, Kerouac could have been "a Napoleon or a movie star," but he chose to be a writer, and the young priest found that very touching. He told Jack that worldly criticism was never of any importance, that one's opinion of oneself was all that mattered, and that authorship was a sacred calling because writers "influence countless people."
"I'm going to write," Jack said. "I'm going to write books and poems and I'm going to tell the world what I think." Spike told him to go to New York, get an education, and meet publishers and other writers, but Jack said he was too poor.
"Try for a scholarship," Spike said. He recalled years later, "to be a writer he would have to go to the university, and his parents had not much money."
"Well, I'll play football," Jack said. "I'll get a scholarship. And I'll show them I'm not a sissy."
To Spike, Kerouac seemed to be consumed with ambition, but also "infinitely rich spiritually." Before Jack left the rectory, they spoke about religion, and Spike found him to be "profoundly religious ... truly exalted by his visions," but also critical of the Catholic Church for "enslaving people, giving them a sense of guilt ... . He was such a good person, so deep ... . He hated hypocrisy."15
Jack immediately followed Spike's advice and went out for football at Lowell High. Because he had skipped a grade in parochial school he was younger and smaller than the other players, and couldn't even make it through calisthenics the first day of practice, collapsing on the field and vomiting in front of the other players. Coach Tom Keady sized him up as a child who was still growing, but according to Billy Koumantzelis, politics was the reason that Jack had difficulty making the varsity. Leo's controversialreputation proved to be Jack's albatross. As Sporting News writer Glenn Stout explained at a 1996 Lowell seminar on Kerouac as an athlete, small-town gossip, rivalries, and resentments all had an impact on the high-school athletic program, and the battles of the parents were often carried into the public arena by the coaches and players. Despite his humiliation, Jack was back at practice the next day. Leo watched from the stands, shaking his head, convinced that Ti Jean would never survive the rough game or even strike a sufficiently cocky attitude to catch the coach's eye.
Though Jack was only five-foot-seven and weighed one hundred and fifty pounds, he had the most powerful set of legs on the team. One magic day, his prospects at last began to improve when an assistant coach glanced down at his muscular thighs and called him in as a replacement. He threw himself into the scrimmage with a determination that was almost suicidal. Charged by a famous Lowell end, he bent down and butted him with his head. The bone-crushing collision knocked Jack to the ground, almost unconscious, but he made it back to the huddle. Keady was impressed that he'd had the guts to lead with his head, and called him back for the same play. Once again, Jack ran at the Lowell end as hard as he could, but this time he used his shoulder and rammed the larger boy to the ground. One of the assistant coaches yelled at Jack, "Hey, nice block!" On the next play, Keady himself joined the huddle and said, "Let Kerouac carry the ball." Jack took the snapback, zigzagged around his own blockers, and streaked down the sidelines. Suddenly, the coach blew his whistle and ended the play, but the spiteful Lowell end charged at Jack, knocking him into the buckets on the sidelines. Feeling foolish, Jack disentangled himself, but Keady clapped him on the shoulder and said, "That was some sprint, kid."
On subsequent plays, the Lowell end kept harassing him, until Jack finally devised a highly deceptive--and nearly lethal--ploy. He coyly dodged a flying tackle, but the next time, he surprised the Lowell end and charged him with a force that he'd always known was his, but had never dared to use. There was a cracking sound, and everyone stopped. Jack was still standing, but the tall kid was on his knees, holding onto Jack's hips. "My neck is broken," he croaked. Still holding the ball, Kerouac felt a moment of fear followed by a surge of satisfaction. "Almost killing someone feels good," he later told me, as we edited the football scenes in Vanity of Duluoz. "Victory is sweet," he added, "but to win is also to destroy." The boy's neck wasn't broken after all, but he left the field a litter case. Jack's performance that day at last caught the coaching staffs attention, and they realized they had a player who'd do anything to win, even maim and kill.
In the locker room, starters who'd previously snubbed him came over to "fondle my butt, as if we'd always been asshole buddies," he said. Having injured his leg during practice that day, he hobbled out of the shower. An assistant handed him a bright new regulation Red and Gray football uniform, with a big "35" on the jersey, and two new pairs of glossy backfield shoes. He had made the varsity and was now on the second-ranked team of one ofthe most famous prep leagues in the nation. A photographer from the Sun snapped his picture, and he went home in a state of dazed disbelief.
Jack continued to excel in practice sessions in his junior year and was mentioned in the local press, though the reporters could never get his name right, even when he scored a touchdown. After a B-squad game in which he knifed his way to a four-yard score, the Sun said, "Leo Kerouac seems to be well on the way to becoming an excellent ball carrier." Nevertheless, Jack developed into a fleet and savvy halfback, and the nickname "Zagg" caught on again as he shifted his way through would-be tacklers. His astonished father now watched him at practice three times a week. Unfortunately, Jack soon discovered that making the varsity did not guarantee playing time, nor did it prevent a certain amount of hazing from senior teammates, such as Henry Mazur, who threw Jack out of the shower room. Jock protocol excluded rookies from the showers until all the veteran players had finished. Kerouac never forgave Mazur, who went on to play for Army. Interviewed in 1973, Mazur, a retired army colonel, did not recall the locker-room altercation.
The question of why coach Keady used Kerouac so rarely in his junior year continued to baffle Kerouac throughout his life. Duke Chiungos, who was in the starting lineup, later explained that Kerouac was only a substitute and that the eleven starters played the entire sixty minutes. "You could have a half-broken leg but if you were the starter, you played," Duke said. But Kerouac felt differently. It seemed to him that the coaches were cruising him. Convinced that they would use him more if he surrendered to them sexually, he compared himself to Melville's Billy Budd, who was destroyed by a repressed homosexual, John Claggart. "It was my fate," he said, "to always have a Claggart for a football coach."
