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Exquisite Corpse
Issue 8A Journal of Letters and Life

Reviews of the Damned: Joan Kerouac, Neeli Cherkovski, Billy Childish, Dan Fante & Jim Harrison
by Christian Prozak
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Nobody's Wife: The Smart Aleck and the King of the Beats
by Joan Haverty Kerouac, intro by Jan Kerouac
Foreward [sic] by Ann Charters
Creative Arts Books, Berkeley
216 pp.

Joan Haverty Kerouac (Kerouac's second wife, mother of Jan Kerouac) has just joined her daughter and Carolyn Cassady in the unofficial club of women in the shadow of the Beats who wrote books rivaling those of their male counterparts--which may not be so acrobatic languagewise, but rise to the literary occasion and make their mark through an honest biographical page-turning voice.
     The first hundred pages of this posthumous novel are all about Joan Haverty, an attractive young woman growing up in the 40s, dealing with oppressive guys who tell her how to act and smother her free spirit, treat her like a subpar human and try to rape her. She is so disillusioned and so confused by this attitude that when young Kerouac comes along acting like Neal Cassady and pressures her to marry him, she does so for reasons of convenience--mainly to keep the more sexually aggressive element away. After that, she finds herself living with Jack and his mother in a marriage lacking affection and respect.
     If you've ever wondered why old bloated Kerouac settled for that third wife with the cateye glasses who stood behind him in his wheelchair and took on the role of his mother, you will find the answer in this book. Jack is revealed as an immature adolescent who moodily regards all women as his mother, and tries to build a harem to take care of him. Joan is kept as an unfulfilled sexslave cook whose duty it is to take care of his socks, listen to his arrogance, put up with his tirades, kowtow to his mother's rule, bring home the bacon while he goofs off, and spread her legs for quickies, while all the while being his muse and adding insight to his craft.
     This is an image-shattering book of one of America's greatest icons. Everybody knows that Kerouac and co. were chauvinistic, but never before has any firsthand experience illustrated it so convincingly. Which makes this book an important historical factor in the ongoing On-the-Road dialogue--as the author exposes the hypocrisy of her husband's myth, then notes this regarding the fetus inside her: "She'd have Kerouac blood, she might even have the Kerouac face and features. And maybe she'd even possess a Kerouac literary gift. But she'd grow up with me, learn to see the world through me... And if I raised her to think for herself and to value learning and to ask questions and be honest, maybe she'd take the Kerouac legacy one step further: Maybe she would write the truth."
     And so another truth was written (Baby Driver). And then another (Trainsongs). And then another (Nobody's Wife).
     My only criticism of this book is that it goes on a chapter too long. It could've ended more forcefully on Chapter 20 (and beautifully too), but an added chapter was tacked on to bring the reader up to date, thus ending the novel with less emotional punctuation than it deserved. This minor blunder in structure, however, can easily be disregarded in lieu of what we're given: a sometimes poetic, always intriguing, portrait that does more than just remember an amazing life--it recreates it, which is what memoirs do when they transcend their genre.

Elegy for Bob Kaufman
, by Neeli Cherkovski
Sun Dog Press, Northville, Mi.
110 pp.

