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What Happened Later

by Ray Robertson

“He honored life” – so reads Jack Kerouac’s tombstone. Ray Robertson does his best to honour Kerouac’s life in his fifth novel. What Happened Later depicts Kerouac’s latter stages of existence while also detailing the smalltown Ontario adolescence of a teenager named Ray Robertson. Thus, the novel reveals both the book-mad, girl-groping start and the booze- and drug-fuelled decline of The Artist.

The reflective first-person narrator in the Robertson chapters tracks a teen’s journey from the music of the Doors to Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian. En route, the young Robertson begins a futile hunt for On the Road, a novel beloved by Doors frontman Jim Morrison, and one that the boy just knows will become his own favourite. Robertson-the-writer contrasts the external world of early-1980s Chatham – its lawnmower roar, T-ball thwack, air conditioner drone – with the interior world of an otherness-starved teen who reads about Kerouac’s mysterious athlete-poet hands before “setting the book down on the bed and looking at my own hands. Looking, and wondering, wondering…”

The Kerouac chapters chronicle the writer being ferried by his friend (and surrogate mother figure) Joe Chaput as they road-trip north from Lowell, Massachusetts, to Rivière-du-Loup, Quebec, in search of Kerouac’s paternal grandfather’s farm. The 1967 Kerouac can’t start his day without brandy and bennies, but the novel frequently flashes back to his athletic and working-writer past.

Robertson, in imagistic prose, moves adroitly between his own fictionalized youth and the story of the steadily weakening Kerouac. Chaput is one of the novel’s finely etched minor characters, answering questions about Kerouac thus: “He’s a great bunch of guys.” Only the book’s italicized dialogue mars the style; it’s as if Robertson wanted to do something different, after the quotation mark-less dialogue of Cormac McCarthy et al.

Still, what we have in What Happened Later is an ambitious, dramatic, and creative memoir. Robertson, who has mined his own life for fiction before in 2005’s Gently Down the Stream, has written a novel that attests to his ongoing fascination with the artistic life. Clearly, it’s what he knows best.