While it's possible that Kerouac was discriminated against, it's also true that he faced stiff competition in the starter at halfback, Peter Kouchalakos, who'd overcome his relatively small size (155 pounds, 5' 71/2") to become widely regarded as the best athlete in Massachusetts. "Kouch" was a triple-threat halfback who could kick, run, and pass, and as an added advantage, he didn't have Jack's tendency to fumble the ball. In Vanity of Duluoz, Kerouac confessed that he was a notorious fumbler, carrying the ball with one hand in order to keep the other free for the balance he needed in his sharp, "jackoff" turns. Many of his teammates excelled both offensively and defensively, but Jack lacked both the size and endurance for two-way football. Neither a great passer nor punter, he was rather monodimensional as a gridiron competitor. But Mike D'Orso argued in Sports Illustrated that Kerouac more than compensated for his limitations by being an innovative player. "Jack was just ahead of his time," Duke Chiungos said. "All we had were these moth-eaten plays ... bulling through the line for four or five yards ... Jack was a breakaway player, and they weren't used to that." If he was resented, it was for the same reason that he later enraged the literary establishment:His dazzling performances disconcerted the other players in an antiquated game.16
Academically, he was just managing to stay afloat. His junior-year average was 84, despite the fact that, as Chiungos put it, "I never saw him take a book home." He was absent 32 out of a total of 178 school days, but much of that time he spent in the Pollard Memorial Library at 401 Merrimack Street, hiding out in the children's department and consuming books voraciously. In 1995, the publication of Selected Letters at last revealed that Kerouac was keenly aware of the grand literary tradition of his native New England. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau had lived a stone's throw from Lowell, and from Nathaniel Hawthorne in nearby Salem and Emily Dickinson in Amherst, and Melville had written Moby-Dick in Pittsfield, just across the Berkshires.
In Vanity of Duluoz, Kerouac listed his high-school literary enthusiasms as Victor Hugo, Goethe, H. G. Wells, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, leading biographers to place him in a European tradition. But Selected Letters demonstrates the more significant influence of Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, and Melville. Kerouac related to Emerson's mysticism, Thoreau's individualism, and the strong homoerotic strain in Melville, Whitman, and Dickinson. His high-school English teacher, Joe Pine, was praised by Kerouac in a 1961 letter to Bernice Lemire as one of the two best English teachers he ever had (the other, unnamed, was also at Lowell High). He was particularly grateful to Pine for encouraging his love of Emily Dickinson and other American poets. Dickinson's erotic feelings for her own sex were revealed in her love poem to Susan Huntington Gilbert, in which she wrote, "One sister have I in our house, and one, a hedge away ... . I chose this single star from out the wide night's numbers--Sue--forevermore!" In a 1955 letter to Ginsberg, Kerouac listed Dickinson among his top three favorite authors, along with Thoreau and William Blake, and Kerouac once told me that two of his favorite lines from Dickinson were: "Much madness is divinest sense" and "Good morning, midnight."17 Thoreau immortalized the river that runs through Jack's hometown in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. And from Blake, Jack gained a lifelong affinity for visionary experience.
In high school, he at last became keenly aware of girls and realized that they were peering into his "blue windows for romance." To girls in class, he appeared to be daydreaming, and they assumed he was in love, but actually he was thinking of his mother's hot date pie with whipped cream. Years later, Stella Sampas said she had not been popular like Jack, but he quickly corrected her, pointing out that he was resented by most people in high school, either for being attractive and well-built or for "trying to outdo everybody in everything." When at last he began to attend high-school dances, he was proud to be the best-looking boy in the room and the most sought-after, but he didn't know how to dance, and he couldn't talk to a girl without blushing and stammering. What interested him chiefly at the dances was the big-bandswing music, which was now beginning to sweep the land. Swing became a lifelong passion, and the music lent to his writing its distinctive rhythm.
In the spring of 1938, Jack went out for track and made a lasting friendship with Lowell's leading runner, Johnny Koumantzelis. Jack went all the way to the state meet in Boston, winning the three-hundred-yard dash, and came to the attention of Frank Leahy, later Notre Dame's legendary football coach, but still at Boston College at the time. Leahy decided to watch Kerouac closely during his senior year, and told BC sports publicist Billy Sullivan, "We'll offer him a scholarship in November."
After Kerouac's track victories, Leo and Gabrielle sacrificed everything for him, convinced that he would eventually become a successful insurance salesman and support them in their old age. The 1938 football season began and Kerouac, confident of winning a scholarship, switched from the commercial to the college curriculum, hoping to meet Ivy League entrance requirements. At the tenement on Moody Street, in his corner-bedroom aerie four floors above Textile Lunch, he slept with his cat and kept his football beside the bed where he could touch it for good luck. On cold autumn mornings, he'd place his socks on the oil stove to warm and then go over to his "tragic closet," cluttered with handwritten manuscript pages, jockstraps, bats, and gloves. After dressing, he'd devour a breakfast of toast and gruel. At football practice, the coaches noticed that he was brawnier, at five-foot-nine and 165 pounds, but still smaller than regulars like Joe Sorota, who was five-eleven and 173 pounds, and Chester Lipka, who was six-two and 195 pounds.
Without Jack's being aware of it, Keady had plans to put him into games late in the play as Lowell's secret weapon after the regulars had exhausted themselves. According to Glenn Stout, "He was fast, shifty, good in the open field, and surprisingly strong when faced one-on-one. It was that singular ability that allowed him to vault over some players who were more skilled than he, and challenge them for a starting position." Keady set out at once to correct some of Kerouac's deficiencies. Since Jack didn't know how to punt, Keady assigned his best kicker, Sorota, to give Jack special lessons. In an interview fifty-seven years later, Sorota recalled that Keady told him, "Try to show 'his highness' how to kick a ball." When asked what kind of a teammate Kerouac was, Sorota replied, "Jack was all right to play with. He pulled his load. Jack wasn't too tall but he could run."
Kerouac knew that if he didn't play brilliantly during his senior year, he would never go to college and would end up a mill rat. Fortunately, he was able to start in the first major scrimmage, on September 15, against Melrose. Kouchalakos, the star of the team, couldn't play due to a sprained ankle, an injury that would plague him throughout the season. Though the team was considered to be light, green, and lacking in veterans, they creamed Greenfield High in the season opener, 26-0. Kerouac scored two touchdowns that were called back. "Young Kerouac has the legs and the style," noted the Sun's reporter, but then added, in what Kerouac considered to be an insulting understatement,"he looks like a football player." Certainly, the near-perfect game that Kerouac played against Greenfield entitled him to a place in the starting lineup, but it was withheld, and he began to realize that although he still loved football, he was too much of an individual ever to fit into the team.
