In his autobiographical novel Desolation Angels Jack Kerouac wrote about returning to New York from a trip to Mexico City in the fall of 1956 and straight away meeting up with the young Ruth Heaper, who was to become his new girlfriend. Ruth Heaper was Kerouac’s pseudonym for Helen Weaver, who now tells her own story of that encounter, and much more, in this long-awaited book. Having read some of Helen’s reminiscences of those times in Dan Wakefield’s New York in the Fifties, I was hungry for more, and The Awakener certainly delivers. Not only do we get a blow-by-blow account of her times with Kerouac, and later with Lenny Bruce, but also much fascinating background material on what it was like living in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. As well as Kerouac, Helen Weaver knew his friends Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lucien Carr, and others, and there’s much here about them, including a wonderful description of the crazy genius who was the bohemian ethnomusicologist and experimental filmmaker, Harry Smith.
New to me was Kerouac’s liking for the emerging rock ‘n’ roll music of the time. I knew that Jack was mainly a jazz enthusiast, with an especial interest in the bebop sounds of Bird Parker, Monk, and Diz, as well as the singing of Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, but I was unaware that he also enjoyed, with Helen, the pop music of Elvis Presley and Screaming Jay Hawkins, and that was a revelation.
The final sections of the book present Helen’s own appraisal of Kerouac as a writer and his growing impact on the literary world. The whole story is extremely engaging, told sincerely and with some humor. I learned a lot more about the Beats and the times from reading this essential work, and I recommend it unreservedly to all who are interested in the characters and events of that unique period.
–Dave Moore, editor, Neal Cassady: Collected Letters