In 1944, when he was 22, Jack Kerouac lost a manuscript — in a taxi, as he thought, but probably in Allen Ginsberg’s room at Columbia University — and it stayed lost until 2002, when it was auctioned at Sotheby’s. Now it has been published, all 70 pages of it, together with some youthful sketches and some letters between Kerouac and his father, in an edition by a professor at Lowell, Massachusetts, Kerouac’s home town.
The Haunted Life is billed as a novella, but turns out to be the first part — ‘Home’ — of a projected novel, to be completed by ‘War’ and ‘Change’. Set in 1941, it is a coming-of-age story.
Like Kerouac, the story’s hero Peter Martin is of French ancestry and has grown up in a Massachusetts town (‘Galloway’) to become a college athlete of literary inclination. Like Kerouac, he is at odds with his father, who drinks and gambles and has unenlightened views about the war, and ‘Roosevelt and the Jews and the British Empire!’ And, like Kerouac, he has close male friends with whom he dreams of driving to California.
The novelist’s ambition is signaled by epigraphs from Milton, Proust and Rimbaud, and his inexperience by his gauche way with adverbs — characters chuckle ‘mildly’, snicker ‘uncontrollably’ and laugh ‘savagely’.
Specialists will find this volume invaluable, displaying as it does what Professor Tietchen calls Kerouac’s ‘literary concerns in their embryonic vestiges’, but the general reader is advised to give it a miss.