Kouchalakos returned to the lineup in the game against Gardner, and Kerouac played only the last two minutes. Lowell won, 18-0, and continued its winning streak a week later, when Kerouac scored a trio of touchdowns in the game against Worcester Classical. This was the game that got not only Keady's attention, but the whole town's. People Jack didn't even know, teachers and students alike, thanked him for helping to smear Worcester, 43-0. Pretty girls winked and said, "I can't wait till Saturday," referring both to the upcoming game with Manchester Central and possibly their anticipated deflowering by Kerouac. "It's the greatest feeling in the world to walk into a room and know you can have anybody you want, man, woman, or child," Kerouac told me as we worked on his account of Worcester Classical in Vanity of Duluoz. "Just knowing this gives you a hard-on, and people see the hard-on, or sense it, and think you're superman. There is nothing like being a football star, not even publishing your first novel."
During the next game, he never left the bench. In the stands, his fans chanted, "We want Kerouac ... . We want Kerouac." "I was better than Kouchalakos, yet I had to sit on the sidelines and watch him play like an old heifer," Jack recalled. "And then Kouchalakos limped off the field with a minor injury that I would have played right through, and removed his helmet so everyone could see who he was." His teammates managed to stomp Manchester Central 20-0 without any help from Kerouac. Ecstatic over another shutout, the football-crazed citizens of Lowell began to dream of the state championship. The Red and Gray had rolled up 107 points and was still unscored on after four games. But Jack panicked after he was ignored in the Manchester Central match. He had his heart set on going to Columbia College, but his chances at this point in the season were nil. What he did not know was that he was being held in reserve for crucial upcoming games. All of Lowell's remaining opponents for the season--Malden, Lynn, Lynn Classical, and New Britain--sent scouts to the Manchester Central contest, and Kerouac was deliberately kept off the field so that Keady could spring him as a surprise in future games. At the moment, Lowell was undefeated, but there were some tough games ahead, and Kerouac's speed and daring could be the deciding factor.
Just before Lowell played Keith Academy, which was also undefeated and unscored upon, the Sun announced, "Jack Kerouac, Lowell's speed-king, will be used as a 'situation' ball carrier ... . One of the fastest schoolboy backs in the state is expected to play a major part in Lowell's offense tomorrow." Reporter Bill McNiskin dubbed Kerouac "the speed merchant," and Lowell Union Leader columnist Billy Sullivan observed, "Figures don't lie," referring to Jack's record as one of the team's top scorers. When the Red and Grayfaced Keith's Blue and Gray at Alumni Field, Kerouac played like a wild animal thirsting for blood. He scored two touchdowns, and in a Sun photo the following day he was shown grimacing with fierce determination as he raced toward the goalpost. The caption read: "Lowell's situation back ... breaking off his tackle for thirteen yards and the score." The final tally was Lowell 53, Keith Academy 0. Kerouac later told me that he'd actually scored three touchdowns, but one was called back, and he complained that Keady had only let him play one quarter.
With a record of 5-0, the Lowell team was written up all over New England, and one Boston daily headlined, "John Kerouac, Climax Runner, 12th Man of Unbeaten, Unscored Upon 11." The reporter wrote, "At opportune moments when the stage is nicely tidied up and ready for a hurricane, in frolics Kerouac to go to town." Jack and I discussed the story when he was writing Vanity of Duluoz, debating how much of it to use. He loved the clause, "in frolics Kerouac," but for some reason didn't use it. He wasn't sure readers would know what "climax runner" meant and left it out, although he used the portion of the headline that made it clear he belonged in the starting lineup.
"Climax runner" is not a phrase currently in use in football, but the mystery was cleared up in 1996 when Glenn Stout interviewed Charley O'Rourke, a Boston College quarterback of the 1940s. Coaches couldn't substitute at will in the thirties, O'Rourke explained, because of the one-platoon style of football. However, substitutions could go in at the end of a quarter or the end of a half. "A lot of teams had a back like Jack Kerouac, who was called a climax runner--a player who they kept out of the game early," Stout said. "In the second quarter or second half, when the other players were getting tired, boom, let's put in [the climax runner] ... . Kerouac ... would return punts sixty yards, go for those long broken field runs, drawing attention from the main player--Kouchalakos in Lowell's case--that the defense was focused on."18
As Kerouac's fame spread throughout high-school and intercollegiate football circles, so did his ego; in Maggie Cassidy he described his "ivory white face ... noble ... neck ... slope-muscled shoulders ... eyes hard and steely ... like Mickey Mantle at nineteen." He cultivated an enigmatic, Mona Lisa look, gazing at people from under a crown of "curly black locks." Girls were his for the taking, but he wasn't sure he wanted them. As he later wrote in Book of Dreams, he had a nightmare in which the police accused him of being a sex pervert, citing him for taking off his pants in front of high-school students of both sexes. He portrayed himself in the dream as a "queer saint" with a "hardon." A girl exposed her crotch to him, but instead of a vagina she had "a tiny cock." He took out his penis, but it was so small that he hid it in embarrassment. In The Town and the City, when the autobiographical protagonist Peter Martin finds himself the object of feminine desire, he feels threatened, and to avoid girls, he hurries home from school and buries himself in books, reading through the entire shelf of "Harvard Classics."
Despite similar qualms, Kerouac was so eager to be envied by other men and to have them drooling over his girls, that he finally decided to start dating. He had no idea how to go about this, but one night, on his way to a banquet for the football players, he stopped to look in on the Girl Officers' Prom at the high school. Lowell High offered a military-type alternative to gym classes for boys and girls who had no interest in sports, and each year the Girl Officers sponsored a dance, asking boys for dates. Kerouac arrived stag and right away spotted Joe Sorota, who was talking with Margaret Coffey, Joe's next-door neighbor in Centralville. "We were just friends," Sorota recalled. "Margaret was a good singer, and she was planning to sing with Tommy Cotten's orchestra that night, sort of between sets." Margaret had dark hair and a figure that was terrific but only "up to a certain point," Sorota noted. "She was bowlegged. She wasn't too happy with her legs. Good upper body, and beautiful big green eyes. Boy, could she do tricks with them. She looked good in her Girl Officers uniform--navy blue with gold trim. Chet Lipka was there, Johnny Varoski; everybody went by and said, 'Hello, Joe.' Jack Kerouac went by, and Margaret said, 'Who's that?'
"'Jack Kerouac,' I said."
"'Why don't you stop him and introduce me?'"
"'Margaret, I can't grab him by the shoulders and hold him here. You'll have to wait, that's all there is to it.'"