Whenever someone writes an epic poem, or at least a very very long poem (whether it be split into parts or not), we should always take note of its publication, because it could very well be the epic poem of a generation. Not in the sense that "Howl" was the big hit poem of the Beat generation, but more in the sense that Antler's humbler "Factory," for example, was a generational poem--that is, it briefly spoke to a generation in which there were no poets of any generation any more, since other things stole the thunder of poetry.
     Without getting too much into what I mean by this, let's just say that there ain't many poems out there these days longer than 20 pages, but Neeli Cherkovski's elegy is. Which is why it can enjoy the luxury of hanging out with poems by Blaise Cendrars, Hart Crane, Ezra Pound, Ginsberg, Whitman, Dorn, Olson, Williams, etc. And all the other big long poems that did something that almost no one is aware of.
     What am I talking about? I'm talking about the rarity of verse that's long enough to make a book, and what it means when this happens. Oftentimes it means nothing at all, but other times book-length poems can't help automatically making socio-political generational statements--as does Elegy for Bob Kaufman, which doesn't go about the task in a grandiose manner, but rather, approaches it with the measured and sublime sensitivity of a poem with several purposes. The first purpose, of course, is obvious, but a secondary purpose is to give an account of the Bob Kaufman North Beach Friscocity scene of the 70s, which Kaufman made an impact on, starred in, and made legend before eventually checking out in 1986. If anyone wants to pursue this bent, go for it. Now that I've mentioned this, I'm changing the subject.
     In Elegy, the poetry is handled clearly and concisely, with a user-friendly voice that steers clear of pomp and pretention--much like a polite voice of Bukowski, whose 1991 biography (Hank) was written by Cherkovski. Meaning that the poem is laid out in the style characterized by the modern American narrative poem (à la Bukowski, who pretty much set the standard standard): lots of articles and single-word lines, hardly any line containing more than 5 syllables, simple cadence, fluid flow. Which makes for an honest feel, in comparison to many of the loftier long poems of the 20th century. So bravo on that, Cherkovski.
     In Elegy, metaphor is rare--but not absent, and usually, always, easily decodable:

     Elegy Three


     one day I told
     a panther to step aside
     so that I wouldn't succumb
     but land on shore, I feel the need
     to talk to one whose ashes
     we tossed into water
     during viper's reign
     sometimes you step back
     to hear another man's talk, maybe
     you feel the woman in your body
     or the animal in your desperation
     you know a white rose
     from a red one, a shattered window
     from broken glass
     And the poems don't get mushy either, as one would expect in an elegy. Cherkovski maintains a celebratory tone throughout the piece, doesn't over-romanticize too much, and avoids the trappings of boot-licking by keeping the narrative smart and respectful, not to mention heartfelt:
     then one day
     he suddenly
     woke up
     from his bed
     and ran into
     the kitchen, grabbed
     my shirt
     lapel and
     into my eyes
     with Langston Hughes
     from between
     his lips
     rivers, rivers
     and more rivers....
     I tossed ashes
     into your eyes.
     I threw my body
     into your ashes.
     I gave your fingers
     to a storm
     and passed your ashes
     to another.
     I saw tears in Neptune's
     and gave ashes
     to clouds.
     Cherkovski's grief is organized. It is not a wild hysterical cry. He has learned from Bob Kaufman, who he honors by employing his poetics. Still, Cherkovski's analyses are not anal. They are appropriately vague, since they come from that abstract realm of feeling, which (according to Kenneth Patchen) is the domain of the poet. For example:
     heard his eyes, they
     said Bob was an entire
     mountain range, dumfounded
     voices found space
     inside of his own
     wide vision....
     far from the art
     of poetry
     he gathered
     an ark
     of words
     and placed them
     so that they were
     not unlike
     a wild, rock-strewn
     battered and admired
     night and day
     by equally feverish waves
     If anything, this long poem could benefit from what all long narrative poems could benefit from: less words. This small and dismissable gripe aside, however, I'd say that this is a work to aspire to, for poets out there trying to make sense of the dead.
    Elegy for Bob Kaufman is interesting in the space it fills in the literature surrounding the late great "Bomkauf," who, like other gone poetry icons, are remembered more for the words about them than by the actual words they wrote.

Notebooks of a Naked Youth,
by Billy Childish.
Sun Dog Press, Northville, Mi.
243 pp.

