Initially I was hesitant to check out The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties by Helen Weaver. I was sure that it would amount to a hagiography. Weaver had dated Kerouac for a short time in the fifties, and a lightly disguised version of the author appears as a character in one of Kerouac’s novels. However, the novel is published by City Lights in San Francisco, which is owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. This fact seems to amount to an official “Beats Seal of Approval”, so I decided to check it out.
Weaver tells an interesting story of the escape of a young woman from the Leave it to Beaver 50′s of Scarsdale, NY to the happening scene of Greenwich Village. One day, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and friends end up on her doorstep looking for a place to crash. Kerouac and Weaver begin a brief and tumultuous relationship. Ultimately, she must turn out the alcoholic and seemingly rudderless Kerouac. With the value added of hindsight, Weaver comes up with this eulogy of the relationship:
I rejected him for the same reason America rejected him. He woke us up in the middle of the night in the long dream of the fifties. He interfered with our sleep.
Naturally she means this literally for herself and figuratively for America. Weaver’s memoir also discusses her dalliances in religion and psychotherapy. She draws on these experiences to explain how the French-Canadian Kerouac’s Catholic upbringing informed his Buddhism, and how both philosophies made him who he was.
Weaver’s story also sheds light on the publishing business, in which she was employed, as it existed in the 1950′s. It sounds like little has changed since then:
It was here that I first learned that from a publisher’s point of view the author is a necessary evil: a sort of un-housebroken, hypersensitive enfant terrible who needs to be nursed along, ignores deadlines, and makes impossible demands, and that it would be a whole lot easier and more efficient to publish books without having to deal with them–except for the inconvenient fact that you need then in order to have books to publish. When an author was actually physically present in the house there was a sense of excitement in the air…as if a wild animal were loose in the halls.
The subtitle of the book, A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties, seems to lose its focus later in the book as Weaver begins to talk about the sixties and that time that she hooked up with Lenny Bruce. (She had a thing for doomed young men, apparently.) Ultimately she comes back to Jack and the changing perceptions of the Beats and their place in the world of Letters.
Weaver now lives in Woodstock and has embraced some new age ideas. She has written books about communicating with animals and astrology. She has also helpfully included complete astrology charts for the main players discussed in her memoir. I admit, she lost me completely there. In the end, Weaver’s memoir, though uneven and occasionally a little too new age-y for my tastes, is a fascinating look at the private side of Jack Kerouac and other luminaries, the Beat’s scene in 1950′s New York, and the legacy of the Beat Generation.
For more on The Awakener (including an excerpt), see City Lights’ web site.