When the break came at 11 P.M., Margaret again asked, "Is Jack Kerouac here? Tommy has asked me to come up and do a song." As she sang that night, she saw Jack in the crowd and started flirting brazenly. "She embarrassed the hell out of me, just by lookin' at him, movin' her eyes up and down, sideways," Joe Sorota said. "She kept looking right at him. He was tryin' to hide behind people. The more he'd hide, the more people would watch him. He got embarrassed. Oh God. After she got off the stage, she hit me in the ribs and said, 'I want you to introduce me to Jack.'
"'Okay,' I said, 'as soon as I see him.'"
"'I know where he is,' she said, and brought me right over to Jack. Oh boy, what a night that was. She got Jack to take her out. It was funny--me, I didn't care because I wasn't goin' out with Margaret. We were like brother and sister, but she could get me in an awful lot of trouble. She was like a tomboy. She wanted to learn how to play tennis, and we'd go down and play tennis, baseball, and everything. She was a son-of-a-gun. She made Jack look like a damn fool that night."
Margaret Coffey as she appears as "Pauline (Moe) Cole" in Maggie Cassidy boldly told Jack that she liked his beguiling combination of bashfulness and animal magnetism. He had been anxiously hoping for the prom to end, waiting around only because he had plans to attend a banquet later with the other football players. In a reversal of the usual male-female routine, Margaret led him onto the dance floor and squeezed him provocatively. Later, he took her home, and though she had threatened to kiss him at the dance, he stood in her doorway, uncertain how to kiss awoman. He let her make all the moves, and when they finally kissed, Margaret initiated it.
Kerouac subsequently described the kiss in Maggie Cassidy, but skimmed over it to get to what really interested him, which was how he demonstrated the kiss to a male friend. When Kerouac bragged about his and Margaret's marathon kiss, his buddy asked him to repeat it and offered his lips. "We did it, too," Kerouac wrote. Several members of the Pawtucketville gang were present, and so were Gabrielle and Leo, but they took no notice. During the boys' long, passionate kiss, "the others didn't even stop talking," Kerouac wrote. Later, he told Margaret that he had kissed his friend, and she in turn told the friend that she knew something naughty about him and he ought to be mortified. The young man then described how Jack had kissed him, and later shared this with Jack, bringing the curious episode full circle. Jack felt his friend's "love ... man to man, boy to boy," he wrote. In Maggie Cassidy, the encounter between the two men ends with Jack's friend going home to fantasize about him and have wet dreams.
A few days after Sorota introduced Jack and Margaret, he saw them together on Margaret's front porch. The following day, Jack asked Joe, "Do you mind if I go out with Margaret?"
"Hell, no," Joe said. "Go ahead. We're not goin' anywhere. I have no plans anyway." After that, Jack and Margaret dated "pretty steady," Joe said. "Margaret became his girlfriend. They were alike in a way. She was kind of fickle when it came to men; he was fickle about girls. They made hay for a little while anyway."
The round-robin kiss in Maggie Cassidy powerfully demonstrates that rigid divisions such as hetero-, bi-, and homosexuality do not fit reality, certainly not Kerouac's, and should not be used to label him. Though everyone seems to have a genetic inclination in one direction or the other, it is dangerous to use sex to define anyone. As Gore Vidal has written, "Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices, and what anyone does with a willing partner is of no social or cosmic significance." Like George Martin in The Town and the City, Kerouac's father appeared to believe that it was all right for thirteen-year-old boys to have sex with each other, as long as they outgrew it by the age of fifteen and started dating girls. Otherwise, he warned, America "was going straight to hell," and he later lumped together "Alexander Panos," the character based on Sammy, and "Leon Levinsky," the Ginsberg-inspired character, as "screwballs." According to Duke Chiungos, Jack Lang, and other former Lowell athletes, Leo began to be rougher with Jack and put him under constant pressure to excel as an athlete.19
Leo was not happy when Jack and Sammy's relationship as members of the Young Prometheans intensified. Sammy was not athletic, but he attained the rank of major as a Boy Officer. At Young Promethean meetings, Kerouac also saw Stella, who was "hungry for knowledge," Sun reporter Edward Manzi later wrote. Stella hovered about the group, mostly so she could look at Jack, but also "serving the boys coffee--and helping herself to their knowledge."Politics and current events were fervently debated. A former Promethean, George Constantinedes, recalled, "Sam said Prometheus represented altruism, imparting knowledge to mankind and being of service ... . He believed that if mankind is to progress, it would be through politics." Both Sammy and Jack flirted with Communism, and Jack longed to go to the U.S.S.R., commune with his Russian comrades, and bring back a white tunic for Sammy.
But Kerouac was never serious about politics, and though he was moved by Sammy's concept of universal brotherhood, the tenor of their relationship remained lighthearted and increasingly romantic. Sammy sang love songs to him, like Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine," and recited Lord Byron's seductive lines, "The night was made for loving, and the day returns too soon." One evening, as Sammy waited for Jack on the library steps, he started reciting poetry to some Greek boys from the neighborhood. He chose Byron's salute to Greece's lesbian poet laureate, Sappho, and declaimed, "'The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece! Where burning Sappho loved and sung.'" Charles Jarvis was present that night, and recalled that the boys began to heckle Sammy, one yelling that Byron "must have had a wang as big as a buffalo's." Undaunted, Sammy lectured them on Byron's role in freeing their parents' native Greece from Turkish tyranny. Suddenly, Kerouac emerged from the library and he and Sammy went off into the night together, leaving the other boys behind.