Billy Childish has written a "biographical novel" under the influence of Céline, who he was obviously affected by before and after his co-translation of Casse-pipe came out in 1988 by Hangman Books in the UK.
     Unlike Céline, however, Childish's "great gob of literary disgust" (this is what it's called on the back cover), uses a phantasmagoric combo of constant action and slanguage to reach much more tender and believable moments in literature than Céline ever did. The novel is about an often snotty pimply punk with sniveling issues who fancies himself a writer. His misadventures lead to an odd reader empathy. On one hand, you want to kick the paranoid protagonist in the ass for his pitiful arrested development (he has the emotional stability of a seven year old), but on the other hand, his pathetic situation is deserving of a reader's attention--since the delusions driving the character are handled in such a delicate manner that our sympathies are provoked.

     "Kursty is worried by the idea of me pushing my thing inside her and she doesn't like me licking her arse, which is like a star of god. I ask her if I can fuck her in the arse but she says that it is unnatural, and that her school psychiatrist says it is actually illegal. Which is a stupid thing to say....
     "I lie in her arms and she breast feeds me and I feel like a powerless little titty-boy whose mother is going to leave him soon. I will soil her and degrade her and look for any excuse to make her sorry, to make her apologise for all the past wrongs done unto me, so help me God! Because I know that in the end, no matter what depths I sink to and how much I crawl, Kursty will smash me and take the favour of her body with her, and thereby prove that I am unlovable... And I shall be shamed and stand there wanking into the darkness as she runs smiling into the arms of her shiny new man.
     "Her name is Kursty and it will always be Kursty. And her name means everything to me and it will always mean everything to me. And I love her out of sheer gratitude that she could kiss and hold one as low as me, and allow me to press my foul stinking body into hers, to allow me to kiss and lick her... and for her youth and beauty, and for her fearlessness in not being afraid to walk the streets by my side and show this vile hiccuping world just what sort of beauty I am capable of possessing. And so I bow down to God in thankfulness for this miracle; that such a woman could love me, which I don't believe and will never believe, and I will break her so-called love just for the sheer hell of it--to call her bluff and prove that it never really did exist at all, and I will smile at her tear-stained face and trembling lips and hate myself for it".

     This playing around with Kursty's name ("Her name is Kursty and it will always be Kursty") is boldly repeated here and there throughout the book, in an effective Nabakovian manner (see first page of Lolita), reappearing in other poetic variations, and always with a sensitivity that verges on heartbreaking absurdity. Childish pulls it off though, merging the lyrical and ludicrous, the furious and forelorn.
     Then a shift occurs in the third part of the book, in which the character releases his ever-precarious hold on reality, to descend into the depths of a Célinian madness. We see it in the narrative, we see it in the language. So vivid is it, in fact, that any readers familiar with Céline will forget that they are reading Childish, and will find themselves in some lost chapter of London Bridge, or Death on the Installment Plan, cavorting through an underworld of Nazis, strippers, and sundry other lümpen-dregs. The problem with this, however, is that the book here becomes too Céline, gets tiring, and is out-of-context with the rest of the novel.
     Nevertheless, the first two parts of the book are successful for the narrative voice, which, like Confederacy of Dunces, employs an unlikeable protagonist with riveting delusions.

, by Dan Fante
Rebel Inc. an imprint of
Canongate Books Ltd. Edinburgh
180 pp.

