I’ve known I was going to write this book ever since that day in November 1956 when Jack Kerouac and his friends landed on my doorstep and he entered my living room, my bedroom, and my life. For the story of how I met Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and how Jack and I fell in love at first sight, go to Prologue.
But why did it take me over fifty years?
Joyce Johnson, my former rival for Jack’s affections, published Minor Characters in 1983. Carolyn Cassady, Neal Cassady’s wife and Jack’s lover, had given us Off the Road by 1990 and Nobody’s Wife, by Jack’s first wife Joan Haverty Kerouac, came out that same year.
I’ve always felt I had a responsibility to present my little slice of history to the world; and given the Kerouac charisma, I knew it would be published, even if it wasn’t any good.
But I wanted it to be good! And I was intimidated by the books of these women who had managed to stay with Jack a little longer than me. Like a lot of geniuses, he wasn’t that easy to live with. I had a hard time with the drinking and the late hours, and after a couple of months I asked him to leave.
In 1990, I finally got serious about the book. The catalyst was going to Lowell.
Some of Jack’s biographers write as if it was some kind of a miracle that a great writer could come out of such an awful place, so I was not prepared to discover that Lowell is beautiful. The industrial revolution started in Lowell, and those red brick factories are the oldest ones in America.
At the Kerouac Commemorative in Eastern Canal Park passages from ten of Jack’s books are inscribed on eight columns of polished granite that are arranged in a kind of Christian-Buddhist mandala that forms a cross within a circle.
Standing in front of the granite slab on which the opening lines of On the Road are engraved, I was moved by Lowell’s recognition of its native son.
I remembered all the contempt that had been poured on Jack’s writing, how Truman Capote had sneered, “It’s not writing—it’s typing!” And I thought, Nobody has engraved his words on stone.
As I began rereading Jack’s books—and reading some I had never bothered to read—I realized that like most of mainstream America, I had seriously underestimated Kerouac as a writer. I felt that we all owed him an apology. I began to see the writing of my book as an act of atonement.
Still, I struggled for years to get it right. Was I writing an autobiography or a memoir? Was I barking up the wrong genre?
My confusion was reflected by my inability to come up with a title. It’s pretty hard to name something when you don’t know what it is.
At last, with a lot of help from my friends, I stumbled onto the right shape. And one day, like a bolt out of the blue, the title came.
Why “The Awakener”?
For at least four reasons.
First, a silly one: because when Jack lived with me, I couldn’t get enough sleep.
But on another level, his books—especially On the Road—woke up an entire generation, from the long dream of the fifties.
And through books like The Dharma Bums, Jack played an important role in introducing Buddhism to America. That was a major wake-up call, for the very word Buddha is Sanskrit for “awakened one.”
Finally, there’s an astrological reason which is way too technical to go into here, but it has to do with the prominence in the charts of the whole Beat generation of the planet Uranus, which rules revolution and art, and is known to astrologers as “the Awakener.”
So I guess you could say the title—and maybe the whole book—was written in the stars.
For a meditation on Jack’s voice, go to Epilogue.
For the whole story, including my adventures with Allen Ginsberg and Lenny Bruce (yes, I snuck in a little about the sixties), you’ll have to read the book!