One of the toughs called Kerouac "Sammy's soulmate," adding that the two boys often took lengthy strolls together and talked about "stuff" like writing and art. "Bullshit," said another boy, defending Kerouac as a football player and member of the high-school track team. Then, remembering he'd just seen Jack leave with Sammy, he conceded that Jack must be "strange." At school, when Jack's varsity teammates teased him about Sammy, he realized that his status as a "big athlete" was in jeopardy, and he later told Jarvis that he began to ponder why "the hell" he was "hanging around with this guy." But he couldn't give up Sammy; their association was the most joyous of his life, and Sammy was the only person in Lowell who could show him how to become what he wanted to be: "a scholar, a creative person." In The Town and the City, Kerouac portrayed himself, as "Peter Martin," as wanting to reach out and take the hand of "Alexander," the Sammy-based character, but he held back and then wondered "mournfully" why he was afraid to touch his dearest friend.20
Just a week after the Boston paper crowned Kerouac Lowell's climax runner, he played before twelve thousand people in Malden High's stadium, five miles north of Boston. The Malden team was a terror, and the game was expected to determine the front runner for the state championship. Malden's passing attack during the 1939 season had been "nothing short of sensational," one sports reporter wrote, but he added that most observers favored Lowell, "with such tricky running backs as Christy Zoukis, Pete Kouchalakos, Jack Kerouac, and Warren 'Lefty' Arsenault." For days before the game, areasports commentators speculated on whether Keady would use Kerouac. Sorota had injured his knee, and the Sun's Frank Moran predicted that Jack might replace him in the Lowell backfield, but only "at the eleventh hour." McNiskin observed, "If Sorota does not start ... Jack Kerouac will be getting the chance he has deserved for the past three weeks." Sorota and Kerouac remained good friends, despite competition in sports and love. "Me and Jack would hang around down in [Donald R.] McIntyre's office a little bit," Sorota recalled. "McIntyre was the athletic director, over the coach. He took care of all the arrangements for all the teams to play here and there, goin' down to Boston, bookin'." On the eve of the game, Sorota's knee improved dramatically, and he was expected to take his position in the starting backfield. But Keady told the press that he intended to use Kerouac anyway. "Jack Kerouac, Lowell's 'situation' back, is primed and ready for heavy duty tomorrow and will see much action against Malden," the Sun reported.
Going into the game, the undefeated teams were almost evenly matched. Lowell had five wins over Malden's four wins and one tie. "The press of New England was aroused to the unprecedented enthusiasm of calling Lowell High of '38 the greatest schoolboy team in Lowell's history," wrote columnist John Kenney. To Kerouac, the game represented a clash of the giants of Massachusetts football, and he was frankly afraid of Malden's gorilla-like players, who reminded him of Iroquois warriors. As usual, he didn't start, but Keady brought him into the game in the second half. "It was an exciting game," said Duke Chiungos, who explained that Lowell beat back Malden's seven goal-line attempts to score touchdowns. Kerouac at last came on the field after a Lowell quarterback sustained a fractured shoulder. Kerouac broke away and raced for sixty-five yards. "Someone came across the field and nailed him at the fifteen-yard line," said Chiungos. "Otherwise, Jack would have been the real hero there." But the giants exhausted each other, and neither Lowell nor Malden emerged the winner, tying 0-0. The game took a ruinous toll on Lowell's starters. "We were all burnt out, everyone on that team," Duke said.
With the first-stringers reduced to physical wrecks, Kerouac now stood at the threshold of the greatest opportunity of his life. He was used almost constantly in the next game against Lynn Classical, an underdog team that hoped to redeem its mediocre record by trouncing vaunted Lowell. "I flubbed it," he said, when he read chapter six of book one of Vanity of Duluoz aloud to me one day. "Zoukis threw me a pass and I dropped it--my only real fuck-up of the season." Played on an alien field, the Manning Bowl gridiron, the contest was the most violent of the season, with Kerouac in action from start to finish. One observer wrote, "The players continually 'slugged,' that is, punched, kicked, mauled, and piled ... . Any efficiency on the part of the officials in charge of the game would have resulted in this type of play being quelled immediately ... . The 'slugging' was clearly spotted from the press box ... with both the Lowell and Classical players involved."A Lynn Classical lineman suffered a concussion in a massive pileup. Kerouac was tough enough to survive the physical punishment, but the game turned into a humiliating 6-0 defeat for Lowell and brought Kerouac embarrassing press notices. McNiskin wrote, "Jack Kerouac caused the fans to gulp by getting clear for a toss from Zoukis but his over-anxiety caused him to lose the pellet." The Sun, which rarely noted Kerouac's triumphs, was always quick to spotlight his mistakes, reporting: "Zoukis passed to Kerouac who fumbled the ball with a touchdown in view. He was alone and could have raced over to tie the score easily." The story was headlined, "Defeat by Lynn Classical Leaves Fandom Shocked; Red and Gray 'Just Another Team' Now."
Sorota, who fought Lynn Classical on a bad knee and ankle, recalled that "Kerouac fell on his can ... . That was the game we all could have killed him. He dropped two balls, and nobody near him. Within twenty yards of a touchdown, he could have walked it. He took his eye off the ball both times. He doesn't talk about that in the books. But, once in a while, he had a lapse of memory when it came to catchin' balls. His concentration was someplace else all the time." Added Sorota, "When it came to women it was a different story. He perked right up."
Kerouac later wrote in Maggie Cassidy that he first became seriously interested in girls during his senior year, and the experience plunged him into confusion and despair, which may explain why his game was off. The night before the New Britain, Connecticut, match, Jack was disgusted with many of his teammates for breaking practice and slipping out of their hotel to attend a dance. Even worse, as he charged in Vanity of Duluoz, the players who remained in their rooms spent the night making so much noise that he couldn't sleep, and he was exhausted by game time the following day. Two of his teammates later challenged Kerouac's account. Chiungos said, "We were all back where we belonged by nine-thirty or ten o'clock. If we stepped out of line, we were monitored pretty close. The only ones who weren't monitored were the coaches." Sorota recalled, "We were down in New Britain, and Jack met a girl down there and when we got back he was ready to quit school and move down there. He fell in love with women like nuthin', at the drop of a hat. Oh, God, and how, always havin' a crush. He almost left school on account of it. He bought the young woman in New Britain a friendship ring and everything. I said, 'You've got to be crazy, Jack.' I guess he must have talked to a few other people down there because he didn't make it, he stayed. He finished off high school and that was it. He went all out for women, there was no gettin' away from it."
