Jack Kerouac: ‘The Night And What It Does to You’
October 30, 1969
LOWELL, Massachusetts — Jack Kerouac, the man who unwillingly named a generational sensibility and wrote an American classic, died on Tuesday, October 21. He was buried here on Friday, October 24, and I went up with mingled feelings (warmth, regret, a patronizing curiosity, an obscure kind of longing to pay homage) to witness his funeral.
I traveled by plane to Boston, and then by a commuters’ train the 26 miles to the small manufacturing town of Lowell where Kerouac grew up, and from which he continually, repeatedly bolted for the whole of his life. I decided to walk the mile or so from the station to the Church of St. Jean-Baptiste where Kerouac was to be buried. I wanted to look the town over and think a bit about what he might have seen on these streets.
It was a brilliant, very cold, very clear day, and the four and five-story buildings of brick or stone that lined Lowell’s narrow streets looked cut out against the cloudless blue sky; the sun danced, the air sparkled, the distant trees tossed their yellow and red and brown leaves and it seemed especially indecent that Jack Kerouac lay dead 10 or 20 blocks from where I now walked. What I found most remarkable in the town was the friendliness of the people. The garbage man said “Good morning, dear” and didn’t ogle me; a grocery delivery man said: “Oh, it’s a day for your mittens, dearie!” and laughed in the sun; a waitress in a diner gave me coffee and we talked for 10 minutes about how we were both getting colds, the weather was changing so suddenly; the counterman strained to give me exact directions to the church and in the end offered to take me over there himself.
The church, on Merrimack Street, one of the large arterial streets of the town, was enormous, a testament to the position and prosperity of the French Canadian Catholics of Lowell, among whom Kerouac came of age: massive gray stone, lots of stained glass, statues in carved draperies, steep steps. I was early, the church was locked; but the rectory next door was open and I was made welcome there by Father Armand Morissette, the priest who would later deliver the eulogizing mass. He offered me coffee and proceeded to talk briskly and smilingly about Kerouac.
“Yes, Jack grew up in this church; he always came back here, always. He called me Father Spike; he said one day he would write a book named ‘Father Spike.’ But he never did. You know he used to come here often for comfort and for consolation and yes, we had many, many fine talks, Jack and I. You know, he had a real spirit, Jack did. He had such a zest for life; he understood that the universe belongs to each of us, not all of us, but each of us. And after all, that’s what Jesus Christ was all about, wasn’t He? Yes, Jack and I had lots of talks, lots of talks. Right here in this room.” I listened silently to the good father and noticed, curiously, that he wore a toupee.
In the rectory hall stood a man with a red face, a bulbous nose, a raincoat, a pad of lined paper, and a pencil. I introduced myself and he said he was from the Boston Globe. “Say, kid, what the hell is this all about? I mean, you know who any of these famous writers are who are supposed to show up? Can you point them out to me? I mean, I’m strictly a cops-and-robbers reporter myself.” I said sure, I’d point them out to him, and he agreed to drive me over to the funeral home where Kerouac’s body was laid out, and where the mourners were now all gathered.
The funeral home was named Archambault and the street was Pawtucket. It was interesting and, of course, ironic that Kerouac had written of this street often; it had been the center of the distant and wealthy “town” he had had no part of and had resented so heartily and so complexly; now the street’s aloof mansions had been turned into French-Canadian and Irish funeral parlors and he was being buried out of one of them. I walked under a canopy extending from the curb to the door, up wooden steps, and onto silent, heavily carpeted floors filled with standing wreaths and standing mourners. At the end of the double room in which we all stood the open casket containing Kerouac’s body was placed, with two carpeted steps for kneeling in front of it. Couches and chairs were scattered, with people sitting on them, and others milling all around before them. The crowd was almost entirely composed of family and friends from Lowell. I realized there were two distinctive kinds of faces there: sharp-featured Northern faces, and sallow, drooping-eyed faces; I remembered then that Kerouac’s last wife was a Greek woman from Lowell, and realized that many of these people must be her relatives, as well as Kerouac’s. What was most interesting, however, was the resemblances rather than the differences among the people present. Nearly everyone there looked so well-fed. They generated the atmosphere of neat, decent, fairly prosperous burghers who have worked hard and steadily for what they have and whose lives are now in order. I was reminded, irresistibly, of the democratic and impersonal friendliness I had found in the town’s streets; I felt it everywhere in this room. It was hard to imagine, with all this composure, that these people had really known Kerouac; but then I remembered the funerals of my own family and I realized, resignedly, that of course they were probably all intimate relations.
