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Kerouac’s Ghost

by Ken McGoogan

Back in 1993, Ken McGoogan, literary editor of the Calgary Herald, published a novel called Visions of Kerouac. This was an ebullient, unapologetically Kerouac-obsessed coming-of-age story. Its hero and main narrator, Frankie McCracken, was a kid from small town Quebec who, like his idol, goes on the road to seek the Larger Life, and his own spiritual self. He hits the big towns from Montreal and Toronto, to Chicago, Boston, New York, and the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco.

This was, after all, the ’60s.

What gave that book its lift and quirkiness was Frankie’s obsession with Kerouac. On the Road is, of course, the novel that galvanized thousands of adventure-seekers to hit the road and write about it. McGoogan even gives the dead Kerouac his own chapters to narrate. He pays a visit (or should I say “visitation”) to our hero on Mount Jubilation where Frankie is working as a fire spotter, a job Kerouac made famous years earlier. A skeptical Frankie is assured by this Jack-incarnation that “somehow we’re linked outside of Time.”

But the heart of the book is Frankie’s own road tale, full of comic scenes, misadventures, and speculations on the nature of Kerouac’s gift. Was he truly the King of the Beats? Did alcoholism cause the disintegration of his talent? And how important was his French Canadian background? Most of all it is about the obsession Frankie McCracken feels for his mentor, how he acts on it, and finds himself fusing with Kerouac’s spirit-self.

Now, with a different publisher, McGoogan has published a second version of his book, retitled Kerouac’s Ghost.

I couldn’t resist reading these two books one after the other. How often do we get to see the process of novel-making, unless we have access to university archives? Usually, rewrites are made privately, and only one version of the novel, however imperfect, is sent into the world.

McGoogan, in his second go, has recast the novel’s point of view and source of obsession. In the first book, the frame is an adult Frankie revisiting his old haunts in the Haight with his wife, Camille. Camille won’t allow him to romanticize Kerouac; she’s hot to prove the progress of the author’s alcoholism, reduce him to a disease. Frankie resists, of course. His idol, the King of the Beats, was not simply a booze hound.

This frame is dropped in the revision. We never see Frankie as a mature man, looking back at his young, naive self. The point of view has changed and the story is being told by none other than Jack Kerouac’s ghost. This presents a few problems. Many readers know Kerouac’s work intimately and will be convinced that they know how his prose sounds and thinks. Comparisons are inevitable.

And will the reader believe that this ghost of Jack Kerouac is gazing fondly at the young, flailing Frankie, recognizing parallel aspects of their lives (alcoholic father, search for God, the French Canadian background) and telling his story?

Why would Kerouac be obsessed with this young Seeker who flees his small town to find out about himself and the world? Sure, he sees parts of his own life being replayed – but Frankie’s story is the story of hundreds of young men at the time. I never felt an emotional charge between the two in this second book that would explain this choice of narrator. Usually when the point of view is changed, the story changes drastically. Yet Kerouac’s filter of consciousness barely changes the narrative, or even the way of telling it. So the scenes that McGoogan wrote in the first version: Frankie screwing up in Boston, Frankie in the flophouse, Frankie toking up with his pal Toby who manifests himself as the devil, remain nearly identical in version two – except the pronoun has been changed – the “I” becomes “he.”

Sometimes the correspondences that Kerouac makes between his life and Frankie’s feel strained, as if he has to keep reminding the reader who is telling this tale. We end up with transitions like: “While Frankie McCracken was in San Francisco, barely surviving his baptism of fire, water and foreign substances, I was in Lowell, Massachusetts, writing Vanity of Dulouz….”

Where the first novel was, to a large extent, a kind of dialogue with the self about Kerouac and the meaning of his work and life, this second is much more focussed on Frankie’s spiritual awakening.The young traveler meets fellow seekers who introduce him to acid and oddball procedures involving astral travel and prisms. All of which Frankie avidly laps up. When a seer tells him that he used to be a disciple of Jesus, Frankie bites. He charges off to find the other disciples, baptizes himself on Ocean Beach, writes a religious tract, and becomes an evangelist nag who berates his parents for their bad habits and free spending. Many of these scenes occur in the first book. But now, by eliminating the digressions (why Kerouac drank himself to death and the Quebec vs. U.S. interpretation of his significance), McGoogan underlines the spiritual theme with a heavier hand.

How are we to take this born-again Frankie? He seems so sincere, and Kerouac completely sympathetic to his yearnings. There isn’t a cynical bone in either man’s body. We’d all love a non-judgmental biographer such as this fictional Jack Kerouac. Yet without any tension between the two characters, the concept lacks bite. Why doesn’t Kerouac get impatient with his young hero? Why don’t his toes curl in embarrassment at his antics? Visions of Kerouac felt, in its less disciplined and more rambunctious way, more imbued with the Beat spirit.

Why did McGoogan choose to retell his tale? Perhaps a clue comes from Kerouac’s ghost who exhorts his youthful alter-ego: “I’m telling you , Frankie, that RE-vision is all. Change your vision and the rest will follow.”