He could no longer complain that Keady wasn't using him; he carried the ball throughout the New Britain game, ending up bloody, bruised, haggard, and disillusioned. Lowell suffered a 20-0 defeat. Later, in the locker room, coaches, reporters, and dedicated camp followers glowered at the Lowell athletes as they undressed, showered, and wearily donned their street clothes. But Kerouac had ample reason to rejoice. Keady alerted the junior men on the team that they were about to get their chance; the senior playershad disappointed him in recent weeks and he was benching many of them. According to sportswriter Glenn Stout, "At this point, Kerouac was the star of the team."21
In the next game, Nashua, Leo and Gabrielle's hometown, everything was on Jack's shoulders, and he played his most heroic game in mud and driving rain. Though Lowell lost, 13-19, he would always regard Nashua as the high point of his football career. Too many of the regulars were permitted to skip the game, leaving Kerouac nothing but rookies to play with, and Kenney wrote that Lowell unaccountably "fell flat against an inferior Nashua invader." Kerouac suspected the game was fixed--that the veteran players were deliberately kept off the field so that Lowell would lose, thus raising the odds for the climactic game of the season, the Thanksgiving Day grudge match with Lawrence. The only pastime in Lowell more popular than football was gambling, and the two often went hand in hand. Kerouac faced the powerful Nashua team virtually alone, ran for a fifteen-yard touchdown, and accounted for 130 out of 149 total yards for Lowell. In a grueling sixty-yard dash, he was transformed into a muddy apparition that no longer looked human. He also made his share of mistakes that day according to the Nashua Telegraph, which reported, "With a touchdown seemingly a sure thing, Kerouac fumbled." But the game paid off handsomely for Jack. Scouts from Duke, B.C., and Columbia caught his rugged performance and immediately recommended him for scholarships. He had accomplished the goal he and Spike had dreamed of, and his future was assured.
When he returned to the Rex, the team's hotel in Nashua, he was offended to find the regulars luxuriating in Turkish baths. Back home, in his bed on Moody Street, he woke up screaming in the middle of the night, his muscles locked in tortuous charley horses. Later, he limped into Frank Sargent's office at the Courier-Citizen and requested better coverage in the paper's sports pages for his gridiron performances. When rumors of his visit circulated around town, some were amused, while others found him to be a "very forward kid," as one Lowell businessman put it. Jack would never receive the glowing notices regularly accorded Kouchalakos, the darling of the press, even when Jack's feats far outstripped Kouch's.
Despite their recent losses, the Lowell Red and Gray was the number one topic of conversation during the Thanksgiving holidays. As Lowell was blanketed with a record November snowfall, everyone looked forward to the Lawrence game, the most anticipated local event of the year and the final game of the season. Sun columnist Charles G. Sampas, Sammy's brother, wrote on November 23, 1938, "Be thankful for football heroes." John Kenney warned, "To blow this one would cover the whole season with the shroud of failure." Conversely, he said, a Lowell victory would completely erase the shame of their recent string of defeats. The statistics favored Lowell. Only one man on the Lawrence squad, Leo Ouellette, had scored more touchdowns than had Kerouac.
Early on Thanksgiving morning, the people of Lowell awoke to an icy,gray day, according to Sullivan's account in the Union Leader. Shortly after 9 A.M., the town virtually emptied as hordes of people drove the dozen miles up along the Merrimack River to Lawrence's Memorial Stadium. A record crowd of fourteen thousand assembled in the stands. Spike located his seat, proud to be a friend of the star of the day. Leo and Gabrielle attended with a bevy of relatives, and at some point in the game Leo spotted Leahy and invited him for Thanksgiving dinner. Outside the stadium, Billy Koumantzelis, Johnny's younger brother, got into a fight. "There was always a big rivalry between Lowell and Lawrence, and there's always a brawl connected with the Lowell-Lawrence game," Billy recalled. Lowell's band marched across the field playing "Alexander's Ragtime Band," followed by a battery of baton twirlers. Below the stands, in the bowels of the stadium, Kerouac sat on a bench tensely awaiting another bloody gladiatorial. The air in the cold, gloomy locker room was thick with fear, bordering on panic, and as Jack changed into his uniform, he felt faint. Keady sensed the team's vulnerability and goaded them with insults, hoping to provoke their anger and courage. Suddenly, an official burst in and announced there were two minutes to kickoff. A hush fell over the players as Keady reminded them that they'd dreamed of making the varsity and whipping Lawrence since boyhood--and now was their chance. His words activated Jack's killer instincts. The team broke into cheers for the coach and then stormed onto the field, ready for anything Lawrence could dish out. An official blew his whistle, the throngs in the stands grew quiet, and the forty-second "Turkey-day classic" began.
Lawrence dominated the play throughout the first half, banging off four first downs to Lowell's one. Jack started, but was replaced by Kouch in the second quarter. The first half ended with both teams scoreless. The players on both sides were afraid of bone-snapping falls on the hard, frozen ground. At halftime, Keady exploded in the locker room, calling the players a bunch of sissies and suggesting they strap pillows to their bottoms. In the second half, Lowell pulled ahead by 2-0 in the third quarter, capitalizing on a bad kick. The game was nearly over. Zoukis and Kerouac gained enough yardage to give Lowell a first down on the Lawrence seventeen-yard line. Zoukis faded back to the twenty-one-yard line and tossed a screen pass to Kerouac, who was running down the sideline. He reached for the ball, but a Lawrence man tipped it, and it started to fall incomplete. Jack reversed field, scooped the ball inches from the turf and sprang toward the goal line with a pack of opponents at his ankles. Five yards from a touchdown, two Lawrence players appeared in front of him. He dropped his shoulder, smashed through them with brain-jarring force, and scored the only touchdown of the day. Seconds later, the game ended, and Kerouac became a Lowell football legend. "He did it!" Leo howled, while polishing off a quart of whiskey. Gabrielle snatched a flag from the hands of a relative and waved it frantically, raving about Jackie's "touchball." Though Spike had guided Kerouac to this triumph, the priest smiled quietly and thanked God. "Oh, boy, I mean he was the hero," he told Sports Illustrated fifty years later. "Lots of headlines. Justlike Doug Flutie, you know?" Spike was referring to Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie, who, in an important game with Miami, threw a 48-yard pass, later known as a "Hail Mary pass," as time was running out in the last quarter, and became another "last second" hero like Kerouac.
In the visitors' locker room, the Lowell team showered and "danced on pink feet," Kerouac recalled, but even in victory he was made to feel like an outsider. Resenting that a substitute instead of a first-string player had scored the only touchdown, Kouch threw down his helmet--a gesture of defeat rather than victory. Jack tried to avoid well-wishers, and when the bus dropped him at school, he walked home alone along the canals in the shadows of the mills. He somehow knew that he would be quickly forgotten and preferred his private fantasies to public acclaim. In his mind, he was a "prince disguised as a pauper, Orestes returned from distant heroisms and hiding within the land." It was only after he crossed the bridge and entered the Pawtucketville slum that he began to feel good. Neighbors rushed into the streets or yelled from tenement windows in a sudden shower of love and adoration. His refracted glory ennobled the ghetto, if only for a day. Sports Illustrated later observed, "It also made him the kind of local hero that his literary career never could." At the same time, he had an odd feeling that his fame was a betrayal of his roots. Emotionally, he was living untruthfully at such a deep level that he felt phony about everything.