Only one person in that room had upon her face that terrible, unmistakable confusion that deep and genuine grief causes. She was a middle-aged woman sitting on a couch in the seat nearest the casket. Her face, utterly void of makeup, was worn and sallow; behind rimless glasses her eyes were terribly anxious; her hair was short and gray, her dress black and long; she sat sort of hunched forward, responding distractedly to the procession of faces that bent, one after another, over her. At first I thought it was Kerouac’s mother, but quickly changed my mind; his mother was supposed to be really old. (I learned later that hie mother was hopelessly bedridden in St. Petersburg, Florida. It had been utterly out of the question, her coming up to Lowell to help bury her devoted son.) Was this woman a relative of his wife? Which one was his wife, anyway? Well, whoever she was, there was no doubt that she had loved Kerouac, and felt his loss keenly.
On the other side of the room, and at the other end of the casket, were two chairs together, separated from the rest. On them sat Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, hands folded quietly on their laps, gazing intently at the casket. They looked calm and good, as though their emotions were in order, and they at peace; I had been told by Father Morissette that the night before they had placed a wreath of flowers upon Kerouac’s body, and that they had knelt and wept. Ginsberg’s long hair and beard were pressed neatly down; he wore a pair of chinos and a navy blue nylon parka and clasped a worn-looking woven Greek bag. Neither he nor Orlovsky appeared to have aged much in the last 10 years.
And then there was the casket. And in the casket Jack Kerouac. I walked across the room, took a deep breath, and stood beside the open box. Kerouac lay there, hands folded, eyes closed, dressed in a white shirt, a little bow tie, a hound’s-tooth jacket. His black hair was cut short and neatly combed aside. His face was a waxen cosmetic mask that bore no resemblance whatever to the appearance of a human face; in fact, it looked as though beneath the makeup and the rouged lips and cheeks there was surely some plastic composition, such as a mannequin in a window display might be made of. What can I say? He was hideous to look upon. He had been stripped of all his ravaging joy. They had turned him into what they probably thought he should have been all along: a decent, properly dead Lowell businessman.
I retreated into the open hallway and stood looking at the big guest book propped on a lectern; a man beside me began to talk to me; he was Joe Chaput, a proofreader for the Lowell Courier and an old, old friend of Kerouac’s; in fact, it was Chaput who had driven Kerouac and his wife and mother down to St. Petersburg the year before.
“That was some trip,” Chaput said, “I drove all the way; Jack used to say there was only one driver in the world better than me, and that was Neal Cassady. We spread mattresses across the back of this station wagon and Jack’s mother and his wife spread out on them; and me and Jack in front. He talked and drank all the way down. Talked and drank. Never stopped. God, he was great.”
Chaput turned and introduced me to a large crowd of neat Northern faces over big bellies inside tweed overcoats; they were all Kerouac cousins; they shook my hand vigorously and smiled warmly. And then, suddenly, there was John Clellon Holmes in the crowd. Holmes had known Kerouac for more than 20 years.
“Were you shocked by Kerouac’s death?” I asked him.
“God, yes,” he said.
“No. Not really. The man drank so damn much. He’d get lonely. He was always living where nothing was happening, no one to talk to. But then, he seemed to want to be alone … ”
Gregory Corso appeared, in a long black coat and a black Indian headband around his black black hair, and threaded his way through the relatives, his eye pressed to one end of a big black camera with a snout a foot long. He moved in and out, he knelt, he hovered, he leaped back and forth, getting old Jack’s funeral responsibly on film.
After a while, Ginsberg was sitting alone. I went over to him, introduced myself, and sat down next to him. He said to me:
“Have you talked to Mrs. Kerouac?”
“No. I don’t even know who she is.” He pointed to the grieving middle-aged lady I’d been watching. “That’s her,” he said.
“Oh!” I said. “Oh, no. I couldn’t go over to her.”
“Why not?” he eyed me coolly. “You’re a reporter, aren’t you? Well, that’s your job. Go over to her. Ask her about him, ask her what he’d been thinking about in the last month, what he’d been talking about. Otherwise you’ll have nothing but your own subjective impressions.”
I felt a sudden astonishing warmth toward him. I wanted to put my hand on his shoulder and feel his blue nylon back cupped within my arm, so firmly, so neutrally, so decently, did I feel him to be instructing me. But I did neither: I did not embrace Ginsberg and I did not disturb Mrs. Kerouac, although I did say hello to her. But when I looked into her miseried eyes I thought: O God, what could she possibly tell me? What correcting truth could she bestow on me?
And then suddenly everyone was leaving; it was time to bear the body to the church and begin the high Catholic mass celebrating the salvation of Jack Kerouac’s eternal soul. Ginsberg, one of the pallbearers, remained behind. Outside, I looked around for a ride, and entered one of the black limousines when the driver beckoned me forward. It turned out to be the family limousine, and I was wedged in between the driver and Mrs. Kerouac’s brother, while in back of us sat Mrs. Kerouac, her sister-in-law, and three Kerouac cousins. Mrs. Kerouac’s brother spoke dolefully and sincerely of Kerouac all the way to the church; he spoke of how Kerouac had been Lowell’s true biographer, of how every street in the town had had meaning for him, of how Kerouac’s life crossed the three main cultural strands of Lowell: he had been French-Canadian himself and had loved Irish Maggie Cassidy as a young man and then had married Greek Stella Sampas, this man’s sister. Behind us, his wife kept nodding eagerly at nearly every sentence; she was a well-endowed brunette in her middle 40s with a black pillbox on her head and a mink collar on her coat. She spoke smilingly of how crowded the town had become and how she had written something about it, and then one of the Kerouac cousins said: “You write too, don’t you?” and very quickly she said: “Yes, I do.”
