The Haunted Life, by Jack Kerouac

A charming, “lost novella” from the beloved Beat writer.

Rather than just a novella, editor and English professor Tietchen presents a volume featuring part one of the novel that Kerouac had planned, complete with sketches and notes for the rest of the novel. The narrative establishes the protagonist Peter whiling away a Summer in his hometown, a fictionalised version of Lowell, Massachusetts, thinking about women, poetry and his sports scholarship at college. The idylls of picket fences and the family discussing world affairs at the kitchen table is set at the eve of America’s involvement in WWII. Peter’s absent older brother has already long left for a military life and acts as a ghostly presence of the coming change.

The slim volume of The Haunted Life lulls the reader into the luxuriant nature of Pete’s youth: he gets drunk in the daytime, exchanges quips and snatches of poetry with his friends, and stumbles over chat up lines with a local beauty. Debating whether to leave college to join the army, the rumbles of war make Peter’s hometown a comforting paradise he will never be able to return to. Kerouac’s writing is deft and shrewd with portrayals of belligerent relatives and local haunts that Peter drifts in and out of.

The subsequent chapters are sketches by Kerouac that show how the novel would have developed. His ideas for the novel stretch over decades, and Peter and his family would have been variously affected by the war. Peter would have continued his debates over the nature of America, life and death and how the world is rapidly changing. Kerouac’s focused and in-depth sketches feel like a socioeconomic study of the era and give great insight into Kerouac’s observations of the time.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the work is a selection of letters and short stories written by Jacks’ father, Leo, to his son, from the mid 1940’s. Leo’s fatherly advice is energetic and affectionate (‘Dig in Jack! Get it all. Keep away from Lowell… If you’re drafted take it with good grace. Don’t be a slacker and put yourself behind the 8-ball’) and his short stories are surprisingly beautiful.

The contrast between the three parts of the work is pleasantly surprising and clearly picked with deliberation and assured literary scholarship. Due to the nature of the work – picking out the subsidiary material to Kerouac’s fully-formed novels – it’s definitely one for those who have enjoyed Kerouac’s other works. Tietchen has compiled a work that is a wonderful addition to Kerouac’s body of work.

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General fiction reviewer and generally bumbling Literature graduate. Having recently moved from London to Wellington, she’s still getting to grips with the Kiwi accent, not having to queue for everything or saying ‘sorry’ constantly. Her literary tastes sway towards modernists, novels featuring moany women (Madam Bovary) and authors with a filthy sense of humour (Henry Miller). Read more at jazzcroftjc.wordpress.com

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