The real Jack Kerouac died of internal bleeding after years of hard drinking in 1969. But what if he had taken another tack, had recovered from his downward spiral? This unique novel bravely throws out this audacious conceit, and then methodically delivers. Framed on the familiar Kerouac travelogue-meditation device, the now even more underground Kerouac has grown a beard and disguised himself, embarking on a journey from his mother's house in Florida to the hills of North Carolina. His goal is Black Mountain College, the progressive college experiment that lasted a short 24 years after its founding in 1933. His visit to the library in rural Black Mountain fortuitously introduces him to one Ruth Parker, a former student now in her seventies, who sees something in this travel writer named Jack Moriarty. She eventually commissions him to undertake writing the story of Black Mount College with the caveat only of "capturing its spirit" and not some dry historical description. Our first person narrative reflects on the internal conflict of self-destructive and creative forces that rage within him, although his continued journey leads to a kind of emotional healing.
The author has provided close to six hundred pages of an extended meditation on Kerouac, America in 1970, and the role and function of literature. This is in concert with Kerouac's own Buddhist leanings and methodologies. He has invented a patchwork of historical introspection, poetic flourish, and psychological investigation reminiscent of Dostoyevsky's "Underground Man." Both are sick men, first person interlocutors who ruthless analyze their moral failings. The character arc is long and engagingly ornate. The language ranges from prosaic to poetic in seductive evocation that drives the reader forward seeking redemption along with the novel's narrator. Like a Kerouac novel, the plot is secondary, but that does not mean drama and interest are absent. This Kerouac is perhaps more friendly, more honest, more accessible than the one so distant in time. The author clearly loves his subject, and his creative effort shows intelligence combined with a gentle handling that justifies the effort. It is courageous, not cavalier.
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