San Francisco Chronicle

 

One Sunday morning in 1956, the doorbell rang in a third-floor walkup in Greenwich Village. The occupants of the apartment were two bright, attractive women in their mid-20s, both named Helen. The H’s – as they dubbed themselves – didn’t always get along, but they both loved rocking out to Elvis Presley, sporting oversized men’s watches and giving their neighbors the impression that they were lovers (they weren’t).

Their unexpected visitors that day – novelist Jack Kerouac, poet Allen Ginsberg, and their comrades Peter and Lafcadio Orlovsky – would sweep them into a whirlwind of experiences that left the young women transformed, exhilarated and exhausted. Now the surviving H, Helen Weaver, tells the story of their encounter in a poignant memoir from City Lights called “The Awakener.”

As the primary architects of the literary movement known as the Beat Generation, Kerouac and Ginsberg were on the very cusp of fame. The novelist had found modest success with his first book, a sprawling roman à clef called “The Town and the City.” A few months earlier, Ginsberg had caused a sensation in San Francisco with the debut of his poem “Howl,” which city officials had branded obscene. The publication of Kerouac’s “On the Road” – the book that would propel the Beat Generation to international renown – was still a few months away.

At the tender age of 34, however, Kerouac already felt like an old man. Having written a whole backpack full of manuscripts that were rejected by one publisher after another (including novels later hailed as classics, like “Doctor Sax” and “The Subterraneans”), he despaired at ever seeing most of his life’s work in print. To Weaver – a spunky, well-read, tomboyishly cute refugee from the suburbs – the blue-eyed French Canadian seemed heroically sensitive and committed to his art. “Even his smiles were sad,” she writes, “and his laugh when it came was not a full-blown belly laugh, but more of a wistful, bemused chuckle.”

They fell in love at once, plunging into a tempestuous two-month affair. Recounting their time together in “Desolation Angels,” Kerouac described his energetic lovemaking with Weaver as “a big surrealistic drawing by Picasso with this and that reaching for this and that … the Garden of Eden and anything goes.” After their first night together, Weaver recalls in her own book, the novelist consecrated their union by quoting a passage from “The Song of Songs.”

“The Awakener’s” first chapters are energized by Weaver’s personal liberation at a time when America itself was starting to wake up. She smokes pot, explores the limits of her sexuality and defends Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” to high-minded literary pals like poet Richard Howard. Fans of Anatole Broyard’s “Kafka Was the Rage” will enjoy Weaver’s often hilarious sketches of the Village, with its low-rent pads offering “everything but the kitchen sink.”

But the most touching moments in the book take place when Weaver focuses her keen powers of observation on the soul of her wounded hero. After a series of crazy scenes, she becomes disillusioned with Kerouac’s homegrown hybrid of guilt-ridden Catholicism and Buddhist insistence that “It’s all a dream.” It was as if he’d siphoned off the worst aspects of both traditions to excuse his own excesses, particularly his increasing dependence on alcohol. After a fight, Weaver writes him a heartbroken note that spoke for any number of the novelist’s friends and lovers: “You’ll probably go to your grave insisting that women (I) never want you to Have Fun. If it were only fun – that state you seek is death, annihilation, the end of your art.”

When she finally asks Kerouac to find his own apartment, he promptly moves in with another young muse, Joyce Johnson, who penned her own worthy memoir, “Minor Characters.” Weaver’s note proved prophetic. In 1969, Kerouac died in Florida of internal hemorrhaging caused by cirrhosis of the liver, the classic drunkard’s death.

Weaver’s life, however, was just getting under way, with other revelations and other lovers – including Lenny Bruce – to come. She became an acclaimed translator of Antonin Artaud’s poetry and co-authored the “Larousse Encyclopedia of Astrology.” “The fifties were (Kerouac’s) decade,” she explains. “The sixties were mine.”

But as Weaver crossed the threshold into old age, cared for her ailing mother and learned of the deaths of friends like Ginsberg and the other H (Helen Elliott), the wisdom in Kerouac’s rants about suffering, impermanence and the dream-like nature of existence became more clear. Now 78 and living in Woodstock, she has come to appreciate the two-fold nature of his role as an awakener in her life. As a playful and enthusiastic lover, Kerouac helped initiate her into the richness of existence. And with his own Christianized version of the dharma, he made her aware of the brevity and preciousness of our time on Earth.

“I rejected (Kerouac) for the same reason America rejected him,” Weaver concludes on a bittersweet note. “He interfered with our sleep.”

—Steve Silberman, The San Francisco Chronicle