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Jack Kerouac: The Haunted Life And Other Writings (Penguin Classics)

You do not get to write as badly as Jack Kerouac did without a great deal of practice, and recent Kerouac studies have been stoked with rediscovered juvenilia and "lost" texts.

Up to 2002 the sprawling, Thomas Wolfe-like The Town And The City was the only literary staging post on the road that turned Jean-Louis Kerouac into Saint Jack Of The Beats. Then a 1944-45 novella called Orpheus Emerged appeared, followed by a first collaboration with William Burroughs under the alarming title And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks. Two years ago it was the turn of The Sea Is My Brother, appearing first in Slovak, bizarrely. Written off the back of Jack's very brief service in the US Merchant Marine, it was rightly characterised by him as a "crock".

So where does The Haunted Life fit into this seemingly endless regress? It was written in 1944, at a difficult and emotional time for Kerouac, shortly after his friend Sebastian Sampas, a non-combatant, was killed in action at Anzio and during the furore that surrounded Lucien Carr's fatal stabbing of David Kammerer in New York. The manuscript is just one of many that Kerouac worked on during this period and as he struggled to find an idiom.

His surrogate in the story, Peter Martin, lives in the small New England town of Galloway (a re-imagined version of Lowell, Massachusetts) inhabiting a den-like room in the family home stacked with notes, manuscripts, honoured and second-rank books ranging from the Bible (never to be underestimated as a source for Kerouac) and Thoreau to William Saroyan and the "Hemingway-Fitzgerald-Dos Passos group".

Where the setting seems to depart from autobiographical fact is in the person of Peter's father, a ranting populist and avid follower of Father Charles Coughlin's anti-New Deal broadcasts, whose rightward swing anticipated the way America was heading after the war. In contrast to Martin senior, Jack describes Leo Kerouac in an associated sketch included here as the most honest of men, a loving father and Christian spirit.

That Peter's emergence from the chrysalis needs some kind of climatic and environmental tension is obvious, but father and son's wrestling with the radio dial is too obviously schematic; Peter wants to listen to Benny Goodman (a Jew who had fronted the first inter-racial jazz group to achieve stardom), while his father revels in conspiracy stories about Semites and Africans.

The element of music is, however, centrally important to what's going on in The Haunted Life. The autobiographical element, inspired by Jack's understanding that he has to emulate his friends Sampas and Billy Chandler and cut even loving ties, is less important than a young writer's attempt to find the music in his prose.

Along with all those books and papers Peter gathers is an interesting array of records, ranging from Goodman, Artie Shaw, late Swing and early bop to Delius, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and, strikingly, Shostakovich, whose wartime music was to reach an international audience and to suggest how autobiography, anger and resistance could (and necessarily had to be) expressed covertly and wordlessly.

Editor Todd Tietchen spins out the notion that, as for Shostakovich, who regarded every piece he wrote as a memorial for someone lost in war or Terror, Kerouac formed the notion of writing as a kind of romantic necrology, a way of keeping dead spirits alive in an almost physical realm. Read in this light, A Haunted Life makes a more vivid sense. Heard symphonically rather than as "spontaneous bop prosody", it works at an aural level, its steady, slightly solemn periods a workmanlike piece of modern, but not modernist, composition.

The most important lesson of the novella, as of its posthumous predecessors, is that there really is no such thing as the dramatic, fully formed literary debut. There is always forematter and waste. Perhaps these youthful excursions really are not meant to be shared, but there are important lessons in them, not least that genius is nothing more than hard labour.

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