Poetry Dispatch No. 78 | June 5, 2006
JACK & JAN by Norbert Blei
Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of Jack Kerouac’s daughter, Jan, who died of kidney failure on June 5, l996 at the age of 44 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
First things first: she was beautiful, she was a wreck, she was a writer, she was disowned by Jack, she spent her whole life trying to get a word of acknowledgment from one of the founding fathers of the Beat Generation, whose whole life was a particular Kerouacian Tower of Babel–words and language hell-bent to reach the heavens, to redefine language and spirit in the American landscape.
“Papa can you hear me?” (I don’t know where the hell that came from. Maybe the same source that the old man tapped into and made those celestial connections that became home.)
Her mother was, Joan Haverty, his second wife, who left Kerouac when she was pregnant…a short-lived marriage at the time he was writing ON THE ROAD. Jan was born in Albany, New York on June 5, 1952. Joan would go on to live a mostly impoverished life, but with a strong mother/daughter bond.
Literary history reveals that Jack and Jan met only twice, once in 1962 at the age of 9 when Joan pressed a paternity suit upon him. A blood test revealed that he indeed was the father and was ordered to pay $52 a week in child support. Says Jack to Jan: “You’re a lovely little girl, but you’re not my daughter.” Says Jack at the hearing: “I do not admit that I am the father of this child, only that she bears my name.” (Try living the rest of you life with that Kerouac karma infiltrating your every breath.)
The second meeting, 1966, not only bordered on the surreal but was surreal. Picture the beautiful Kerouac daughter, age 15, with those Kerouac eyes, dropping by her father’s house in Lowell, Massachusetts (to make his acquaintance) while on her “on-the-road” way to Mexico, (pregnant, they say) with a boyfriend in tow. Papa Kerouac (less than sober) sits before the TV, drinking scotch, watching the Beverly Hillbillies. “Use my name,” he says to her. “Write a book.” End of conversation. End of `relationship.’ She learns of her father’s death over the radio, years later.
There was a lot of Jack in Jan, as her life would slowly reveal in a downward spiral that included drugs, alcohol, prostitution, a mental breakdown, and more, yet a bold yearning and lust as well to discover her own on-the-road life, shape in her own language—which she did in a luminous and expansive prose, which left little doubt she carried the Jack gene of spark-fire and self-destruction and could light up the dark just like her old man. All of this, and more, can be found in her two autobiographical novels, BABY DRIVER (1981) and TRAINSONG (1988). She died before completing her third novel, PARROT FEVER, which goes back to her life in Puerto Rico.
I am indebted to my friend, Gerry Nicosia of California, Keeper of the Kerouac Flame, fellow writer, (Czech ethnic cohort—we both came out of the same neighborhood, though we have never met) and brilliant biographer (MEMORY BABE, Grove Press, 1983—the definitive biography of Jack. No aficionado of Kerouac or Beat movement can afford to be without this book) for reminding me of Jack’s daughter, Jan, an this 10th anniversary of her death.
Gerry spent six years on MEMORY BABY, (a nickname from Kerouac’s childhood related to his incredible memory), traveled 50,000 miles, interviewed over 300 people, and detailed Kerouac’s life to the extent this book will never be equaled or surpassed.
I am also indebted to Gerry for this little known poem of Jan’s, “Hey, Jack!” which I chose to end this piece, though there’s so much more to say and share. (Like the fact Gerry, a close friend of Jan’s for many years, once brought her to my/our old neighborhood—Cicero and Berwyn, Il.–to eat Czech (real Bohemian food) at a favorite restaurant, Old Prague, on 22nd Street, only a few blocks from my home!)
But I’m out of time for now. To Be Continued, as they say. Here’s Jan…Bless her words and life…her own place in Kerouac’s time, and what both father and daughter left for us:
“Hey, Jack!” by Jan Kerouac 
Hey, Jack! Hey, Jack! Is that you?
This is Jan Michele, your daughter.
This is your daughter, remember?
I believe we met twice down in the Stew Pot.
Yeah, it’s me.
I’d like to talk to the cat that begat me, you dig?
I heard your voice come over the line
From out there in black telephone universe land
And I felt like the RCA Victor dog.
Oh, to be a gleeful Mad Boy back to the mists of innocence
A Beat still incubating in the unsullied womb of Beathood
Where the only specters of doom were “two bald-headed cats
Who, like, could push a button and blow us all outta here, man!”
And now, those imagined antics of Khrushchev and Ike
Have long since dissolved in the serum of history.
Immortalized by Mad Magazine
Which I used to steal from the corner candy store
H bombs drawn in so many cartoons
It’s become a cartoon, or at most the smallest measurement
Of nuclear firepower on earth.
No one seems to realize it, but I’ll tell you a secret:
The H bomb, I think, is the success secret of Japan.
If one of those sweet Beatitudinous Babes of yore
Had stood up and prophesied that in three decades
An Iranian fanatic would hold the entire publishing world hostage
If he had said
That there’d be Haitian drug gangs called posses in Kansas City
Or condoms advertised on TV
Hypos handed out on street corners
If he had dared to suggest
That in the late 80s
Soviets would be more peace-minded than the Americans
And that there would be a huge hole in the ozone from spray cans
They would have put him in a straitjacket
And carted him away to an asylum.
And there, in the nuthouse,
He might have written a monstrous work of fantasy science fiction
To make George Orwell’s 1984 look like the Wizard of Oz by comparison.
Ah, my poor father
He was such a Big Baby Noodlebrain
Too noodlebrained to exist in this world of geometric fear
Too animal saintly-headed
Too animal saintly-hooded
He was too saintly to crawl through those concrete rat mazes of tortured thought.
I’m the same kind of Baby Noodlebrain.
‘Cause I can feel him in my bones
I’m getting to know him.
I’m getting to know Little Boy Blue from the inside out.
Racing down, down madness-awkward
On Madison Avenue to Madhattan today
Freezing in the cruel cold, I wrap myself up like an Arab
Blue hat and scarf like veils and, while rushing,
Caught a glimpse in store windows.
I looked like a mad Tuareg or Berber tribesman of the Sahara
Hurtling at full tilt on a horse
Or maybe even a camel
Turquoise shrouds and veils flapping in the hot desert wind.
Only this was cold city wind
Here on the other side of the Atlantic
Which reminded me of the ancient, sunken home
Of continental driftwood
Ah, we humans must be a pretty hardy lot
to swarm all over this poor old globe, time after time
Strong as dynasties of cockroaches
In those tenements I used to live in.
You came to visit me in a tenement.
I bet you didn’t see any cockroaches
No, you were too drunk.
Well, never mind.
All your fathers wore straw hats like W. C. Fields
I wish I could say that
But, you see,
My father was the Invisible Man
But I won’t hold that against you.
1 This poem was written and partly improvised by Jan Kerouac for Marjorie Van Halteren’s radio show “Captured Voices” in WNYC radio in New York City, in 1989. Jan read it aloud against a backdrop of her father reading “Origins of the Beat Generation” on a tape made at Hunter College in l958,