Gerald Nicosia’s Beat Scrapbook: A Ride Home from a Lonely Party

Author Gerald Nicosia has built a career on writing books about the Beats, in particular Jack Kerouac and his family. His Kerouac bio Memory Babe (1983, 1994, 2021) was acclaimed as most authentic by notables like William Burroughs when it came out, and the praise continues. His latest, a book of poems called Beat Scrapbook, is a collection of evocative snapshots of his near-lifelong intimate association with the Beat legacy, including a close friendship with Kerouac’s cast-off daughter Jan, about whom he writes, “Aw, man you’re weird! she mocked/ in raunchiest New York accent/ but she liked playing mother to me/ and everyone around her/ maybe because no mother or father most of the time/ in her own life” (21)

Besides his writing, Jack Kerouac is known for his attachment to his mother, whom he called “Mémère”. Jack’s mother’s will, leaving everything to her late son’s wife, Stella, was ruled a forgery in 2009, but to no effect. While forgery is certainly a crime, by the time Jan Kerouac discovered it, Jack’s wife Stella was no longer alive to be prosecuted for the theft.  She had already left her brothers and sisters the Kerouac properties she had gained with the forged will, and they had been able to keep these stolen properties because of a Florida statute-of-limitations law. Jan’s lawyer Tom Brill’s efforts worked, but it didn’t matter. In years since, Jack’s inheritors have earned a reputation for censoring Jack’s manuscripts, making editorial choices for posthumous publications based more on loyalty than scholarship, and infiltrating fan-sites to monitor them and exercise editorial control if possible. None of this is illegal, but their actions don’t sit well with those preferring a more comprehensive view of the writer’s meaning and message. It bears mentioning that Nicosia is to date the only Beat scholar to make this skullduggery public.

Many of the people Nicosia eulogizes in these poems were themselves friends of Kerouac.  Of poet Jack Micheline, he writes “you gave me some paintings I’ll always cherish/ and fifteen pounds of xeroxed manuscripts/ that no one would publish/ I gave you a ride home from a lonely party in Berkeley/ one rainy night when no one else would take you” (36)  One poem remembers Kerouac’s best friend, the painter Stanley Twardowicz; and in another poem, Nicosia recalls a story Twardowicz told him about Kerouac lying drunkenly on the streetcar tracks in front of Gunther’s Bar in Northport, Long Island, hoping for a moment that all his agony would be ended by teenage drag-racers running him over.  The poem ends with Kerouac “watching Stanley [Twardowicz] toddle drunkenly/ back to his studio/ and thinking about your lonely/ house back up on the hill/ with widowed mother and too many cats” (41).

But this book is about all the Beats, including precedents and antecedents, not just the Kerouac family. Some of the characters honored herein are far less famous than Kerouac, like “the Beat Father of Chicago Poetry”, Paul Carroll: “There was nothing this man wanted/ More than the company of those/ Who liked him and his poetry/ And from that gentle need/ He created a whole world of Chicago literature/ And a community of writers/ Who learned to give more than they took” (1)

There’s a poem in this book celebrating City Lights founder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Lines from its opening: “Lawrence never let me treat him like a famous man/ I sat down to interview him/ a green 27-year-old Midwestern kid/ He said, ‘You need a better microphone than that’/ I said, ‘I don’t know where to get one’/ He said, ‘C’mon, I’ll take you’” (12). Other characters honored range from the notoriously tempestuous Gregory Corso—“the sheer energy/ you manifested/ for days on end/ with little sleep/ would amaze me like the atom bomb/ you wrote of so explosively” (67) to Richard Brautigan, to Charles Bukowski “after 70 years of people coming at him/ pleased by the magic he’s still got/ that keeps making books upstairs/ on his little Mac computer/ with the ancient radio blaring/ the best classical music/ after a day at the track” (30),

to Lenore Kandel, to Ted Berrigan, to Harold Norse and to the Ghost of Bill Burroughs, “hunched over his shiny mahogany cane/ iron grey receding hair slicked back/ elegant dark-blue Brooks brothers suit/ too big on his shrinking frame’ (51), to Ted Joans, and Janine Pommy Vega.

There is one for author Ntozake Shange called “Zake” (103), one for folksinger Steve Goodman (58), one for Vietnam veteran activist Bobby Waddell holed up in a shack and dying of hep-C (88)—who may be considered Beat in the same way as Kerouac’s nephew Paul Blake, who was forced by poverty to live in his truck for long periods, developing ill health as a result, or Neal Cassady’s father, “the Barber” Neal Cassady Sr., who had a hard time keeping body and soul together while cutting people’s hair. Beat Scrapbook also includes a poem paying tribute to Nicosia’s father, who had been forced to drop out of school at a young age because his father (Nicosia’s grandfather) had been murdered: “Daddio Pete” (63) Self-educated on the books of Jack London, Daddio Pete influenced Nicosia’s Beat sensibilities.

Notably absent from this gallery is Lew Welch, since Nicosia kept these poems mostly to people he had known personally, and Welch died before Nicosia encountered the Beats.  But the absence of Welch  is fitting, when you consider the way he walked off, never to be seen again, in 1971. It may even be considered a poetic inclusion rather than an absence, so I take it back. This book is a comprehensive catalog of Nicosia’s personal experience with writers of the Beat Generation and their legacy. Good stuff.

by Zack Kopp

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