I heard her speaking for a few furiously fast seconds to Mrs. Kerouac, saying something like: “She’s going to write it … ,” then silence. I didn’t know what to make of it or what to do. Finally, I twisted around in my seat and said miserably: “Mrs. Kerouac, is there something you’d like to say to me?”
She looked so startled, the wretched woman. “No,” she said softly, bitterly. “There’s nothing I want to say.” And she stared relentlessly at the floor of the car until we pulled up to the church.
Inside, the 200 or so of us were scattered throughout the cavernous church. I sat down between the two Boston reporters there, and noticed Jimmy Breslin, looking burly and penitent, sitting directly in front of me. The priest began his mass. He read from St. John the Blessed in the Book of the Apocalypse: “They shall rest from their labors for they shall take their works with them.” And the mass went on and on; and they shook incense out of ornamental gold shakers; and then the lovely aching sound of Catholic voices raised in the sweetness of pure lament; and then the priest spoke again, this time in English; and then, again, the healing singing. And suddenly in the midst of the whole thing I had the unmistakable feeling that Kerouac was hovering somewhere, in the air above our heads looking down on all of us, sort of embarrassed, sort of bewildered, and saying: Jeezus, what’s all this got to do with me? And I thought: God, yes! Where are you, Kerouac, in all this? What are you doing here among middle-class businessmen and pontificating priests and Jewish gurus and patronizing intellectuals and cops-and-robbers reporters? Where are you, you poor dislocated bastard, in this elaborate appropriation of Jack Kerouac: the Man and the Myth?
And Kerouac answered me sadly: Oh, I’m a little here. That’s the whole trouble. I’m a little here.
* * *
In “On the Road” Kerouac’s narrator, Sal, explains why an affair he’s having is bound to end: “Lucille would never understand me because I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop. This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer except my own confusion.”
Sitting there in that church I remembered the passage and I felt then that that was what Kerouac was all about until the last day of his 47 years. And that, also, was why he was a “little here,” and why all these people could claim him in death as they had claimed him in life, and why he stood still and smiled, and let everyone pick at him for a while, and he even feebly picked back, because it gets so lonely, so damn lonely out there with the falling stars and the confusion, and a man needs to feel a part of things; but ah, then it would be no good at all, and he’d get off by himself and go leaping across the continent and get roaring drunk and those fabulous yellow Roman candles would burst again and then he’d come back, always back. And that compulsive lusting after life went restlessly on and on and on, and when he lost the will or the strength or the taste for it, he lost everything, because Kerouac was one of those men in whom the proportions are mixed just a bit differently than in the rest of us. In him that youthful lunging after sensation was wider, deeper, fuller than in most men; it filled him up and left no room for aging and for moderation; as a result, his youngmanhood was a metaphor for the entire adolescent sharpness of response; all that he had in the way of courage and conviction and sweetness and clarity and ripping urgency and glorious lunging was dumped onto that narrow ribbon of road, and on the pages of his books there is captured, for all of us, those amazing rhythms that sing in the blood and wash through the head and gratify the belly when one lives through the senses. At his best, Kerouac is a man strapped to the globe, first on his back and then on his belly, gulping and hugging, gulping and hugging.
Kerouac was a true American original, in the direct line of men like Jack London and Thomas Wolfe and Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser and Norman Mailer; men not of exquisite European sensibility or tragic Russian depths but of enormous American appetite; men who understood appetite in their brains and in their balls and in their inflamed nerve endings; in their wet dreams and egalitarian surroundings, and in their amazing grasp of the raw sweep of this country; men who not only understood appetite, but also that appetite was what America was all about, and that America, like most of them, would die forever young.
Kerouac, like all the rest before him, was powerfully dislocated by his appetite, and bewildered by what it brought him. He was bewildered by his fame, bewildered by being told he was a founder of the Beat Generation, bewildered, I am willing to bet, as much by the New York poets and intellectuals as he was, ultimately, by the good folk from Lowell whom he increasingly could not return to. For what he had, he had full strength, and to have anything full strength (especially something which outlives itself) is to insure increasing isolation; and isolation is an outrage to the emotions and a bewilderment to the soul. Lonely is hardly the word for what the inside of Jack Kerouac’s later life must have been like …
I took my place in the procession to a charming cemetery filled with sunlight and crunching leaves and tossing colored trees and we gathered around that meaningless box once more and listened to some more mumbo-jumbo for a while and then we all went away, and Kerouac was left alone to transcend it all, and I hoped that he could know that at any minute now another one, just like him, was getting ready to surface into American life.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 4, 2020