The signature moment of Kerouac's football career also marked the beginning of his protracted downfall. For those afflicted with the disease of alcoholism, as Jack was, the worst drink is the first one, for after that they can never get enough. A lifetime of alcoholism began over Thanksgiving dinner in 1938. A drunken Leo insisted that his son take a drink and practically forced liquor down Jack's throat. Throughout the meal, Leo kept urging wine on Jack and even poked a cigar in his mouth, telling him to act like a man. Boston College Magazine later reported that the Kerouac family's "Thanksgiving dinner table was set for the family and two guests: Billy Sullivan and Frank Leahy." In Vanity of Duluoz, Kerouac added that Columbia's head coach, the legendary Lou Little, arrived within several days. Lou Little was known as the man who created All-Americans.
Colleges like Columbia, Duke, and B.C. were engaged in a recruiting war at the time, and all of them vied for Kerouac, not so much for his fantastic performance that day as for the ability he'd displayed throughout the season as a climax runner. While major-league schools offered Jack scholarships, Kouchalakos had to settle for an obscure backwater college. As an additional inducement, Leahy promised to take Jack with him to Notre Dame. But it was Jack's Columbia offer that became the talk of Lowell. Recalled Charlie Kirklies, a track teammate, "Who ever heard of one of us going to Columbia? We thought it couldn't happen to a nicer guy."
Despite Kerouac's efforts to get better press coverage for himself, the newspaper reporters claimed a team victory and failed to single out Kerouac as the obvious hero of the Lowell-Lawrence game. Frank Moran managedto write an entire lead without even mentioning Kerouac, referring anonymously to "a touchdown pass." But pictures don't lie, and Jack's spectacular dive over the goal line was captured in a dramatic front-page photo in both the Sun and the Courier-Citizen. The Sun's simple, eloquent caption stated, "Here's the hero, caught by the Sun staff cameraman in perfect action." As an athlete, Jack was an example of nature perfecting itself, and these were indeed his glory days.22
Throughout the winter months following his success, he pondered various scholarship offers and finally in the spring of 1939 decided on Columbia. There were unfortunate repercussions. B. C.'s Leahy was furious and used his connections to have Leo fired from Sullivan Printers. Billy Sullivan, whose uncle managed the company, did not deny that Leo was fired, but claimed that "Leo Kerouac was a poor employee who already had been kept on the payroll too long." Following the classic pattern of children of alcoholics, Jack took full blame for his father's misfortune, and the thrill of his scholarship was spoiled by guilt. Nothing, however, could diminish the pleasure he took in his varsity-letter sweater, with its big "", though he felt uncomfortably warm in it. He also made "All-Massachusetts State."
In the heady afterglow, Kerouac first conceived his ambition to become a leader of multitudes, a founder of philosophies and lifestyles, an avatar who would define the needs of society, stage revolutions, and set up new governments--a fabulous "life-changing prophetic artist," as he later put it in a letter to Cassady. Though he did not yet know what his message would be, he already foresaw that he would be destroyed in the act of making it public. He would seize the headlines, shake up the establishment, and then mysteriously fade from view, disappearing into the mists of his own imagination. But in the first lap of his march to sainthood, he intended to wow everyone, "impressing the women, amazing the men." Such lofty ambitions were completely at odds with the blistering love affair that started on January 1, 1939, one that threatened to consign him to mill-town drudgery for the rest of his life.23
Kerouac was sixteen, still in his senior year, when he fell in love with a ravishing Irish beauty named Mary Carney. Reminiscing about her years later in an October 12, 1952, letter to novelist John Clellon Holmes, he revealed that he'd wanted to make her his wife, settle down, and work as a brakeman for the Boston & Maine Railroad. He loved her sultry, tragic aura, he told Holmes, and regretted that he'd ever let an "asshole" such as Neal Cassady drag him into vagrancy and "sexfiend" behavior. Mary seemed to be his one chance for a normal, happy life, but she wanted him to give up college and his dream of becoming a writer, and this he would never do.
Internal evidence in Maggie Cassidy, the novel he wrote in 1953, suggests deeper, psychological reasons for their conflicts. Jack called himself "Jack Duluoz" and set the story in Lowell, portraying himself as "the beloved youth"--football and track star, budding genius, gorgeous Adonis, desired by all, and possessed by none. Though Jack Duluoz already has sexy PaulineCole/Margaret Coffey waiting for him under the clock every day at school, he becomes obsessed with Maggie, daughter of a railroad man, when they meet at a New Year's dance in the Rex Ballroom. To Jack--both the character and the author--Maggie represents eternal woman, part-Carmen and part-Virgin Mary. Pauline jealously warns him that Maggie, a junior-high-school dropout, only wants him to prove to herself that she can ensnare a star athlete.
Kerouac found himself uncomfortable in the role of sex object, and later wrote in the "32nd Chorus" of San Francisco Blues that pretty girls have it easy, but handsome men truly "suffer."24 The misery he underwent as an unwilling Don Juan is graphically, relentlessly portrayed both in Maggie Cassidy and The Town and the City, as is the torment of the girls innocently drawn into the chaos of a young man at war with himself. "Kiss me, you're an awful tease," begs Mary Gilhooley in The Town and the City. "Other fellows always want to neck," she says. "All you want to do is look at my eyes." He will let a girl kiss him but go no further, and with the insatiable Maggie Cassidy, the result is thirty-five-minute kisses that leave them both with bleeding, blistered lips.
The reason he volunteers for such torture gradually emerges in the story--it's important to him to have girls fawning over him, preferably in public, so the world will know he's a virile, bona fide male. His good looks and heroic status assure the pick of beauties, but then he doesn't know what to do with them, fearing "unknown suicides of weddings and honeymoons." He ends up hating women. His fundamental misogyny, which bursts out in his description of Maggie's "loose ugly grin of self-satisfied womanly idiocy-flesh," is part and parcel of his not being true to his own sexuality. Participating in sex play with a woman just to prove he's not gay, he projects his self-loathing onto women, something only a man uncomfortable with his sexuality would do. In a clench with Maggie, he suddenly wants "to rip her mouth out and murder her." Finally, acting as a weird kind of pimp, he fobs her off on a friend. With both of the girls in the book, Pauline and Maggie, he behaves like a male counterpart of the stereotypical female "prick tease," taking an almost sadistic satisfaction in the frustration he sows.
