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Lowell, MA: Jack Kerouac

She giggled again. “I heard he was a degenerate. I really don’t know much about him. None of my friends knows who he is.”

This seemed to be a common Lowell line on Kerouac at the time. The owner of a used-book store gave me a sour look after I bought a Kerouac button and grunted, “He was a boozer. People here didn’t think much of his lifestyle. He was an original writer, maybe, but people were embarrassed about him.”

But the boozer had his champions, foremost among them Paul Marion, a poet who was also the cultural-affairs director of the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission. It took years of arguing that if Lowell could rehabilitate its stifling sweatshops and turn the mill girls into local heroines, then surely a spot could be found for the city’s most famous writer. At last the city council designated a section of the new Eastern Canal Park for a monument.

It is possible to divide Jack Kerouac’s novels into two piles. In one pile, by far the largest, are his true-story novels about the Beat generation. These are the books that most people associate with Kerouac, the ones that have secured his literary reputation. The other pile consists of four relatively obscure books: Dr. Sax, which is about Kerouac’s childhood and teenage years; Maggie Cassidy, about his first love affair; Visions of Gerard, about the death of his brother; and Vanity of Duluoz, about his high school athletic exploits. In these books young Jack scores the touchdowns, chases the innocent Catholic girls of his adolescence, and roams the streets with a gang of uncomplicated guys.

This is the Kerouac that Lowell remembers.

The next day, the crowd for the Classic Jack is so large that the little tour bus has to be scrapped in favor of a larger city bus. The early stages of the Classic Jack seem to be one nondescript house after another. Between 1925 and 1930, Jack’s father moved the family five times. I can feel Kerouac aging as we pass from house to house, can sense the strands twisting to become the rope of his talent. In the Lowell novels, Kerouac portrays himself as a wild, rambunctious kid, but that’s not the way friends remember him. They thought of him principally as an excellent athlete.

At a symposium held at Salem State College after his death and attended by some of Jack’s fellow Beat writers, one of his childhood friends stood up and said, “Jack Kerouac, when I knew him, was a clean-cut kid. But when he left Lowell and took up with you guys, you screwed him all up with booze, drugs, and all that Beat bullshit.”

A few days later a letter appeared in the Lowell Sun. “After Jack’s death, if you read about him and did not know him as we do,” it said, “you would picture him as a drunken bum who had a way with words and could write books. . . .We want people to know that for half of his life Kerouac was a kind, hardworking, good-natured friend.”

He died in Florida, on October 21, 1969. The funeral was held at St. Jean Baptiste church, which was unusual because it wasn’t one of the parishes where the Kerouacs had lived. It took place there, Reggie surmises, because the priests of Jack’s original parishes were too uptight to bury such a great sinner.

“In St. Jean Baptiste we had a great priest, Father Spike Morissette. He has never said anything against Jack. If you go into the Rainbow Cafe, there’s a room there called ‘the Jack Kerouac Room’ and in the back there’s a picture of a smiling priest. That’s Father Spike. And underneath it says, ‘Jack’s priest.’ ”

Kerouac’s grave was instantly recognizable — it is a simple square stone set in the ground. Upon it are the words, “Ti-Jean, John L. Kerouac, March 12, 1922-October 21, 1969 — He Honored Life.”

Around it lay empty beer bottles, a Bacardi rum bottle, a hubcap with some money and pebbles in it, a plastic cigarette lighter, a plastic oil-additive container, and — the most provocative offering — a small American flag, the kind a little kid might wave at a Fourth of July parade, one end spearing a piece of paper to the turf, the other supporting a tattered porkpie hat.

Reggie had asked Roger to prepare something appropriate for the graveside, but Roger said he didn’t feel like reading anything. Reggie looked surprised. “You do one if you want to,” Roger said. But Reggie was equally unprepared. The Classic Jack tour was threatening to climax in roughly the same manner as Jack, with a shrug and a mumble.

“Does anyone have anything to say?” Roger asked. He noticed the flag. “Somebody wrote something over here, maybe I should read this.” Gingerly he disengaged the paper and scrutinized it. It was, he announced, a poem from someone called “Mojo.” He read it out loud.

To Jack,
A man whose life did not lack
The luster of the wrong side of the tracks.
Oh Jack,
They sing of you and smoke crack.
We wait for the day you will come back,
and the negative feelings we will not hack

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Updated Thursday, August 20th, 2009

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