Last night I stayed up till 3 a.m. reading this book. The cover fused itself to my hands, I couldn't put it down. That's what kind of book it is.
is the sequel to Chump Change, Fante's first novel. It's about a drunk in 7-Elevenland who gets a job as a telemarketer and becomes involved with a half-Mexican half-Iranian blue-eyed blowjob crack-whore with a sensational ass. She drives him bonkers, he loses his job, goes on a nine-day bender, shits himself, has run ins with rednecks, cops, rhetoric-spouting salesmen, an earless divorcee, etcetera. The terrain is Venice Beach, various malls, liquor stores, porno-booths, corporate cubicles, and the freeways of L.A. And the pace is frantic with a sense of humor and in-your-face language.
     What really propels Mooch are the interactions between characters, who range from being major components in this novel to those who don't affect the plot at all, except to provide comic relief from a cartoon reality. Simply put, it's hilarious to watch Fante dealing with people, as he lampoons everyone he meets with a satiric streak that's gonna make a mark (and not a skidmark) on contemporary lit. Just you wait and see.
     I laughed out loud when Fante's character met the five-year-old son of his lapdancing lover, a blabbermouth genius with the intellect of a random anthropologist going into commentary on everything from street names in L.A. to DVDs and Guatemala. And even then, the boy remained believable, caught up in a delicate situation, abandoned for kicks in Vegas. Still, Mooch is not just a comedy. It's also a serious novel about a guy who finally pulls his head out of his ass and accepts responsibility, for himself as well as others.
     I tried to be objective while reading this novel, but in the end I couldn't come up with any criticism to balance out my bias for this writer. There might've been a few places where I thought a pronoun wasn't needed, but that was it. I've got nothing to complain about regarding Mooch, except the fact that it wasn't longer.
     If you want to take a look, the Corpse is debuting the novel in serial form starting in this issue.

The Beast God Forgot to Invent
, by Jim Harrison
Atlantic Monthly Press, NY
227 pp.

Oh, I gave this trilogy of novellas a chance at first, but it bored me, so I quit.
     The first piece wasn't that bad, but it wasn't that good either. The narrator was pretentious, but that was his fuddy-duddy voice. He's a 68-year-old erudite guy in love with a lovely ass. Her boyfriend has a motorcycle accident, so goes running around the woods with a head injury, living in caves, sleeping in trees, hanging out with bears and wolves. The erudite guy and the lovely ass try to keep the nature guy out of trouble. It doesn't work.
     The only saving grace of this story is the sex. That's the only reason I kept plodding through it, up until I realized it wasn't worth the effort. I mean, this is about as good as it gets:
     "Anyway, I was having a splendid though distorted dream of this marital fuck feast and when I awoke Ann had 'covered' me for what I'd guess was a five second sprint. She murmured that her gesture was 'a thank you note' for all my kindness. Still in a dream state where I wasn't sure if Ann was my ex-wife I merely looked at the rough board ceiling, grimacing as a pain shot through my prostrate like a hot hat pin. When the pain subsided I began to go back to sleep but then she began weeping."
     See what I mean by fuddy-duddy voice? Okay, then the guy sees a raven out the window, so he grabs his binoculars:
     "I turned to Ann who had her elbows resting on the windowsill, which drew her bare breasts upward. She was kneeling on the bench, which gave the inanimate bed a view I would have loved. I took courage from the ravens and said that I had to get the small pair of binoculars I keep on the nightstand for bird and beast occasions. So I caught the view of her upraised bottom at the window and there was the urge to howl 'praise God' but of course I didn't. My member was becoming swollen again, a matter of some pride to this geezer, but when I returned to the window she laughed, gave it the briefest squeeze, and went downstairs."
     This erotic bombastica is supposedly a report to a coroner in a narrative in which the reader becomes accustomed to suspending his/her disbelief. But what's the pay-off? I don't know.
     Then there's the next novella, a story about a displaced Indian from Michigan who goes out to L.A. to recover a stolen bearskin and runs into all sorts of whackos.      
     The saving grace of this story belongs to the one-liners: ie: "With Bob's bankroll he probably got more ass than a toilet seat," "he hailed from the Midwest where over-eating is frequently regarded as an act of heroism," etc.
     Then I started the next novella. It was another fabricated voice. All in all, I just got the sense that Harrison had run out of steam, or was trying to meet deadlines so got sloppy. The stories were all formulaically written: insert character here, insert rugged language there, throw in nature, throw in dialogue, meet the word count required on the contract.
     Anyway, that's my disappointed opinion; The Beast God Forgot to Invent was the book Jim Harrison forgot to write. Because he didn't use his own voice.

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