The Electric Review

 

The Beat Generation is known for the ground-breaking work of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder, among a handful of others–men who literally changed the way the world absorbed its literature, changing the solitary rhythms of the American dialect.

However, the Beat Generation is remembered as a mostly male-dominated movement – the huge collective presence of Kerouac and Ginsberg pushing past its female voices (who nonetheless remain such a vital and original part of the era, as evinced by the work of Diane di Prima and Anne Waldman).

Bluntly, it must have been difficult for any woman to clash with the big personalities of a Burroughs or Kenneth Rexroth – men who often stole the show just by being there. Thus, when we have the opportunity to gain a woman’s perspective on this captivating period, we must savor it.

In The Awakener, the reader is introduced to Helen Weaver, who knew Kerouac in the fifties when he slit open the belly of the sky and filled it with the poem-blood of his soul. Weaver was his friend and lover and she is the one woman in his life whom we don’t really know all that much about (even though she appears as Ruth Heaper in Kerouac’s brawling confessional novel Desolation Angels.

As we read through this memoir, we are presented with an intimate glimpse of a Kerouac now far removed from his mother and the specter of his fame. As Weaver paints him here, Jack appears to be a blank contradiction: On one hand, we have a lonely man in search of a lover – hungry for softness and connection. But blink again and we are staring at the mirrored eyes of a poet too disconnected with the idea of relationship to give a woman all that she needs, wants and craves.

Simply, Kerouac was moving on that fast train down that fast road, consumed by the melody and motion of words, drunk on the taste of his own mind; from what we learn here, it appear s that he couldn’t slow down enough to see that he’d found something real in Helen Weaver (something that most likely scared the hell out of both of them).

And Weaver writes: “On the evening of Monday, January 14, I asked Jack to leave. I hated myself for doing it – felt pompous and self-righteous and ached for his dazed face that couldn’t look into mine. He hung his head and sang to himself, ‘Unrequited love’s a bore…’ I asked Jack to leave not because of some proto-feminist declaration of independence on my part. I rejected him for the same reason America rejected him: he woke us up in the middle of then night in the long dream of the fifties. He interfered with our sleep…”

Obviously, Jack Kerouac was a literary genius who woke up the soul of the world with his magnificent rolling poems that went on for pages and sang the song of the self like it will never be sung again. However, Kerouac was, too, a tortured soul who withdrew from community and relationships, hovering inside himself like a frightened child with nowhere to run.

The Awakener is Helen Weaver’s story about a collection of outlaw-characters who rode into the New York night and took her heart by storm. It is also the story of Jack Kerouac’s middle years, as seen through the eyes of a woman who knew his nakedness and his shyness and his passionate splendor for life (this great lyric poet who longed for love but who nonetheless could not completely open his heart to receive it).

Yet, in true Beat-style, Weaver doesn’t stop there. Through her insightful prose and piercing honesty, she manages to paint a universal face with this book, telling the story of many-a-man living at an invisible edge. If anything, Helen Weaver wrote this book for all these human shadows who hunger to be held (but who always come to break the embrace before it becomes another cage).

Since Kerouac died in 1969, fans and scholars have been inundated with countless summaries of his life that speak of the angelic demons that drove him over the cliff-side. Still, we’ve never seen a story on him or the Beats quite like The Awakener. Believe me, this one’s as real as the song of Jean itself.

—John Aiello, The Electric Review