How authentic Kerouac's feelings were for Mary Carney is still difficult to ascertain, despite considerable documentation. The Kerouac archive in Lowell contains "eight to ten" letters from Mary to Jack, and they deal with "not seeing each other and missing each other," according to John Sampas. In Kerouac's letters to Stella, Neal and Carolyn Cassady, John Clellon Holmes, and John MacDonald, he wrote that he loved Mary, but in the MacDonald letter, in which he claimed to be "madly" enamored, he called her a "wench," which leaves his sincerity open to question. Kerouac's "sexual intercourse" list, stored at the archive, reveals that he and Mary Carney never consummated their affair. His varsity teammates, Joe Sorota and Jack Lang, both insisted in 1995 that Jack had been more serious about Margaret Coffey, and indeed Kerouac's sex list indicates he and Margaret made love twentytimes. According to Duke Chiungos, Kerouac never spoke of Mary, but raved about Margaret. Nor did Kerouac's Pawtucketville intimate and confidant Albert "Lousy" Blazon remember Mary. G. J. Apostolos, who sometimes saw Jack and Mary together, dismissed Jack's love for her as a figment of his imagination, explaining, "Every time I'd ask Jack, 'D'you get in?' the answer was in the negative." When advised in 1996 of G. J.'s remark, John Sampas said, "Maybe Jack didn't tell G. J. how much they were seeing of each other." Mary Carney, who rarely granted interviews, told Gifford and Lee (1978) that "there was something deep between Jack and me." She did not elaborate beyond saying that Jack was "sensitive" and had confided in her. In 1962, she told Bernice Lemire, Kerouac's first biographer, that Maggie Cassidy was "almost all true, three-quarters of it at least," but after the interview, Lemire concluded that Kerouac's portrayal of Mary as the love of his life was pure "illusion," and that he had only used her in the novel as a convenient symbol for the Lowell of his youth.
There can be no question that the feelings expressed in the novel are powerful, but the total evidence strongly suggests that these feelings stemmed from other relationships Jack was having, both in high school and later, in 1953, when he wrote Maggie Cassidy. The most authentic emotions he had in his youth were focused on Sammy Sampas--"amour," as Kerouac summed them up in a 1944 letter to Sammy--but in the climate of the time, they could hardly be expressed, either in his life or in his work. By the time he wrote Maggie Cassidy, he was embroiled in a tangled triangle with Neal and Carolyn Cassady, and this was equally taboo. The similarity of the name Cassady and the title Maggie Cassidy suggests an obvious connection, and I pointed it out to Carolyn in 1996. "It's odd now that I think of it," she replied. "I never had the vanity? nerve? fear of the answer? to ask Jack if there was any connection in his mind with me in the title Maggie Cassidy or, which other people tell me must have been the case, 'St. Carolyn by the Sea.' (His sister's name was 'Caroline,' as you know.)" It seems likely that Kerouac was displacing other relationships onto Mary Carney when he wrote Maggie Cassidy.
Two early 1950s letters to Carolyn Cassady hint at Kerouac's continuing confusion over his feelings for Mary Carney. In one letter, he stated that he was writing a novel based on his romance with Mary, and in the other, he called the story "Proustian." Just how Proustian it was can be seen in an erotic dream Kerouac had about Neal and Maggie Cassidy. In the dream, a woman asks Jack to make love to her. He recoils in horror, then suddenly a Neal-type sailor comes along--"goodlooking, muscles, strange long arms"--and slams the girl "back to wall, thug to cunt." After the sailor finishes, Jack tries having sex with her, but she rejects him. The divisive feelings that dominate the dream also pervade Maggie Cassidy. Though drawn to women, he wrote in Visions of Cody that they were "impractical" for him. He was uncomfortable with them because of his inability to achieve true intimacy. He could be sexual--"I like girls," he wrote in Some of the Dharma--butthis was not the same thing as being intimate. He was going against his nature and then blaming women for his self-deception and unhappiness. According to critic Warren French, Kerouac "lacked the courage to resolve his emotional problems heroically. He didn't have the guts to be gay and hated himself for it."25
Despite the trenchancy of Warren French's analysis, what he fails to consider is that no one had that kind of guts in 1939. Even at a 1995 seminar on Kerouac and Sammy Sampas at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, a classmate of theirs coldly observed in front of a dozen members of the Sampas family, "I knew both Kerouac and Sammy in high school. To me, Kerouac was a track star and a football player. Sam was different, theatrical, the way he talked, the way he walked, the way he waved his arms. He called attention to himself by his speech and his thoughts. He recited his poetry to us, and we didn't take to it very well then." Such intolerance explains almost all the misery there is in the world.
Though Jack loved Sammy, he enjoyed his hard-won status as a champion athlete too much to risk it for love. Their relationship became an emotional quagmire, and in The Town and the City Kerouac represented it as having a dark sense of incompleteness, leaving Peter Martin, the Kerouac character, so depressed that he is "saddened by the mere sight of life." When Alexander, the Sammy character, calls Peter "the last of the human beings on earth for me," Peter backs away from him, afraid to unleash his feelings or even admit them. Alexander cries, "Everything seems gone! I know I will die young, before I'm twenty-three. What blackness is closing in on me!" Kerouac also considered suicide, he later revealed, both in an article in Life magazine and in a draft of The Town and the City.
He graduated from high school on June 28, 1939, at City Auditorium, where Mayor Archambault handed him his diploma, awarded despite his record of flagrant absenteeism and scholastic deficiencies. The latter unfortunately blocked Jack's admittance to Columbia.26 He couldn't pass French, though joual was his native tongue, and he would have to make up credits in French as well as in math, another subject he neglected in high school. The Columbia scholarship proved to be inadequate to his needs, and he'd probably have been better off going to B.C. or Duke. Before Columbia College would admit him, he had to attend high-school-level courses for a year at a Bronx prep school, Horace Mann School for Boys, for which only part of his expenses were paid. Columbia made no provision for his room and board, and Gabrielle had to prevail on her stepmother, who lived in Brooklyn, to put him up.
On his last night in Lowell, Jack Kerouac dreaded leaving the security of home, but felt the inexorable pull of a world he had not even begun to imagine.
SUBTERRANEAN KEROUAC. Copyright © 1998 by Ellis Amburn. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.